Monday, 15 October 2012

Sustainability and the Australian beef industry

The Australian beef industry

For an agricultural system to be sustainable, it also needs to be adaptable and to be prepared for change.

The Australian beef supply chain

Management issues for today’s beef producer

Beef production in Australia today is a complex business. The European methods of farming that were initially introduced to this country have had to be modified to allow for the unreliable nature of Australia’s climate, and its very different soils and vegetation. Market forces have changed considerably in the last couple of decades, and consumers now demand natural food which is free of chemicals and is produced without detriment to the environment or to the welfare of animals.
Beef producers need to have a wide understanding of many factors if they wish to build and maintain a successful, sustainable business:
  • ·         sustainable pasture management;
  • ·         maintenance of biodiversity;
  • ·         soil management;
  • ·         water management;
  • ·         minimisation of greenhouse gas emissions;
  •            minimisation of offensive odours and dust;
  • ·         efficient use of other resources such as fuel;
  • ·         good stock management, taking animal welfare into consideration;
  • ·         responsible use of chemicals;
  • ·         property management planning, including good risk management, with enterprise flexibility   which enables adaptation to changing markets;
  • ·         good monitoring and recording systems which gather useful information about the enterprise and allow assessment of financial and environmental sustainability;
  • ·         good community relationships and perceptions.
  • ·         air management:

    Beef production is Australia’s second largest agricultural industry.

·         Each year the industry injects over $16 billion into the nation's economy and employs over 172,000 people
·         Each year the cattle and sheep industry in collaboration with the Australian Government, invests over $13 million in research and development to further reduce our environmental impact
·         Australian meat is produced with one of the lowest carbon emission profiles of any major meat producing country in the world

In 2006–07, the gross value of
production, including live cattle exports, was $7.99 billion.

Australian beef land use

The industry extends over almost half of Australia’s land mass across all climatic zones and is Australia’s most extensive industry. This means that environmentally it has a closer association with moreof Australia’s land resources than any other agricultural industry.

Similarly, in economic and social terms, the beef industry relates to more rural and regional
communities, including Indigenous Australians, than any other industry.

The total number of beef cattle at June 2007 was 25.6 million.

To run a sustainable enterprise, producers need to:
  • ·         have a farm plan which includes clear business goals;
  • ·         ensure the enterprise is economically viable;
  • ·         actively seek, interpret and use advice and new information;
  • ·         have flexible management strategies to meet variations in climate and markets;
  • ·         ensure that their product meets market requirements;
  • ·         ensure that their production system meets consumer expectations in terms of animal welfare and demonstrated care for the environment;
  • ·         have no visible signs of land degradation on their property (or, if there are signs, be in the process of reversing any land degradation that has occurred);
  • ·         conserve areas of native vegetation on their property.
The producer’s aim should be the profitable production, in the most humane and efficient way possible (best management practice), of a safe, consistent, high quality product, while maintaining or enhancing the quality of resources and conserving the natural environment.
Most beef producers would not knowingly do anything that would degrade the resources on which their livelihoods depend. But not everyone is aware of the possible long-term consequences of some management practices that were developed before we fully appreciated many of the issues raised above.


Key beef industry players are engaged in a new global and Australian initiative to move existing beef production practices onto a sustainable footing.
The beef industry will move towards sustainability by:
§  reducing air and water pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions 
  • §  preventing habitat loss

    • §  restoring the health of lands and waters that support beef cattle  

      • §  putting in place the highest standards for animal welfare all along the supply chain.

      • WWF and their global partners MacDonald's, JBS, Cargill and Intervet, are now holding regular meetings, in Australia and in other countries, to promote beef production practices that help restore the health of land and water - the natural ecosystems that support beef cattle.
        One of the innovations currently under investigation is the use of satellites to track cattle stock and to report on the condition of land and pasture. This initiative, if implemented, will bring a new level of precision and sophistication to beef production. It will also bring down the costs of operating sustainably and provide an important case study for other agricultural industries to learn from.

        Signposts for Australian Agriculture

        Signposts for Australian Agriculture (Signposts) is a partnership between industry, government and research organisations. It provides access to economic, social and environmental data specific to an industry in order to inform policy development, strategic decision making and research priorities.
        Signposts reports on the contributions of agricultural industries to ecologically sustainable development. It does this by examining how an industry’s assets are changing over time and how the industry is affecting assets held by others.

        Productivity for the beef industry shows an overall increasing trend since the late 1970s, with the average productivity growth being 1.4% per year. Productivity growth has been
        achieved through:

        • advanced breeding genetics
        • improved herd, pasture and disease management
        • the advent of lot feeding in turning off cattle
        • the development of the live cattle trade
        • stimulating higher weaning rates and
        • lower age of turnoff in northern herds.
        The beef industry has exported an average of 65% of annual beef and veal production since 2000. In international terms, it outperforms other countries in export sales from a small
        production base.

