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cattle & Climate

Are cattle a leading cause of climate change? Spoiler alert: 

They aren't. 

But beef farmers and ranchers do care a lot about our environmental impact. Allow us to expand on that while sharing more about how beef is raised. We'll introduce you to some farmers and ranchers from across Washington to see what it all looks like in real life.

5 facts about beef and the environment

1. Cattle aren't a leading cause of climate change

because, science. cattle are being called out as a culprit in climate change, but the data on raising beef tells a different story.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), beef cattle account for only 1.9% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. If every American went vegan, it would only cut U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2.6%, which is just .36% of global GHG. Read on to see how you can do something more significant to improve beef sustainability and your own carbon "food"print. Hint: You can start by joining the Clean Plate Club.

It's Getting Hot in Here

Do frequent write ups in lifestyle magazines, and social media posts shared by friends have you thinking twice about your carbon foodprint? Before you cut meat from your diet, there's a lot of science to digest. So let's focus on the impact U.S. beef production has on climate change. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), beef cattle account for only 1.9% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), which is half of the total animal contributions (about 4%), while all of agriculture combined contributes about 9% of our domestic GHGs (pssst: GHG's are the culprit of climate change). But not all GHGs are created equally, or have the same climate impact. 

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It's going down for real

In the U.S. beef community we are focused on leading the way with better practices. The beef community is on a continuous journey to improve our environmental impacts, and it's resulting in providing more protein for people, using less resources, while leaving a smaller environmental hoofprint than ever before.

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Calling It Quits

If everyone in the U.S. went vegan we would save only 2.6% of total GHG emissions. The risk for that scant reward? Increased use of synthetic fertilizers and a lack of nutrition for the people who need it most. Removing grazing cattle from the 770 million acres of un-farmable rangelands of the U.S. would increase fire danger and soil erosion. 

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Clean Plate Club Member

Anyone can help our entire food system become more sustainable and lower your carbon foodprint without going meatless. It's estimated that about 40% of the food we buy at the grocery store is wasted. As in, we didn't eat that lettuce before it got weird, or the leftover spaghetti and meatballs from dinner went in the compost instead of in someone's lunchbox. We'll say it again for those in the back: 4. 0. Percent.

We waste less beef than other foods, *only* 20 percent, but still we can do better.  Here's some delicious ways to get you started.

Think of it this way: when food goes to waste, any amount of GHG emitted and resources used were for naught and when your leftovers make their way to the landfill they decompose at add to the emissions tally. A focus on fighting waste by consuming most-to-all of the food we raise for energy and enjoyment is an effort everyone can get behind. We did the math: If the amount of beef going to waste was cut in half, we could improve beef sustainability by 10 percent. Wasting less is also a way to honor the resources, people, and animals involved from pasture to plate.

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2. cattle reduce food waste


Speaking of food waste, you guessed it, cattle can help us with that. It's called "upcycling," and cattle are experts. Without cattle, there would be a lot of under-utilized cropland, overgrown and fire-prone mountain rangeland, and food processing leftovers dumped into landfills. Gross. The best way to explain how this works in real life is to just visit a couple of the many Washington ranchers and cattle feeders who can show and tell how it's done.

beef and beer from here

Ellensburg rancher Kyler Beard has built a partnership with equally Ellensburg-based Iron Horse Brewery to take the byproduct of brewing off their hands, and turns it into cow chow. He works with local hay exporters to collect the chaff (loose hay that falls off the bales) and mixes it with the brewer's grains to make nutritionally balanced cattle feed. He feeds it all right out in the pasture, where the cattle deposit manure to fertilize the soil, using their hooves to fortify plant roots. And we hear you can even get a burger made with beef from Kyler's ranch at Iron Horse's Pub. 

It's like a PNW local food fairytale. But it's reality, and the kind of thing that's been going down on Washington farms and ranches for decades.

would you like fries with that?

Upcycling continues, and levels up at Washington's feedyards. Over 300 different crops are grown in Washington. Many of those foods are processed in some way before they are delivered to stores, and processing can create waste. For example, Grant County boasts the biggest potato crop per acre in the world. Local processors turn those potatoes into freshly frozen fries. For one reason or another (wrong size, wrong specs, cancelled orders, etc), some of those spuds don't make the grade for people, but cattle can take our rejects and turn them into steaks.

