Come Rain or Shine

Sustainability In Beef Supply Chains

February 02, 2022 USDA Southwest Climate Hub & DOI Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center Season 3 Episode 2
Come Rain or Shine
Sustainability In Beef Supply Chains
Show Notes Transcript

A discussion around sustainability challenges and opportunities within the U.S. beef supply chain. Our guest for this episode is Dr. Sheri Spiegal, a rangeland scientist with the Jornada Experimental Range and Co-PI of the Sustainable Southwest Beef Project. Dr. Spiegal shares insights with us from her ongoing research on beef supply chains, trade offs, and producing “socially acceptable beef”.

Relevant links and resources:
August 1st, 2020 episode (for background info):
The Sustainable Southwest Beef Project
The Sustainable Southwest Beef Project website: 

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Emile Elias: Welcome to Come Rain or Shine, podcast of the USDA Southwest Climate Hub 

Sarah LeRoy: and the USGS Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center or Southwest CASC. I'm Sarah LeRoy, Science Applications and Communications Coordinator for the Southwest CASC.

Emile Elias: And I'm Emile Elias, Director of the Southwest Climate Hub.

Here, we highlight stories to share the most recent advances in climate science, weather and climate adaptation and innovative practices to support resilient landscapes and communities. We believe that sharing some of the most innovative forward thinking and creative climate science and adaptation will strengthen our collective ability to respond to even the most challenging impacts of climate change in one of the hottest and driest regions of the world.

Sarah LeRoy: The contents of this podcast are for informational purposes only and should not be interpreted as endorsement for any of the products, technologies, or strategies discussed. 

Emile Elias: From grazing lands to feed yards, US beef production systems are expected to meet new global beef demands while sustaining environmental quality. These opportunities and challenges are manifest in the American Southwest and Southern Plains regions, including Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. These are neighboring regions connected, ecologically and socially through beef production.

Most calves raised in the extensive arid pastures of the Southwest are exported to the Southern Plains region for finishing on grains. Intensification of changes in climate vegetation and human demographics threaten the sustainability of the bi-regional system. Today, we're here with my friend and colleague, Dr. Sheri Spiegal. Sheri is a rangeland scientist at the Jornada Experimental Range. Also co-PI of the Sustainable Southwest Beef project and lead of the supply chain research team on that project.

 If you're just tuning in for the first time today and would like to know more about the broader, Sustainable Southwest Beef project, we do have an episode that aired in August, 2020 called the Sustainable Southwest Beef project. And that episode describes the mission and goals of this five-year coordinated agriculture project. Sheri, can you please tell us a bit about your research with the project? 

Sheri Spiegal: Yes. Thank you. It's wonderful to be with you today and thank you for the invitation.

So I'm excited to talk about the Sustainable Southwest Beef project that focuses on three main elements of research. One being a breed comparison in which we are investigating the outcomes of using heritage genetics in beef cattle and comparing those with more conventional genetics, also researching and developing a precision ranching system for use on extensive ranches in arid rangelands.

And a third part of the research is looking at supply chains of beef that originates on Southwestern ranches. So we're looking all the way. Really from pasture to plate and exploring different management and policy options that might result in, in sustainability outcomes that society cares about and would like to see in the world. And so I get to work on all three aspects of the research, but a major focus of mine is the supply chain research. And that's really understanding how supply chains are structured and how different changes in flows of cattle, flows of feed, flows of manure can really affect sustainability outcomes with regard to economics, the environment and social networks and human condition.

Emile Elias: Excellent, thanks Sheri. So, can you tell us a bit more about why it's important to take a whole systems supply chain approach to evaluating the sustainability of Southwest beef production? 

Sheri Spiegal: Yes. Thank you for asking that really important question. So ranchers are a major stakeholder for our project, um, and the main stewards of rangelands in the Southwest.

They are part of a complex system. Of markets and social networks that result in beef cattle being transported from ranches, where they're raised initially through to feed lots and feed yards where they're fed a higher grain diet. And then all the way through to slaughter and distribution. And so those links in the supply chain, they're all very important and they're all necessary for getting that beef from pasture to plate.

 What's happening is that there are not very clear or explicit systems to link profits at the slaughterhouse and distribution end of the supply chain back to ranchers where these supply chains originate. And we're seeing that actually in the news these days as this podcast is being recorded with a lot of attention to the monopolies on beef slaughter and processing industries. And so ranchers are working hard to improve conservation outcomes on their lands and to sustain those rangelands for the long term.

But those activities aren't necessarily rewarded or compensated for through standard supply chain channels. So it's important to understand how the whole supply chain works in order to adequately compensate ranchers who are working hard to improve those conservation outcomes. Another reason it's important to understand supply chain structure and function is that there is some new attention over the last couple of decades in this concept of circularity, which is pretty logical and almost obvious from a conservation and environmental stewardship perspective. 

