Beef Expert Wants Balanced Definition of Sustainable

10/20/2012 7:00 AM
By Michelle Kunjappu Reporter

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Sustainability, according to Kersey, Colo., beef producer Kevin Ochsner, is no less than a four-faceted balance of healthy finances, healthy relationships, healthy land and healthy animals.

“In the public press,” Ochsner said, “when people hear sustainability, they only think about environmental sustainability. We owe it to ourselves and society in general” to recognize that it means more than that.

Ochsner is the host of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s “Cattlemen to Cattlemen” on RFD-TV, and works as a business consultant and professional speaker for ABG Inc., an Indianapolis-based agribusiness firm.

He and his family raise Limousin cattle and run Ochsner Tenderlean Beef, a small direct-market company. He was one of the keynote speakers at a forum during the Keystone International Livestock Exposition earlier this month in Harrisburg.

“If you are in agriculture, you have to be committed to sustainability,” Ochsner said.

“We’re not going to just talk about environmental sustainability, such as conservation, but I’m going to set the stage broadly from an ag industry perspective, why this should matter to anyone who works in this industry,” he said.

“I get real passionate when people want to talk about sustainability in one dimension, because at the end of the day, if we can’t do it and make money at it, that’s not sustainable,” he said.

On his own farm, for example, when his father became ill, without Ochsner’s availability to help, “that would’ve been a problem,” he said, pointing out that healthy people are one of the facets of sustainability.

“I’ve seen things happen in operations that get all those things right, but they don’t have any kind of succession plan, and when Dad passes away, a few brothers can’t get along. They have to split the farm, and the split farms can’t sustain all of them” so they end up selling out, he said.

Ochsner also discussed getting involved in the government policy-making process, citing taxes and the difficulties of passing on farms to the next generation.

“We can talk about grazing, we can talk about weed control, but if we don’t have this thing (taxes and farm transition) taken care of, there is nothing sustainable about our business,” he said. “The point I’m trying to make is, sustainability is a multidimensional discipline, and we’ve got to take a balanced approach to it.”

Through the Rearview Mirror

Ochsner urged the producers in the audience to “not let anyone tell us that we’ve been irresponsible.”

For example, American farmers’ stewardship has resulted in a 50 percent decline in erosion of cropland by wind and water since 1982, he said.

Also, “it’s pretty impressive what agriculture has done since 1944,” Ochsner said, pointing out that since then the annual production of milk per cow quadrupled in the U.S.

Additionally, the total U.S. crop yields (in tons per acre) have increased more than 360 percent since 1950. And in the beef industry, from 1975 to 2010, the average beef carcass weight increased 185 pounds.

Because of this increased efficiency, Americans have benefited from more affordable foods. According to Ochsner, Americans spend just 9.4 percent of their disposable income on food compared with 23.4 percent in 1929.

“Some of these tools and technologies that some people want to bash are the very tools and technologies that allow us to be more sustainable and environmentally friendly,” he said.

The agriculture industry needs to “start to figure out how do we get along,” Ochsner said, “because we’re not going be able to preserve this (farming) long-term if we don’t figure that out.”

At his own operation, “I’m not opposed to segment-specific marketing plans,” he said.

For example, “we chose not to implant our cattle, but you won’t hear me slamming implants because I believe consumers deserve a choice and I believe there’s a segment of the population that needs to use technologies to make beef more affordable,” he said.

“We’ve chosen not to do organic but we won’t bash organic,” he said. “I think we have to be really, really careful in ag that as we try to differentiate whatever it is each one of us is doing, we don’t disparage the rest of the industry.

A Look Down the Road

Even with impressive progress in agriculture, there is more work ahead, Ochsner said.

With the growing global population, “we will need to produce more food in the next 50 years than we have in the last 10,000 years” to feed everyone, he said.

Accordingly, “we will need to double yields, or clear another 30 to 50 percent of the earth’s land surface just to feed ourselves in 2050,” Ochsner said.

“We have to help (the public) understand that is a tradeoff — don’t tie our hands behind our back and ask us not to use modern science and technology,” he said. “The alternative is that we need more land to do it, so let’s go plow up the rest of the rain forest and have at it.”

Similarly, “we would need nearly 200 million head of cattle to produce the same amount of beef we produce today with less than 100 million cattle if were to return to 1955 levels of productivity,” he said.

This would require 500 million additional acres at today’s stocking rate, which is more than the combined area of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.

“We haven’t made progress without technologies and some sciences.”

Social Activism

“Sustainability” also means being outspoken in defending agriculture to the public, Ochsner said, noting that producers cannot “ignore the people who are absolutely out to discontinue animal ag in the U.S.”

He said, “There are people who simply feel guilty eating animals, and I think that can be corrected by helping them understand” production agriculture. “Ninety-two percent of the country will make a logical decision if they have the facts.”

There are people who believe that if livestock are not in the barn but out in the open, the animals are happier, he said, citing a well-circulated article and picture of pigs that were entirely pastured.

“But they didn’t take the picture when snow is blowing or discuss diseases that we eliminated when we kept pigs from drinking manure-infested water. They didn’t talk about the environment or runoff into the Chesapeake Bay,” Ochsner said.

“Are we going to just simply yield to outside pressure and say, HSUS do whatever you want to do’?” he said. “Are we going to do a U-turn and go back to 1955 and say, You got it’? That’s the fundamental question.”

To summarize, Ochsner urged his audience to “embrace innovation, invest in your own education, build relationships with other innovators and engage in experimentation.

“That’s what made America great. And some of us succeed and some of us fail, but in America, you’re able to fail and start again,” he said.

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