What's in the news right now about an environmentally sound, socially responsible and economically viable beef value chain?

Executive Director's Message:

Water is a key issue in the sustainability of beef production, both in terms of quality and water use. Of course, we have all seen the often quoted figures of how much water it “takes” to produce a kg or lb. of beef. 

I’ve written about that before and I won’t repeat the discussion here about green water vs blue. What I would like to look at in more depth is irrigation used in feed production, because there are certainly parts of the world where the pressure on water resources for irrigation are intense and there are bound to be changes in the coming years.

Water levels in the Ogallala aquifer have declined dramatically in modern times, (see graphic illustration here,) and if those rates of decline continue, large parts of the US southern and central high plains will not have enough water for irrigation within 20 years.

Feed producers in the affected states recognise the severity of the issue but “Most producers believe they have limited personal capacity for additional groundwater conservation on their farms, and few are involved in voluntary group conservation initiatives” (Thanks to Amy Kremen at CSU for these and the many other references pertaining to the US).

As you know, the USRSB goals launched earlier this year included indicators for water resources, including supporting feedstuff producers to meet their water sustainability goals.

There are several different commodity crop groups that have released sustainability goals that cover water use, amongst others.

The National Corn Growers Association aims to increase irrigation water use efficiency by 15%, along with improvements in energy and land use efficiency, GHG emissions and a reduction in soil erosion.

The soybean industry in the US has a checkoff that operates similarly to the beef checkoff, and is funding research into better water management. Water intensity of soybean production has improved by 60% per bushel in 40 years, but of course, cropped areas of all commodity crops have increased so total water consumption is still under increasing pressure.

Sorghum is a relatively efficient crop in water terms and could be one transition that starts to become more important as water scarcity bites. The sorghum checkoff is also investing in sustainability and ensuring that the industry is continuously improving.

So what is being done to reduce water abstraction for feed crops? While many producers do not think they can become more efficient, it seems that there is quite some lag between the development of technology and its adoption. This is quite reasonable if it remains too expensive to pay for itself, but when it is a question of remaining in crop production or not, the incentives increase as the value of dryland cropping land is much lower than that of irrigable land.

Precision agricultural models supported by sensor calibrated satellite imagery, soil health, no till, cover crops, subsurface drip irrigation and the adoption and further development of drought tolerant crops and varieties will all have their roles to play in a more water efficient feed production system.

Investment is undoubtedly needed. Finance coupled to adoption of such practices, plus a combination of “carrots and sticks” from regulatory authorities, will have to be employed. Payments for Environmental Services could drive collection of better data to fully understand the benefits of using less water and more targeted and optimised fertiliser, resulting not only in water savings but climate benefits as well.

Because of the increased interest at all levels, there is a better understanding today of how water is being used and some of the steps that can be taken to reduce unnecessary irrigation, which is more common than might be expected particularly in wet years, where between 15-30% too much water is being applied to many crops.

The Irrigation Innovation Consortium, headquartered at Colorado State University (CSU) and involving universities, producers and corporations along with state governments in five states, is working on all of these issues.

Julie Bushell believes that up to 40% of the water currently applied could be saved by the adoption of the right tech and practices. Access to good data, depending on reliable communications networks such as Long Range Wide Area Networks is going to be key to this effort.

Cattle feeders, like Tom Jones at Hy-Plains Feedyard, are keen to make sure that they are sourcing both efficient cattle that can gain weight well, in addition to feed that was produced in a water efficient way. He has put together a consortium of the experts on all aspects that contribute to the finished cattle including soil, feed crops, cattle genetics, etc. with the Noble Foundation and is working on optimization of all of those inputs that can contribute to the long term sustainability of the Kansas, and High Plains agricultural economy.

The CRSB collaborates with the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Crops on the feed inputs used by the beef industry and you can see what CRSC is doing here on water Quality and Quantity as well as some of the industry initiatives in Canada.

Some of you will recall hearing about Grazing BMP when we held our board meeting in Australia some years ago. The program ran between 2009-2019 and ended up covering 29 million hectares (about 72 million acres).

As such, it was a very successful programme to protect the river catchments that drain Queensland over the Great Barrier Reef. While in this case the emphasis was largely on the quality of the river water, the principle involved, ensuring healthy ground cover and limiting erosion through good grazing management, will have benefited water retention as well.

So once again, you can see that while the issue is pressing and significant, we do not need to reinvent the wheel. There are many initiatives that can teach us a lot about improving water management for both quantity and quality and adapt these to the many and varied environments in which cattle and feed are produced.

