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N&H TOPLINE: Water footprint of Canadian beef production shrinkingN&H TOPLINE: Water footprint of Canadian beef production shrinking

While total amount of water required to produce 1 kg of Canadian beef decreased 17% over 30-year period, decrease in blue water was even more pronounced.

Tim Lundeen 1

December 15, 2017

5 Min Read
N&H TOPLINE: Water footprint of Canadian beef production shrinking
Craig Warton/iStock/Thinkstock

Canada’s beef industry has dramatically reduced its water footprint over the past several decades, and that trend is expected to continue, according to a new study conducted by researchers at the University of Manitoba and Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) in Lethbridge, Alb.

The amount of water required to produce 1 kg of beef in Canada decreased 17% from 1981 to 2011, due largely to enhanced efficiency in how feed crops for beef cattle are produced as well as enhanced efficiency in raising beef cattle and producing more beef per animal, the announcement from Canada's Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC) said.

These results are from the most comprehensive and sophisticated study ever done assessing the water footprint of Canadian beef production, the researchers said. It involved extensive data integration, modelling and assessment of numerous factors associated with the water footprint of Canadian beef over a 30-year period using the data-rich principal census years of 1981 and 2011 as the references.

While Canada is recognized as a highly water-efficient country regarding water use in beef production, BCRC said the industry is still committed to further improvement. Opportunities for further improvement highlighted by the study include additional advances in feeding efficiencies and in reducing water requirements for feed crop and pasture production.

The study is part of a larger project titled “Defining the Environmental Footprint of Canadian Beef Production” that previously found similar reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and resource use intensities related to Canadian beef production over the same period.

“Our focus has been to develop an accurate assessment of the Canadian beef industry’s water footprint and how that is evolving with advances in production efficiencies,” said Dr. Tim McAllister, a research scientist at AAFC Lethbridge and one of the study’s principal investigators. “Our results show very clearly that the water footprint per kilogram of beef produced has been reduced over the years and that the industry is operating at a high level of sustainability from a water use perspective. There are also opportunities for continuous improvement through further advances in support of highly efficient Canadian beef production.”

The study is unprecedented in detail and scope for Canada and is among the most advanced globally, BCRC said, noting that the study used advanced data collection, analysis and modelling to produce a highly robust, multi-level examination of water use in all areas relevant to producing Canadian beef over the study period. Among numerous variables, it took into account water used for feed and pasture crop production, drinking water used by cattle, water used in feeding systems and water used as part of meat processing.

The study also factored in potential evapotranspiration from lands used for beef production, which is an estimate of the sum of evaporation from the land surface plus transpiration from plants. The evapotranspiration calculations were done utilizing data from 679 weather stations across Canada, BCRC said, adding that regional differences in beef production and water use were also accounted for.

Water use was compared to beef production output using information on cattle populations and key performance metrics such as average daily gain and carcass weight.

BCRC explained that the study examined water use intensity for both “blue” water (surface and ground water) and “green” water (precipitation or rain water). Drinking water consumed by cattle accounted for less than 1% of total water use related to beef production, while feed production — i.e., the water required (including precipitation) to grow pasture or crops or produce byproduct feeds — accounted for 99% of total water use related to beef production. Byproduct feeds are usable feedstuffs leftover from other types of agricultural processing and represent a valuable way to recycle these materials within the agriculture industry.

While the overall amount of water required to produce 1 kg of Canadian beef decreased 17% over the full assessment period, the decrease was even more pronounced with blue water, which declined 20% over those 30 years.

“A number of factors have driven this progress,” said Dr. Getahun Legesse Gizaw of the University of Manitoba, one of the lead investigators of the study. “The improvements related to feed production were due primarily to improvements in crop productivity, with feed crops yielding higher with less water use. Additional improvements were due to beef production advances in areas including increases in carcass weight, reproductive efficiency and average daily gain. There has also been substantial investment in southern Alberta to improve the efficiency of irrigation infrastructure and lower evaporative water losses in an area where most of Canada’s feedlot cattle are finished.”

McAllister noted, “There are maintenance requirements for every animal, and as the industry has made advances and investments to produce more beef more efficiently from every animal, the amount of inputs and energy -- including water -- has been substantially reduced relative to overall production.”

The water footprint study and broader environmental footprint project are part of the Canadian beef industry's commitment to continuous improvement in sustainability. Information from these initiatives will support transparency, accuracy and planning related to industry sustainability activities both domestically and internationally. Among various outputs, the study will contribute to the efforts of the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, including its National Beef Sustainability Assessment.

“Water is a precious resource, and Canadian beef producers are committed to supporting responsible water use across our production systems,” said BCRC chair Bryan Thiessen, manager of Namaka Farms near Strathmore, Alb. “Knowledge is critical. Studies like this one are helping us build a comprehensive understanding of the industry’s past, present and future environmental footprint to not only operate efficiently and responsibly but also to continue to contribute globally as leaders in sustainable beef production.”

Complete detailed results of the study, “Water Use Intensity of Canadian Beef Production in 1981 as Compared to 2011,” were published in Science of the Total Environment, a leading international, peer-reviewed, scientific journal covering environmental science. The study was funded by the Beef Cattle Industry Science Cluster under the Growing Forward 2 framework.

BCRC funds leading-edge research to advance the Canadian beef industry. It manages Canada’s Beef Cattle Industry Science Cluster, which is funded by the industry’s Canadian Beef Cattle Check-Off and AAFC, with additional contributions from provincial beef industry groups and governments.

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