Environmental Hoofprint of Canadian Beef
How does beef farming contribute to greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs)? And how many GHGs are actually produced? In reality, it’s likely less than you thought!
Carbon dioxide accounts for a small portion (5%) of the emissions from Canadian beef production and arises primarily from the burning of fossil fuels. The use of fossil fuels is associated with crop production and the transport of feed, cattle and beef to markets. Grasslands from which cattle feed is grown and cattle graze actually sequester large amounts of carbon in a similar way as forests, which means that carbon dioxide is captured and reduced from the atmosphere.
Cattle, unlike other animals and humans, are able to digest grass and grains due to microorganisms in the rumen (part of a cattle stomach) that breakdown starch and cellulose. During digestion, methane is produced as a by-product. Methane produced in the gastrointestinal tract is the largest source of GHGs in beef production, accounting for over 70% of the total emissions produced by beef cattle. A small amount of methane is also produced by the breakdown of manure.
Nitrous oxide emissions arise from the breakdown of manure and fertilization of crop and pastureland, accounting for approximately 20% of total GHGs from Canadian beef production. Emissions of nitrous oxide are increased if the level of protein in the diet exceeds the animal’s nutritional requirements or if the amount of nitrogen applied to cropland exceeds what is required for the crop.
Beef farmers overcome these challenges by using socially and environmentally responsible production practices. They work with nutritionists to balance their animals' diet to meet protein requirements, and they work with agronomists to test soil to ensure that manure application does not exceed crop nitrogen requirements.
These two methods are the most effective at reducing nitrous oxide emissions from beef production systems. Beef farmers are also adopting innovative practices and technology that reduce GHGs from beef production. Improved animal genetics, forage species that sequester more carbon, and new feed additives all help reduce emissions from beef production.
But just how much GHGs are produced by Canadian beef?
Canadian beef production accounts for only 0.04% of global GHGs. GHGs from agriculture are a smaller proportion of total emissions in developed countries, such as Canada, due to improved production efficiency. The main contributors to Canada’s GHGs are energy combustion (45%) and transportation (28%). Agriculture contributes about 8% of Canada’s GHGs.
Scot and Jen Legge
Scot and Jen Legge, along with their two children Taylor and Colton, operate Legge Beef Farms, a fifth-generation farm located north of Chesley, ON. Legge Beef Farms is a true family farm with Scot and his father, Murray, living and working side by side on land that has been farmed since the 1800s. The Legge Beef Farm has the capacity to raise 900 head of cattle, with over 1,000 acres of land where the majority of the feed fed to their cattle is grown.
Legge Beef Farms are proud producers of Ontario Corn Fed Beef and adhere to the program’s strict requirements for feeding, farm practices and animal welfare.
As Registered Dietitians often deal with clients who have misconceptions and concerns about beef farming practices, I spoke with Scot and Jen to help clear these up and set the record straight about how farms are operated. This conversation highlights the connection between beef farming and healthy eating.
Please tell me a bit about yourselves and your farming practices.
I [Scot] am the fifth generation to work on and operate the Legge family farm. We operate a beef feedlot, meaning we buy cattle when they are about 600-650 lbs and then raise them to about 1,500-1,600 lbs.
Have the farming practices remained constant throughout the five generations?
Up until 30 years ago Legge Farms was a mixed farming operation. My dad, uncles and grandparents raised pigs, dairy cattle and beef cattle. In the 1970’s the family formed a corporation and focused solely on beef cattle.
Where does most of the beef you produce end up?
We deal primarily with a provincial abattoir, Norwich Packers, and most of our beef goes to local markets within Ontario. They are a provincially inspected plant which means they cannot export meat to other countries. Therefore, the beef remains in the province, supplying beef to local restaurants, and this past year supplying our beef to Western University in London. We also provide beef for the Ontario Corn Fed Beef program.
What measures do you take to ensure proper animal care?
We take very good care of our animals. We feed our cattle twice per day to be certain that the feed is always fresh. To ensure the cattle stay healthy, we clean the barns out frequently, keep the bedding fresh, and make sure the cattle are kept dry. Our cattle are very comfortable and happy here, which is obvious in their calm and quiet tendencies. We also have frequent inspections through the Ontario Corn Fed Beef program to ensure that we are adhering to all of the required practices. This includes record-keeping, following best practices for medications, animal husbandry and various regulations.
Can you tell me a bit about how the cattle are fed?
When the cattle are smaller we feed them more of a forage-based diet (hay, grass, corn silage). As they get bigger we introduce more grain into their diets because it provides more energy and results in more marbling in the beef. We also have some cattle that we place on pasture during the summer months and bring back into the feedlot in the fall. The cattle that are put on pasture tend to be the smaller animals, because if they are too large, they can’t get enough nutrition from just the grass. Contrary to popular belief, cattle can prefer to be in the feedlot as opposed to the pasture because it makes them feel safer, as they are more protected from weather and natural predators.
Are your cattle grass-fed or grain-fed? What do you think the most common misconception is surrounding grass- versus grain-fed beef?
All of our cattle were fed grass at some point in their lives. However, they are considered grain fed because they are “grain finished”.
