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How Can Cattle Ranching Be Sustainable?

Last Updated: 22.04.24


Can cattle ranching be sustainable in the long run? Check it out here as we dissect this issue that concerns farmers and people all around the world. Without sustainability, the consumption of milk and beef could be endangered, but, at the same time, it should not be obtained at the cost of the environment. Cattle ranching sustainability has many aspects, and they must all be addressed for a viable solution.


A clear life cycle assessment

To establish clear rules for cattle ranching sustainability, we must first look at something named life cycle assessment, or LCA, for short. This assessment is used to describe the life cycle of a cow, not only from birth until it’s sacrificed but also until it reaches the tables and plates of consumers.

Without a thorough assessment of this cycle, no one can establish visible effects on the economy, environment, and social aspects of this type of activity. Because cows can take up a lot of space which they need for feeding and living, and they produce methane which is terrible for the environment, a sustainable way for ranching must be invented.

What has been done so far?

The issue of cattle ranching sustainability is not new, and for more than a decade now, several steps were taken toward improving it. For instance, many improvements were operated to increase harvest outputs. More was done for developing the equipment used by ranchers, and new techniques for irrigation and fertilizer management were introduced, as well.

All these measures have a goal to reduce the effects of cattle ranching on the environment. Also, BQA protocols were introduced. BQA stands for Beef Quality Assurance and includes various guidelines for ranchers so that they can improve the social sustainability of their farms.

And this is not all. The evolution of programs regarding this type of sustainability will continue so that ranchers can make sure that their activity can improve while the impact on the environment decreases.


Cattle are the most extensive user of land

While measures are being taken as we speak, we should take a closer look at what cattle do to the land they live on. Since humans are responsible for raising cattle and the increased consumption of beef and milk is bound to put pressure on the existing farms, it is worth having a clear perspective on the matter.

Here are some numbers. In 2013, 1.5 billion cows were present in farms and ranches of various sizes. That makes for about 20% of the entire world population, or, in other words, for each cow, there are five human beings living on the planet.

Cattle are the most prominent livestock, and they are responsible for 40% of all the emissions that come from domesticated animals raised by humans for consumption. The situation only gets worse in areas where cattle are raised on deforested land.


Deforestation is one of the main issues

Besides the pollution caused by extensive cattle ranching, there is another critical consequence that must be taken into consideration. Deforestation is the primary method used for gaining more land for pastures so that cattle can feed.

In Latin America, the situation is starting to become dire, as 75% of all deforestation happening in Brazil occurs due to cattle. At the same time, Brazil now has a high deforestation rate.

What are voluntary certification schemes?

To ensure cattle ranching sustainability, some measures were taken everywhere. Some of these measures are voluntary certification schemes, their primary role being the reduction of deforestation related to cattle. Nonetheless, it must be noted that so far, these interventions are not broad enough to ensure proper sustainability everywhere.


What changes should be made?

To ensure proper sustainability for cattle production, specific changes must be operated, with influence on the production systems now in place. Cattle ranchers have a right to feel challenged by these changes as they have an impact on many of the traditional practices employed by such ventures.

The management systems currently used by cattle ranchers have reduced costs, but, at the same time, they lead an inefficient manner of using the land and the available resources. In other words, there is a lot of waste to take into account.


The main challenge

Besides the natural opposition that cattle ranchers might manifest, certifications to attest a farm as sustainable have other struggles to address. For starters, they must set higher standards, but if these standards are difficult to meet by ranchers, too few cattle owners will join the movement.

Getting more people to join and apply for certifications is challenging. That is why voluntary certification schemes appeared, with moderate or even low success rates in some areas. Cattle ranchers must understand the reasons why they should sustain the extra costs, and that is not a particularly easy task.

Thus, some incentives should be used. However, if these incentives are not enough to motivate ranchers, they deny their purpose. Plus, they might be specific to certain markets, and therefore, not considered as equally useful by those involved.

Moving forward, getting consumers to pay premium prices for certified products coming from these sustainable cattle ranches is not likely, especially in countries such as Brazil, for instance. Since developing countries do not ensure the same living standards as first world countries, people cannot be easily convinced to spend more on some products for the sake of sustainability.

What certifications must involve?

The cattle supply chain is particularly complicated, and that poses another challenge for the certification system. For instance, cattle must be tracked to origins, and then followed along the supply chain. Each time a cow changes hands, such changes should be documented and registered, and that doesn’t happen to the letter everywhere.


What should be done?

It is evident that a solution to fit all is not a good option. That is why each area should have standards that can be met by the ranchers living there. While it is essential that these standards have a common denominator, they cannot be set in stone.

Furthermore, incentives must be tailored according to the specifics of each area in which cattle ranchers operate. With a certain degree of flexibility, sustainable cattle ranching can become a reality.




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