        Policy and management responses

        Decreasing commodity prices (in real terms how much the farmer receives) and increasing input prices mean that the beef industry is under constant pressure to increase the efficiency of production in order to maintain viable levels of business profitability.

        Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) has identified the need for the whole red meat industry to enhance its competitiveness and sustainability as a strategic imperative.

        MLA’s research indicates that ‘high feed efficiency cattle can produce 15% less methane and 17% less nitrous oxide per day than inefficient cattle’.

        Environmental overview
        Industry assets

        The beef industry is Australia’s most extensive agricultural industry in terms of the proportion of the Australian landscape where cattle are raised. The industry is managed to match the environment in which it exists.
        Biodiversity in existence on beef farms is an asset of the industry that may also provide services that others benefit from. From the industry’s perspective, biodiversity is identified
        by MLA as a priority natural resource management issue for the red meat industry.
        Beef producers have responded to the challenge of
        biodiversity conservation by:

        taking areas out of production in order to revegetate
      • fencing remnant and revegetated areas to exclude stock and feral animals
      • planting tree belts to protect stock and provide shelter for native fauna.

      • Emissions of greenhouse gases from beef production have been declining steadily since 1995.

        By ceasing broadscale land clearing, the industry has made a major contribution to greenhouse gas mitigation. These savings more than offset the total gross emissions attributedto the beef industry in 2005.

        Maintaining areas of conservation significance is applicable to around 90% of the surveyed beef cattle farms, and the practice has been adopted on around 50% of farms.

        The industry gives high priority to water use. MLA is undertaking a 2-year on-farm ‘life cycle analysis’ study that will provide accurate figures on the amount of water and energy used to produce a kilogram of beef.

        Producers are increasingly using effective tools to match fertiliser application to plant needs.

        Problems of salinity, acidity and erosion that reduce soil fertility are high priorities for the industry and are being addressed at the farm, catchment and landscape levels.

        Key industry bodies:

         Cattle Council of Australia
      •  Australian Lot Feeders Association
      •  Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA)
      •  Beef Cooperative Research Centre

      • In social terms, the extensive distribution of beef production means the industry relates to more
        rural and regional communities, including Indigenous Australians, than any other industry.

        Recent news reports about sustainability in the Australian Beef Industry

        Emissions down by 6.5% per kilogram of beef produced in Australia
        • Australia's beef industry has consistently reduced emissions intensity for producing beef since 1990
        • An environment debate was held today with high profile environmental experts debating the topic 'Can red meat be green?' including Tim Flannery, Corey Watts and Arron Wood
        • The debate and recent release of the demonstrates the industry's transparency and commitment to debate on continual improvement in environmental performance  
        Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) today announced that the Australian beef industry has achieved a 6.5% reduction in emissions per kilogram of beef produced since Kyoto protocol reporting began in 1990[1].
        The announcement came at an environment debate titled 'Can Red Meat Be Green?' that featured leading environmentalists, including Tim Flannery, Corey Watts and Arron Wood.
        Speaking at the debate, MLA's Managing Director David Palmer said that the industry had been focussed on increasing productivity whilst reducing emissions.
        "A reduction in emissions per kilogram of beef produced is a great achievement for Australian cattle farmers. The Australian beef industry has increased production by 25.4% over the same period, which demonstrates that we are able to produce more beef with less emissions", said David Palmer.
        The debate was held at the University of Queensland for local high school and university students as well as members of the general public, who were given the opportunity to hear from, and ask questions, of the panel members:
        •  Tim Flannery, High profile environmentalist and Australian of the Year 2007
        •  Arron Wood, Young Australian of the Year for Environment in 2001 and United Nations Individual Award for Outstanding Service to the Environment in   2006
        •  Corey Watts, Regional Projects Manager, The Climate Institute
        •   Michael Lyons, Queensland beef farmer
        •   Beverley Henry, Manager Environment, Sustainability & Climate Change from Meat & Livestock Australia
        Professor Tim Flannery discussed his belief that cattle managed in the right way can be part of the solution.
        "I believe that in a world facing a food shortage and a climate crisis, that livestock represent a potent weapon in the fight to stabilise our climate," Professor Flannery said.
        Australian red meat uses less carbon
        A study undertaken by the University of New South Wales, to be published in the Environmental Science &Technology Journal, has revealed that Australian red meat production is much more efficient than often reported.
        The three year Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) study across three production systems in Victoria, New South Wales and Western Australia has shown that the carbon emissions from sheep and cattle meat production were amongst the lowest in the world.
        Based on figures from the research, eating red meat three times a week results in between 164kg* to 258kg**of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions a year - vastly different to figures quoted that claim up to 1.5 tonnes.
        Meat & Livestock Australia's (MLA) Managing Director, David Palmer said that this credible and reliable data gave an accurate reflection of carbon emissions for Australia's unique production systems.
        "Most Australian cattle and sheep are raised in a natural environment feeding on pastures with little or no use of fertilizers and it is unfortunate that until now inaccurate and exaggerated figures have been used".
        "These Australian figures enable us to start having a more meaningful discussion about the industry's environmental impact

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