And this is the idea of reuse and recycling of resources. And this is one approach that many researchers and others in nonprofits and the policy realm are looking at to improve sustainability outcomes for the long term. And on our planet. And so understanding the links between the supply chains can, I can illuminate opportunities for recycling and for circularity. For instance, recycling surpluses in feedlot manure from the animals in confinement, back onto the hay fields that are associated with ranches and extensive ranches in the Southwest is one form of circularity that we can explore that we wouldn't be able to really understand the benefits or the disadvantages of if we don't take a supply chain perspective.

Emile Elias: Thanks, Sheri. And building on that, one of the concepts I've heard you mentioned in the past is the idea of supplying socially acceptable beef. Can you explain what you mean by socially acceptable beef and how your research might support the goal of supplying socially acceptable beef?

Sheri Spiegal: That's an excellent question. Excellent question. Beef is a conundrum to a degree. I think a lot of folks who are interested in long-term sustainability of the planet or thinking about humans wellbeing into the future that exists within the planetary boundaries of, of the earth and really staying as a sustainable society.

They question the role of beef. So there's a lot in the press and in the news and in research about the greenhouse gas emissions of beef or the water use of beef and the land use of beef. And so these things become really key questions for us as we're researching and understanding the sustainability of beef coming from any region.

So within that context, um, of these, these concerns about beef, there's also benefits that can be surprising to our listeners and to the readers of the products of this Sustainable Southwest Beef project. So ranches can act as a bulwark or a guard against more intensive development on rangelands.

Ranching can also serve to supply water for wildlife. Ranching is also important to maintain communities in agricultural landscapes and long-term cultural heritage. So what I'm getting at here is that there's sort of a grand synthesis of trade-offs when it comes to beef production. So in one hand, there are concerns.

About certain parts of the environment. There's also benefits to the environment. There's concerns about the challenges of economics for producers on the ground versus producers at more developed levels or at more intensive levels of the beef chains. So this is all to say that when we look at beef production, there's really a lot of trade-offs involved. Both with the environment and with economics, for our stakeholders and for our producers. And so when we're looking at beef that we want to produce into the future, the social acceptability part really has to do with understanding all of these trade-offs and really taking a hard look at this grand synthesis of advantages and disadvantages. 

And as a society as communities, locally and regionally and nationally, really taking a hard look at, okay, what do we want from our food system and identifying the type of beef that has the fewest trade-offs and putting our resources there. And that's really what is meant by socially acceptable beef. So it really has a connotation of understanding all these trade offs that underlie beef production. 

Getting super clear on this beef conundrum and having some tough conversations with the stakeholders that are involved both really closely with production, but also stakeholders who eat beef and just who experience the need for clean water, clean air and high nutrition. So it's a very complex conversation, but that's the type of thing we need to embark upon to understand really what is socially acceptable.

Emile Elias: That was a great answer, Sheri. And you mentioned the trade-offs and some of the benefits and some of the challenges that you have to evaluate and think about. Do you think there are any blind spots either from the consumer or from an industry perspective, or maybe even both when people are thinking about what a sustainable beef production system looks like? So are there any blind spots or things we might be missing? 

Sheri Spiegal: Absolutely. I think there's a, there's a couple of major ones that I think about one is that link between pieces of the supply chain or links in the supply chain, which I discussed before. I think there's often a view point that ranchers are gaining the economic benefits of perhaps higher prices in beef, some of these ideas that we're thinking about these days, which is there's a, there's kind of a supply chain bottleneck having to do with COVID-19. So price of beef is rising. 

And so I think there's an, there might be a general idea that ranchers and everybody in the beef supply chain are benefiting from those higher prices that consumers are paying at the supermarket. That is markedly not true.

I think that's something to really think about when we're thinking about socially acceptable beef and thinking about how much do we, as Americans want to support these agricultural communities that produce the food that we end up buying at the supermarket. I think a second piece that I've been thinking about more and more increasingly is that demand for beef.

So I think as a society and at certain sectors of society kind of go up and down with their desire for beef or their demand for beef, we saw a major increase in chicken consumption over the past decades as a less expensive protein source. But, you know, there are also major environmental trade-offs supporting more poultry.

And so just really thinking about our beef consumption versus other types of food and understanding that more in our kind of grand synthesis of trade-offs of what sustainable beef looks like. That's definitely something I'd like to understand more and research more and possibly a follow on to this Sustainable Southwest Beef project.

So in summary two things, I think it's the blind spots are really understanding how the economics work and how the industry works and also the role of demand and of dietary consumption. 

