Is Dairy Beef The Sustainable Future?

Speaking at the British Cattle Conference, Philip Halhead, Managing Director of Norbreck Genetics tells TheCattleSite why dairy beef is the sustainable future.
calendar icon 21 June 2010
clock icon 9 minute read

The environmental impact of global beef production is under the spotlight in the same way that most other areas of our everyday life are been scrutinised. In this new decade things certainly aren’t going to remain the same and agriculture has to become part of the solution instead of being seen as the main problem.

The climate change genie is certainly out of the bottle and whether you are an avid believer in the climate change bandwagon or an ardent sceptic, as an industry we cannot sit on the sidelines and wait to be told we can no longer produce certain commodities due to new scientific evidence or certain beliefs of ageing rock stars like Paul McCartney with the meat free Monday campaign.

The livestock sector is seen as a major contributor to stress on many ecosystems and on the planet as a whole. Globally it is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases and hence the debate about Carbon footprints and environmental best practise in agriculture. It is undoubtedly a complex topic covering many boundaries on local, regional and global scales and I believe now is the time to enter constructive dialogue and help to shape our future.

While researching this paper it became increasingly evident that the subject is extremely complex and a lot of assumptions are been made without any real foundation or evidence based science. Retailers are scrambling to satisfy an overwhelming consumer demand for information and food labelling schemes in relation to carbon footprints. Time is not on our side to formulate a plan that is both sustainable and achievable in a modern meat eating society.

Governments are at last talking about food security and once again recognise the importance a strong and vibrant agricultural sector can play in the economy especially during a severe global economic downturn like the one we are now experiencing.

Governments both at home and throughout the EU will shape our future and will obviously look at what society’s expectations of the livestock sector are along with concerns for health and welfare. We must not forget the great importance livestock products play in a healthy and nutritious diet for many poor and under nourished people globally as well as the well documented consumption in developed countries where average meat consumption continues to grow.

Food security is an interesting topic when you realise livestock consume 77 million tonnes of protein contained in feedstuffs that could potentially be used for human nutrition, whereas 58 million tonnes of protein are contained in food products that livestock supply!! This is yet another highly complex area but one that we need to address and have answers for in future.

Livestock’s contribution to climate change is reported to be a massive 18 per cent of the global warming effect – an even larger contribution than the transportation sector worldwide. Livestock contribute nine per cent of total carbon dioxide emissions but 37 per cent of methane and 65 per cent of Nitrous Oxide. Debates rage about water used in developing countries to feed livestock and the pollution issues that surround agriculture with our very own NVZ areas and regulation.

Extensive cattle operations are solely responsible for deforestation, biodiversity losses and negative impacts on water quality, particularly we think of the South American operations that continue to rape the landscape apparently with little or no policing, in order to satisfy a global demand for cheap meat at any cost.

The total area occupied by livestock grazing is 3433 million hectares equivalent to 26 per cent of the ice-free terrestrial surface of the planet. But unfortunately extensive production particularly in developing nations is often only of marginal productivity. As a result, the vast majority of feed is spent on the animal’s maintenance, leading to resource inefficiencies and high levels of environmental damage per unit of output.

Grazing occupies 26 per cent of the terrestrial surface but the contribution that extensive grazing systems make to total meat production is very small with less than nine per cent of total meat supply. It appears that in areas with little potential for intensification, extensive grazing systems currently provide little in terms of productive output and have very high costs in terms of environmental damage.

Here in the UK we are accepting that certain areas of grazing must be restricted and managed with payments for environmental service to help livestock producers make the transition.

Back on home territory with our own government intervention and EU controls, the UK beef industry was until recently in terminal decline providing less than 50 per cent of domestic consumption in beef and beef products. Helped largely by the favourable exchange rates between currencies, the pounds devaluation has been almost solely responsible along with tightening domestic supply for an up-lift in returns to UK beef producers.

The extensive beef systems in the UK, particularly suckler beef production, provides less than 50 per cent of domestic supply and all the data shows this to be declining year on year. This is not the right place to discuss the reasons for the beef supply situation in the UK but we can point out that without direct subsidies on a headage basis most suckler beef herds are left unprofitable and reliant on environmental payments to become park keepers for a society who value wildlife and ecosystems above food security and profitable sustainable core farming practices.

We must not forget the very successful few who have skilfully developed niche markets that recognise the extra cost involved in delivering quality beef farmed in harsh environments that enhance the environment and produce returns for the extensive/ organic minority.

