Water Use in Beef: Where Is It Really Coming From and How Can the Water Footprint Differ Across the U.S.?

By Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, Executive Director Global Sustainability, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff

Summary

Consumptive water use is one of 14 sustainability indicators measured in the beef industry sustainability assessment that was completed in 2013, so it would make sense that the number generated from that study would represent beef’s water footprint – but in reality – water isn’t that simple. 

Background

To accurately measure the total water used to produce one pound of boneless edible beef we first need to understand where water is utilized along the beef value chain. Let’s start at the beginning of the value chain with feed production and forage growth. Water is necessary to grow forage for grazing animals, crops (hay, grain, silage etc.), for cattle in feedlots or to feed animals during the non-growing season (i.e. the winter). To produce this necessary feed resource, water can either be pumped from an irrigation system or can come from precipitation. Where the water comes from makes a difference in measuring the water footprint according to life cycle assessment methodology; in the beef industry life cycle assessment, we measured water which is pumped from an irrigation system – or another way to look at is we did not include precipitation or rain water. 

Discussion

While, this may seem like a straightforward approach, it is important to note that there is no standard method of water “counting” for beef, so our method of accounting for “blue” water may result in major differences when compared to an assessment that also included “green” water. Another method used when assessing water use is to apply a “damage factor” to consumptive water whereby an assessed value is applied to a region where water may be scarce or ample. Unfortunately, since there are so many different methodologies to measure water use, it is difficult to compare and/or refute results. For example, if rain water is included the water footprint of beef could be doubled and wouldn’t necessarily be wrong – it would just be another way to look at the impact. Likewise, if a damage factor is applied to a region where water is scarce the “assessed” water use could be multiple of actual water consumed by 1/3 or greater. All of this makes understanding the true water footprint of food production challenging for farmers and ranchers and consumers, alike. 

It is also noteworthy that beef-producing regions may have a vastly different water footprint based on cattle and land management and available resources. For example, our current beef industry sustainability life cycle assessment is based on the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center; we did this to ensure accuracy of the model and are currently working to collect region-specific data from producers across the country to improve regional precision. The U.S. Meat Animal Research Center irrigates all of its cropland and even some of its pastures – so it is safe to say that when compared to a production region that feeds mostly dry-land crops and doesn’t irrigate pastures, we can expect a smaller water footprint. Furthermore, we could also expect that cattle finished on grass that is not irrigated (like grass-finished animals in the North East) would also have a comparatively smaller water footprint. However, it is important to note that improvement in one sustainability indicator does not necessarily result in an overall improvement of sustainability. For example, grass-finished animals also tend to have higher carbon footprints associated with their production due to their increase life span on high forage diets that result in more methane production. It is important to recognize that true sustainability is about every beef production method working to be more sustainable rather than comparing one system to another. 

The next step in the value chain is the animal itself. Drinking water for animals accounts for less than 1 percent of total consumptive water in beef production. Of that 1 percent, approximately 70 percent of drinking water is consumed in the cow-calf phase, 12 percent in the stocker phase and 18 percent in the feedlot. Such a large percentage is consumed in the cow-calf phase due to the cow, bull, and heifers necessary to get one market animal to slaughter. Put into the context of a consumer – to get one steer to the packer he has a mother, father and part of a heifer that will return to the herd (his sister) which all drink water as he moves through the value chain to eventually become beef for the consumer. 

The packing plant is the next water user in the beef value chain and is where water use gets just a little more complex. The major contribution to the water footprint for the packing plant is from pre-chain water consumption specifically related to corrugated cardboard used to package and ship beef to the retail and foodservice sectors of the supply chain. Also, direct consumptive water use occurs in packing plants and advances in wastewater recycling can drastically improve the water footprint of beef. 

In total, according to the 2013 beef industry sustainability life cycle assessment, one pound of boneless edible consumed beef requires 617 gallons of water to produce; 95 percent of which comes from irrigating forage and crops for feed. Since 2005, beef has reduced its water footprint by 3 percent by reducing irrigation water per unit of feed and increasing feed efficiencies, reducing packaging requirements, and new recycling technology in packing plants. Perhaps most important is that water is cleaner than ever before – since 2005 water quality has improved 10 percent. This improvement in water quality is a result of improved manure application, increased crop yields, increased feed efficiencies, packaging optimizations, and packing facilities wastewater emission reductions.

Conclusion

Water is one of the most complicated sustainability indicators to measure and compare due to the many methods of measurement. It is also extremely complex due to the differences in cattle management techniques across cattle-producing regions. However, as we continue to build more accurate databases that represent regional beef production, we will begin to tell a more comprehensive and transparent story about the water required to produce beef and will continue to build consumer confidence in beef.   

Additional Resources  

Tags: Beef Issues Quarterly, Issues Updates, Summer 2015

June 17, 2015