I believe the biggest misconception regarding grass-fed versus grain-fed beef is that cattle are designed to eat grass and that it’s unnatural for them to eat grain. In reality, as long as their diet is consistent, cattle can eat pretty much any plant-based material. Grass-fed and grain-fed beef do have different flavours though, so it just comes down to the taste preference of the consumer.
One of the most common concerns that Registered Dietitians hear from clients, in regards to eating beef, is the use of antibiotics and the potential impact on health. Can you explain how you use antibiotics in your farming practices?
We only use antibiotics when the animal is sick or if they’ve developed an infection. Antibiotics are needed at that point for the animal’s welfare. To meet the requirements of the Ontario Corn Fed Beef program, extensive record-keeping is required. When we treat an animal with a medication, we record the identification of that animal, the medication they were given, and the withdrawal time for that medication, which ensures there are no antibiotics left in the animal by the time it is in the food system. Consumers can be assured that when they purchase Ontario beef there will be no antibiotics in the meat.
Some clients are also concerned about hormones in cattle and the potential effect on health. Do you use hormones in your cattle? Can you comment on the usage?
We give hormones to all our animals. It is not a health or safety issue whatsoever because it’s such a miniscule amount. While the amount of hormones that we give an animal is incredibly small, the amount of gains we get out of using hormones is really significant. There are many environmental benefits aside from increasing the amount of beef produced by each animal. By using hormones, cattle are more efficient at processing their food and require less food overall. This means less land, fuel and other inputs are needed to grow crops, which contributes to a smaller environmental footprint and fewer greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). The large environmental benefit that is gained from the tiny amount of hormones that we use to improve our animals is so worth it. In my opinion, the use of hormones is the responsible thing to do as farmers, and all the ”hormone-free” products out there are part of a marketing initiative that misleads people into thinking it is healthier to avoid meat raised with added-hormones. There is no health difference between beef implanted with hormones and beef that is not implanted with hormones.
We as consumers often hear about environmental concerns related to beef farming (i.e. water usage, GHGs). What methods of practice to you follow to avoid negative environmental impacts?
For GHGs, it goes back to the use of hormones. By using hormones, we are feeding our cattle less feed and for a shorter duration of time, so fewer emissions are produced. The amount of GHGs that are produced by beef farming is a very small amount – only about 2.4% of Canada’s total GHGs.
As far as water usage, the water my cattle are drinking is all part of the water cycle. The water they drink isn’t just gone. They drink the water, it is urinated, it goes back into the ground, it evaporates, it rains, they drink it, etc. We are also always looking for ways to better filter and retain that water in our soils.
Additionally, almost all of our cattle are housed inside so rainfall doesn’t take any manure and wash it away. All the manure is controlled, contained, and incorporated into the soil at the proper time so there isn’t any run-off.
What do you find most challenging about being a beef farmer?
All the misconceptions with consumers are challenging. Trying to share information about beef farming once people have been misinformed is very difficult. Unlike 30 years ago, today it sometimes seems that consumers don’t trust farmers. They sometimes assume we are doing something wrong, and it’s tough to have to correct those misconceptions and explain yourself a lot of the time. We do our research with respect to hormones, antibiotics, etc., so we can be sure that we are farming responsibly.
All farmers are dedicated to what they do. We know how much time, energy and work goes into farming, and it’s definitely more than full-time lifestyle. It’s also a volatile market and we don’t have much control over that as farmers. We are at the whims of markets. We put in the same amount of work each year, but receive a different amount of gains.
What is the most rewarding part of being a beef farmer?
I like that you can see the results of your hard work. You get to watch the animals grow, have a good life, and be well-finished. I feel a lot of pride in the product that we produce. There aren’t a lot of other jobs out there where you get to see the benefits of the hard work you put in. You can see your accomplishments come to fruition.
Legge Beef Farms is also our legacy, whether for our kids, if they choose, or for someone else to take over. That’s very rewarding to know.
What do you think the most important messages about beef farming are for consumers to be aware of?
Farmers are responsible producers in agriculture, and we aren’t trying to hide anything. We are open about what we do and we work hard to ensure that we are always making a safe and healthy product. It is important for people to educate themselves and do their research before making any decisions on how they want to eat.
Another important message is that beef is quick and easy to cook. I wish people weren’t so afraid of cooking beef. We have two kids and they both play soccer and hockey, so we are busy. Beef is our go-to meal, and not only because we are beef farmers, but because it is fast, easy and convenient. For example, we don’t buy pre-made hamburgers because it’s so fast and easy to make hamburger patties from fresh ground beef. Beef is so versatile. It’s a “Wednesday night hockey meal that’s ready to go”. I wish that more people were reliant on beef as their go-to weekday meals, instead of only Sunday roast beef. If consumers are afraid of cooking beef, they should talk to their butchers because they can help find the right cuts to make it easy.
I hope you found this interview as enlightening as I did. With the misconceptions and concerns surrounding beef farming, it is important to meet with the people who can educate you the best. In this case, Scot and Jen, as fifth-generation beef farmers, were able to shed light on some of the most frequently asked questions. I encourage you to talk to an Ontario beef farmer, butcher or Registered Dietitian if you have questions of your own.
Thanks Scot and Jen! Happy Healthy Eating!!