Beef and Water Use: Has the Drought had an Impact?

Lately there has been a lot of talk about water and agriculture, specifically related to the California drought. Often missing from these conversations is the reality that farmers and ranchers have been working for generations to conserve water resources every day, not just in recent years, with the understanding that water is a precious resource.

Over the past several years, severe drought in states such as California, Texas and Oklahoma has reduced the number of beef cattle significantly, resulting in the smallest U.S. cowherd since the 1950s. At the same time, the beef community has been able to raise more beef per animal through improvements in feed efficiency and animal health. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization cites these two areas of improvement as the key to future reductions in use of water and other natural resources.

ChildandWaterTroughCattle, nature’s recyclers

Cattle have a unique four-stomach digestive system called a rumen, which helps them get the nutrients they need from parts of fruit and vegetable plants that humans don’t consume or can’t digest—like carrot tops and almond hulls. These “leftovers” are often mixed into their feed, along with grasses and grains like alfalfa and corn, ultimately resulting in high-quality beef.

Water used in producing beef

Taking into account all water from farm to fork—including water for cattle to drink as well as water used in irrigation of pasture land that cattle may graze on, growing crops (such as the carrot tops and almond hulls) that cattle may eat, harvesting and processing beef, water used for refrigeration units at the grocery store or at a restaurant to keep food cold, for transportation as well as in cooking, and even the water taken into account for food waste—it takes 617 gallons of water per one pound of boneless beef consumed, according to a recent beef industry sustainability lifecycle assessment, funded by the Beef Checkoff.

Keep in mind that water for raising beef is not “used up.” The water cycle we all studied in elementary school still works. Water percolates into aquifers, it runs down streams into lakes and oceans, it evaporates and returns as precipitation, and cattle pastures provide land to filter this water and return it to the ecosystem.

Sustainability is taken seriously by farmers and ranchers

Everything on Earth requires the use of natural resources like land, energy and water—it’s what we do to be stewards of those resources that is most important. Today, beef is produced using fewer resources than ever before. The largest and most comprehensive lifecycle assessment conducted on a food found that from 2005 to 2011 the beef community achieved a 3 percent reduction in water use and a 10 percent improvement in water quality.

Conservation is never complete; farmers and ranchers will continue to work hard to reduce water use and improve water quality. Preserving farms and ranches for generations to come is a top priority.

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