Water usage being reduced by Canada's beef industry

By Dori Modney (@Dori_Modney on Twitter) with files from the Beef Cattle Research Council
December 14, 2017 - 4:13pm

LETHBRIDGE -  With the ever-heightened awareness of environmental concerns, many industries are being proactive in establishing conservation elements into their operations.  That's especially true of farming and ranching, where conservation can also mean financial savings.

 A recent study conducted by researchers at Agriculture Agri-Food Canada in Lethbridge and at the University of Manitoba compared the amount of water used by the Canadian beef industry over a 30-year span. They found that it took 17 per cent less water to produce a pound of beef in 2011 than it did in 1981.

Dr. Tim McAllister, from the Lethbridge research station, led the study and explains the decrease.

"One of the major reasons is related to the increased amount of meat or carcass that's being associated with each individual animal - the carcass size is much larger in 2011 than it was in 1981 and so, if you produce more meat from a single animal, then the maintenance requirements associated with production of that meat is lower, and that's a major reason why it took less water to produce the same amount of meat in 2011 than in 1981."

McAllister also noted that improvements in the efficiency of feed crop production also played a role.

"Ninety nine per cent of the water is used for production of the feed, only one per cent of the water is actually consumed by the animal itself - there's been substantial improvements in irrigation efficiencies over 1981 versus 2011, so a lot of the local canal systems have actually been converted into enclosed pipelines, the methods of the application is now mostly through what we call central pivot systems, as opposed to flood irrigation, and all of those systems are much more efficient in their water use."

Cherie Copithorne-Barnes, who ranches west of Calgary, explains the importance of understanding the environmental footprint of Canadian beef production.

"We all live, eat and breathe by water and grass when it comes to managing our crops or our animals, and as the weather conditions become a little more extreme, or there's a drought, it's important to have a good understanding of how you are contributing to those levels within your own ecosystem -  it's a very integral part of our everyday existence, so the more efficient we can become, the better."

The Beef Cattle Research Council has issued the findings from Dr. McAllister's research and other information in their published document "The Canadian Beef Industry's water footprint is shrinking."

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