That leaves UK dairy bred beef to pick up the gauntlet and deliver high quality dairy bred beef in quantity to a very price conscious consumer via even more price conscious retailers and abattoirs. Dairy bred now provides in excess of 50 per cent of UK bred beef supplies and that figure is set to rise over coming years. Sexed dairy semen is now fully accepted as an important management tool in most UK dairy herds and that leaves a larger percentage of dairy cows than ever before for beef semen usage. The majority of inseminations coming from British Blue bulls and natural service left to either the Limousin or Aberdeen Angus bulls with other breeds falling into the minority.

When is he going to discuss the matter in hand – the ‘footprint’? I hear you say. Global production of beef is projected to double from 230 million tonnes in 2000 to 465 million tonnes in 2050. So if we know what the aim is then we can work on making it happen.

Dairy beef is a by-product of the dairy sector that thrives on producing milk at above the cost of production (when possible). However in recent times the Beef calf value has become an extra revenue source that dairy farmers are benefiting from but also allowing a profitable UK beef industry to thrive and develop integrated supply chains that are valued right through to the supermarket shelves and into shopping baskets of UK consumers at very affordable prices in ever increasing consistency and quality.

I suggest that the British Blue and Limousin breeds are ideally placed to supply the intensive reared beef animal in the fastest possible time frame, usually 12–14 months of age while utilising the available resources to maximum efficiency on a scale that is acceptable to consumers and environmental campaigners. And leaving that all important profit margin for reinvestment and growth of the best system in the UK for a better carbon footprint than other alternative methods of UK beef production.

Efficiencies are where the work must continue and improve if we are to satisfy the next generation of environmental beef eaters. All these areas are far too complex to discuss in detail here however we can look at each area to outline how improvements can be made to benefit the green efficiencies we are looking to achieve:

Feeding will change to reflect the unacceptable level of methane emissions currently belched from our Bovine friends and this is probably one area we have to hope our scientific colleagues will provide answers to in a short time frame, thinking particularly about the addition of enzymes, additives and artificial amino acids to feedstuffs to suppress methane production.

Breeding will centre on greater use of data capture from the pedigree population to identify the most efficient bloodlines to speed up growth rates, improve feed conversion and give greater killing out percentages.

Animal health will continue to be central to any future plans to ensure consumer safety is at the forefront of any new developments and perhaps with a change of government in coming months we will have a leadership that is willing to grasp the ‘nettle’ with regards to TB and tackle this devastating disease once and for all.

New technologies will be involved in all areas we are highlighting but one that we are all watching very keenly on a global scale is Genomics and the continued development of these markers. Indeed there are several papers in this Digest which describe in detail how these technologies may dramatically alter our ability to deliver the best genetics in a much improved timescale.

Waste management is a very hot topic and one that can only be dealt with on a farm by farm basis but we will see the increased development of bio-digesters and the location of intensive livestock units nearer to suitable tracts of agricultural land that can utilise the nutrients provided by such intensive operations in a symbiotic relationship.

Consumers will also dictate future trends in meat production, will farmers manage to produce the volumes of beef in a welfare friendly fashion, tackling the carbon footprint issues that will become increasingly led by supermarkets. As a beef producer I only hope that supermarkets are part of the solution looking at a sustainable and achievable outcome that suits consumers but doesn’t over burden financially challenged beef producers with huge capital costs. Breeds like the British Blue will continue to dominate as consumers respond to the super lean, low cholesterol option and choose a low cost meat option in preference to expensive organic or rare breed cuts.

The efficiencies that lead to a lower carbon footprint are many and varied however we start to see how breed choice will form a large part of the beef producers ability to reduce his individual footprint and in-turn help supermarkets and retailers reduce their own footprints and justify to consumers that the supply chain is doing its best to reduce waste.


UK beef production must be considered in a global context and the global demand and trade flows will continue and increase. In a world with more than nine billion people by 2050, most of whom will be more affluent and therefore will demand environmental services, it is doubtful that lower productive extensive systems will survive, unless they include the provision of environmental services as an important and perhaps predominant purpose.

There is also a need to accept that the intensification and perhaps industrialisation of livestock production is the inevitable long-term outcome of the structural change that is ongoing for most of the sector. The key to making this change environmentally acceptable is facilitating the right location to enable waste recycling on cropland.

In the UK dairy bred beef will continue to provide an increasing proportion of domestic supply and the British Blue with it’s in-built efficiencies in terms of feed conversion, high growth rates, high killing out percentages and lean meat content with little waste will increase its dominance within the dairy sector.

Last but not least for any sustainable change to take place there is a need to develop and implement effective policy frame works at the local, national and International level that recognise the need to feed a growing global population and yet mitigate environmental damage.

June 2010
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