Josefina adds: In Argentina, the IPCVA (Institute for the Promotion of Argentine Beef) carried out a study of the Water Footprint Analysis of the Argentine livestock sector. According to the WFA (Water Footprint Assessment) methodology, the water footprint of global cattle farming averages 7,400 lt/kg of live weight.

The average footprint of Argentine livestock is 2,300 kg, that is, almost 70% below the average. But when the analysis was done, according to the WULCA (Water Life cycle Assessment) methodology, this difference is even greater.

Being 90% pastoral based, without irrigation and developed mostly in humid or semi-humid areas, Argentine bovine systems are mostly made up of Green water. Thus, the footprint drops from 2,300 to just 45, almost 98% lower.

In Brazil, there are also many studies related to the impact of livestock, different livestock systems and the use of water. A very interesting study assesses freshwater flows related to cattle production, compares integrated crop and livestock systems and conventional grazing systems.

In another study I read about, Brazil looked at the use of water resources in beef production in the Amazon biome. The water footprint of cattle was 13,074 L.kg-1 compared to a world average of 21,829 L.kg-1.

Based on the data obtained, it was possible to demonstrate that the presence and operation of this production chain in the Amazon is more efficient from the point of view of water than in the other locations reported in the literature. - Josefina Eisele


Ruaraidh Petre
Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef
Executive Director
August 24, 2022


Water Level Declines in the High Plains Aquifer: Predevelopment to Resource Senescence
Erin M. K. Haacker, Anthony D. Kendall, David W. Hyndman, Groundwater | May 26, 2015

A large imbalance between recharge and water withdrawal has caused vital regions of the High Plains Aquifer (HPA) to experience significant declines in storage.

Producer Attitudes Toward Groundwater Conservation in the U.S. Ogallala-High Plains 
Stephen Lauer, Matthew R. Sanderson, Growndwater | September 8, 2019

We present descriptive findings on attitudes towards groundwater conservation and management from a survey of 1,226 producers farming in the High Plains/Ogallala aquifer region of the United States. We find that a super-majority of producers agree that groundwater should be conserved rather than entirely depleted.

NCGA Releases U.S. Corn Sustainability Goals and Report 
NCGA News Release | June 21, 2021

Today, the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) solidified U.S. corn farmers’ commitment to environmental, economic and social sustainability with the release of U.S. Corn Sustainability Goals and the first U.S. Corn Sustainability Report. The report documents a long history of continuous improvement by U.S. corn farmers and the goals set targets for further progress over the next decade.

Soy Checkoff Research Works to Get Water Management Just Right 
USB News Release | November 12, 2021

Water presents soybean farmers with that classic Goldilocks problem: either there’s too much of it or too little. Rarely is it ever just right, which means farmers need to manage this critical resource more than ever.

Alongside the Soybean Research & Information Network (SRIN), the soy checkoff provides a wide variety of tools and resources and invests in research projects to help farmers continuously improve their sustainability through effective water management.

The Grain That Gives  
Sorghum Checkoff.com

When you choose sorghum, you’re doing something good, not only for yourself but for the world around you. This small grain offers big benefits for our health, our water, our wildlife and our world. Food, pet food, feed and energy industries can all benefit from sorghum’s ability to give more than it takes.

Water challenge: Aquifer's decline on mind of feeder  
Jennifer M. Latzke, High Plains Journal | June 19, 2019

Tom Jones knows he doesn’t know everything. But he knows how to put the people who do know more than him together in the same room to find solutions to complex questions. And it’s this approach to problem solving that Jones hopes can find the answer to the most pressing issue of the Great Plains economy—the declining Ogallala Aquifer.

There are a wide range of sponsorship opportunities available for GRSB sponsor partners that put you and your company or organization at the forefront as an industry leader helping drive sustainability.

Be associated with cutting edge education. Gain visibility on a global scale with conferences and meetings. Join exclusive gatherings of your peers. Elevate your brand as one of a select group who are leading the way.

Current sponsorship opportunities include:

• Sustainability Communicators Summit

• Global Conference on Sustainable Beef

• Growing number of informational webinars

Sponsorship packages provide benefits commensurate to each commitment level. All sponsors receive recognition on the GRSB Website home page, in GRSB email communications, and are included in the bi-monthly newsletter, Connect. Event registrations and signage are also key benefits for sponsors.

Find the sponsorship package that best fits where you want to be positioned as an industry leader.

Contact Katie Ambrose for more information

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