So basically, cattle magically turn carbs into protein for us. What's your superpower?

3. cattle don'T compete with crops for land

grazing is a great use of marginal land. Also, the significance of corn in the diets of cattle is frequently overstated. 

Just like upcycling food and drink-making byproducts, cattle upgrade plants of little to no nutritional value to us human-types, and turn it into high quality protein. They can graze rocky, uneven rangelands that will never be farmable. They eat forage crops like hay, which can grow in conditions that are too harsh and dry for growing vegetables and human-edible grains. And, wait for it: the corn grown to feed to cattle is produced on just 2 percent of the U.S. total cropland acres. Much of the corn fed to beef cattle is again upcycled, in this case from the process of making ethanol fuel. In all, 90 percent of the lifetime diet of grain-finished cattle is forage (grass and hay) and plant-based leftovers.

In the U.S. we do not convert timberlands and croplands to cattle lands. In the case of mountain rangelands, cattle graze among the trees and clear undergrowth that can fuel wildfires. Cattle come on to fields of wheat and corn stubble to graze on what is leftover after harvest. That means more food from the same amount of acres, thanks to cattle. While they graze, they deposit natural fertilizer that can improve next year's crop.

In Washington, cattle aren't an either/or, they are an and

sunshine into sirloin

If you've ever travelled east of the Cascades, you'd discover much more dry, rocky terrain than you perhaps expect from the Evergreen State. The Figure 50 Ranch near Ritzville is a great example of how cattle coexist with wildlife and roam these wide open spaces, ultimately turning land that would grow nothing, into beef.

100 years of grazing management

Cattle grazing in Washington involves the partnership of ranchers with public agencies. Grazing management plans take into account wildlife habitat, water quality, and the long term health of the land. And you know what really does a number on your GHG reduction goals? Giant wildfires. But ranchers like the Gebbers have got our backs on that.

4. ranchers are responsible


Ninety-one percent of beef farms and ranches in the U.S. are family-owned, and Washington's roughly 9,000-strong beef community is no exception.  On average, these families have been operating their ranches for 47 years, some for over 100 years. Ranches in Washington are diverse in size - about 6,000 have only ten head of cattle and only 45 ranches have over 500 head. This community of beef farmers and ranchers creates over 13,000 jobs for local workers, and contributes about $5.7 billion in activity to Washington's economy.

While beef's contribution to Washington's GHG emissions is small, the social, environmental, and economic benefits of having local ranches and farms that raise delicious, nutrient-rich beef, are great.

caring for land, cattle, and community

Jane Lee is a cattle rancher. And a grandma, And a firefighter. And a Search and Rescue leader. Ranchers only number a few, mostly dotted across our preciously less-developed areas. But they have a great positive impact in Washington. From responsibly managing their owned and leased lands for generations, to saving stranded hikers off a mountainside, a caretaker's work is never done.

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stewardship school is in session

While a lot of country gets covered up in asphalt, ranchers who choose to keep a generations-strong tradition of ranching alive, are also keeping open spaces open. These open spaces are home to not just cattle, but wildlife and birds. Healthy range and timberlands sequester carbon to offset growing GHG emissions from other human activities. If you think ranchers, like even young Royce here, feel like they have a lot on their shoulders, you'd be right.

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5. beef is a local food


Washington is an incredibly diverse state for agriculture. But most of the 300-and-some-odd crops we grow have a season, a limit to where and when they grow. Not beef cattle. Our state's relatively mild climate is hospitable to raising healthy cattle year-round. The availability of local forage and feed is high. The beef raised in Washington is sold locally, across the country, and exported around the globe, especially to Asia. So while every steak or burger you eat may not have been raised in Washington, every steak or burger you eat supports beef farmers and ranchers here.

local is as local does

These local cattle eat grape pomace, the byproduct from local wine making. These cattle feeders buy corn and hay from local farmers, and provide those farmers with composted manure for fertilizer to grow the next crop. These cattle and these people are part of an amazing local food chain that would seem pretty broken without beef.

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research the ranch

You don't have to expressly buy local beef be a part of this environmentally, socially, and nutritionally beneficial Washington beef world. Continuing to choose beef and championing farmer's and rancher's efforts is help enough. But, you absolutely can. Scroll our Local Beef Directory by county to see if there are farmers and ranchers who sell beef near you.

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