Emile Elias: Thanks, Sheri. So earlier you outlined what the traditional supply chain looks like. And can you tell us a bit about some of the other supply chain scenarios, you're researching?

Sheri Spiegal: Absolutely. So thank you. Yes. So the, the traditional supply chain again, and I'll just review, is from the Southwest. This region is dominated by cow-calf ranching. So what happens is a calf is born to a mother cow who has been on the rangeland most likely for at least two to three years and understands how the landscape works.

She bears about one calf a year. That calf is raised with the mother. And then about at six months old is weaned from her milk. That calf either sticks around on the rangeland, to add a little bit more weight, depending on forage conditions. When that calf is ready to move onto the next phase in the market.

They're usually sold through auction houses. They move on to either stocker operations or directly to feed lots. And so that stocker operation, it has higher quality forage usually than the ranch from which the calf originated. And this is all again about weight gains and in, in, you know, in the right environmental conditions and the right temperature conditions for wellbeing of the animal.

So that calf again becomes a stocker, adds more weight. Eventually when the market conditions are right, that stocker is sold to a feedlot. Or that calf was sold directly to a feedlot. A lot of times those feed lots are in the Southern Plains that were mentioned earlier in this podcast introduction. So a lot of times in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, that's where that's the beef belt of the US, so a lot of our calves from the Southwest ended up there for feeding on grain.

Ultimately finishing by a meat packer, and then distribution from there. We are looking at a couple alternatives in which the cattle are actually retained on Southwestern rangeland to be fed on grass for their, for its entire life until finishing. So that's, we're looking at a grass-finished approach.

Another thing that we're looking at is really looking at that link between the feedlots, the feedlot link in the supply chain, back to the rangeland agro-ecosystems, where those calves originated. So envisioning this scenario of taking the excess, the surplus nutrients and the feedlot manure. This really is concentrated stocks of manure, transporting that are in the Southern Plains, transporting them back to the rangeland agro-ecosystems, where the extensive ranches are located. Those are interspersed with hay production and hayfields. So thinking about taking those surplus manure nutrients, moving those back to these range and hay agro-ecosystems and using those nutrients there instead of fertilizers. So that's another supply chain approach we're looking at. Importantly, the Criollo cattle, the Raramuri Criollo cattle, which is the main type of heritage breed that we're looking at in this project, does really well being finished on grass. 

They are hardy animals that can really put a lot of weight on rangeland alone, relative to their starting weight. And so this is an interesting opportunity to really understand how this heritage breed finishes on rangeland versus that traditional supply chain of going to feedlot and being finished on grain. I would like to say one more thing about this. So we're looking at purebred heritage Raramuri Criollo being finished on grass.

We're looking at the outcomes of a crossbred Criollo. So Criollo crossed with an Angus breed being finished on grass, and as well as the purebred and crossbred being finished on grain. And we're looking at the full environmental and economic outcomes of those different supply chain options. And we're using the Integrated Farm System model and other models to understand the economic and environmental outcomes of those supply chain options.

Emile Elias: Thanks Sheri. I know we're just in the second year of this five-year research project. Of the various supply chain scenarios you're researching, and you just mentioned, do you think there's going to be one silver bullet option that just outshines the rest, as far as sustainability? 

Sheri Spiegal: I would love to say something out-shines other things, especially on this podcast called Rain or Shine because we're interested in the shine, but no, unfortunately, and this is not a very satisfying answer for our customers and our stakeholders. Each of these options has advantages and disadvantages. And I think one thing I've learned in my career as an agricultural scientist and as somebody interested in helping to promote sustainability for the long-term for our agricultural communities and for our consumers, there really is no silver bullet when it comes to producing nutritious food on healthy rangelands and in healthy agricultural environments. 

If you really, really take a close look, there's always going to be some kind of trade off between environmental benefit versus economic benefit versus social benefit. And so, again, this goes back to this concept of socially acceptable beef. Since there is no silver bullet, what can we live with as a society? Given our goals of moving into the future as a thriving society that exists within these planetary boundaries for the long-term. So it's really an ongoing conversation. It's what we can live with. It's what we understand about current climate conditions versus future climate conditions and really the types of investments we want to make in these different options as a society, that really minimizes the trade-offs and amplifies the co-benefits among these different types of goals.

So that's an excellent question. I wish I could give a little bit more of a concrete answer that says, yes, this is where we should be investing our resources. But unfortunately, yeah, can't do that now in the second year of the project, and I'm not sure we'll ever be able to do that. I think it's just a matter of identifying as a society where the fewest trade-offs exist and deciding together that that's where we want to invest our resources.

