Steakonomics: Technology Making Livestock Production More Sustainable
By Steve White, Grand Island Bureau Chief - bio | email
Re-claiming our title as the Beef State, Nebraska takes the crown as the top cattle feeding state in the nation. And if we're to continue growing livestock operations, experts say technology will help farmers be good neighbors.
We already produce more red meat than anyone, and some think the time is right to expand our livestock farms.
Dr. Ronnie Green, vice chancellor of the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska said, "We have the resource base here, certainly, to have a larger livestock industry even yet than we have today -- on the cow-calf side, fed cattle side, the swine industry certainly has significant room for expansion."
More livestock means more manure, and the potential for more odor.
A government report finds the nation's largest hog farm produces more manure than the waste that goes through sewer lines in Philadelphia. The EPA finds more than half the states say livestock has contributed to water quality issues.
And many say large livestock confinements contribute to climate change as well.
Meat scientists say they're working on those issues.
Dr. John Pollak, head of the USDA's Meat Animal Research Center said, "The knowledge base is growing rapidly and we're adding to it. This concept now of having the production be sustainable from social, environmental, and economic component which is what producers have been doing for years anyway."
The Meat Animal Research Center in south central Nebraska has helped popularize cattle breeds like Limousin, Simmental and Charolais. They've done a good job getting animals to produce more, but they have to do it with less.
Pollak said, "The trend in the industry is to look at trends that traits that cost in inputs, traits like disease, feed efficiency, those kinds of issues that were very difficult to put together genetic programs but genomics era is creating opportunity to explore those."
Individual farmers like Mark McHargue are adopting technology to better handle manure.
He said, "Not only get pork chops and bacon out of hogs, which we all love, we get fertilizer out of the hogs that helps with crops, really it's a full circle and you can't hardly find anyplace that's more sustainable than a livestock operation."
"Better control of manure and runoff, it's a whole different ball game we're looking at," said Dr. Larry Van Tassell, an ag economist at UNL.
McHargue, a Central City farmer, went to great lengths when building a new hog barn.
"We actually did, before we built this facility, an odor footprint so we took the area, took prevailing winds, and extrapolate out, and with 98 percent certainty where that odor's going to be," he explained.
A University of Nebraska report found a ten percent increase in cattle on feed could generate three-quarters of a billion dollars, not to mention impacts from more dairy and hog farming.
Van Tassell said, "The economic footprint is going to be in rural areas, which have been in decline in population. We've got rural kids who want to go back home, but finding jobs is difficult. If we can increase livestock, that can be a large market, especially for packing and processing."
The world is growing, in population and income. Around the world, folks can now afford meat. And livestock farmers say they need to be part of the solution to feed the world.
"People like bacon right now," McHargue said, of one of the world's favorite meats.