Emile Elias: Great. We will stay tuned and pay attention to the research as it evolves over the next few years. And see if we might learn a bit more about those trade offs and some of those supply chains and maybe what might outshine others in certain situations.

Because of what you mentioned is that there are a lot of complexity and what might work in one place might not work somewhere else. And that leads me to another question. And this is about the research project itself. What challenges have you encountered in this research so far in the past two years?

Sheri Spiegal: Excellent question. Well, first I'd like to say I am lucky enough to be working with an extremely talented team. We have some really dedicated people who care deeply about the sustainability of Southwestern rangelands, of the finishing feed yard finishing systems in the Southern Plains and our consumers, as well as all the producers involved.

So. That, it's been a wonderful, wonderful gift to be able to work on this project with these folks. I think we would like to be together more, to see each other face to face. We were able to have a meeting at the end of 2019, and then the COVID-19 pandemic really took hold and we've been doing most of our work remotely.

 So, via Zoom, via phone call. And I think we've done a great job staying connected, but the lack of in-person, face-to-face kind of enjoyment of each other and kind of filling in the gaps that aren't always filled when we're remote. We have, that's certainly, certainly been a challenge. 

Building the precision system has been pretty hard. It's really complicated to get it right. I think we had the sense that maybe it would be done sooner than it will be, so we could kind of test some of the performance aspects of it. Like how does it affect ranchers wellbeing? How does it affect their stress level? But it's looking like now we're going to be probably for the whole course of the project, building the thing.

And then after the project needing to understand its performance. One other major piece is that we had an experiment set up here in Las Cruces at the Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center, otherwise known as the College Ranch, which is a big property next to the Jornada Experimental Range at the north of town and Las Cruces.

We had a major experiment set up to monitor the environmental effects of the Criollo cattle and comparing that with Angus cattle or more traditional breeds. And so we were going to be looking at soils, vegetation, economic inputs, or ranch inputs for both of them such as supplemental feed, but there's been a mega drought here, as I'm sure most of our podcast listeners are aware of the mega drought in the west.

And this piece of ground that we had planned to do this work on, really couldn't sustain the number of cattle needed to really conduct this experiment. We exported them to another property that we have in the NMSU, the New Mexico State University system. And so while this has been a challenge, this has also been an opportunity to really learn about how ranchers on the ground work.

So they, if they can't sustain cattle on one piece of land, you know, hopefully they have access to another, through leases, through family, through some kind of arrangement and they really need to adapt and be opportunistic in a good way to make sure that their cattle have healthy conditions and have enough forage.

So we've experienced that it can kind of real-world those kind of real-world conditions here too. Even in this research setting, we've been able to collect some data points about their impacts on rangelands and on soils and vegetation elsewhere. But, so, yeah, I'd say the three main challenges have been pandemic related, lack of being together as a project team.

Also just the need for kind of taking it slow on this precision ranching dashboard system. And then also that the mega drought, when it comes to cattle research.

Emile Elias: Thanks Sheri. We like to end on a hopeful note. And so I'm curious about what gives you hope about your research or what excites you most about your research topic?

Sheri Spiegal: Great question. What excites me most is just the number of people who I encounter, who are really committed to a sustainable future. I think there's a lot of folks out there that really are getting creative about sustainability outcomes who are getting really clear on climate impacts and how we need to act now to change systems if we want to maintain a thriving human community and thriving social systems within Earth's planetary boundaries into the future. And that's really, what's so inspiring for me. I think the other piece of inspiration is just the beauty of rangelands. They are inspiring in, and of themselves. Just these open spaces that might seem open at first view.

But if you really take a close look, there's so much happening on the ground and among the wildlife and the soil biota and the vegetation, and just these fascinating systems there that also include cattle and really seeing how that connectivity, is in everyday inspiration for me. So I'm hopeful in both the visions of our human community and the lasting beauty and benefits of our rangeland systems, to sustain us into both of those things together, sustaining us into the future.

Emile Elias: Thank you so much, Dr. Sheri Spiegal. It's been great to talk to you and I'm going to borrow some of that hope as we move forward. And we look forward to talking to you again. I want to touch base again and hear more about the supply chain research you're doing and what you learn as the project evolves.

Thanks for talking with us. 

Sheri Spiegal: It would be an honor. Thank you. And thank you to the Southwest Climate Hub for all of your amazing work. That's another major inspiration. So thank you. 

Emile Elias: Thanks for listening to Come Rain or Shine, podcast of the USDA Southwest Climate Hub 

Sarah LeRoy: and the USGS Southwest CASC. If you liked this podcast, don't forget to rate or review it and subscribe for more great episodes.

A special thanks to our production crew, Skye Aney and Reanna Burnett. If you want more information, have any questions for the speakers or we would like to offer feedback, please reach out to us via our websites.