Research shows water usage in beef production declined 17 percent over 30 years

Cattle crowd around a dugout in Alberta. | Photo by Debra Murphy

A new study published by researchers from the University of Manitoba and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada – Lethbridge has found a 17 percent reduction in the total water required to produce 1kg of beef in Canada, from 1981 to 2011.

The findings, published in the peer-reviewed journal Science of the Total Environment, looked at water use for: feed and pasture crop production; feeding systems; meat processing; and direct consumption by cattle. It also took evapotranspiration (the combination of evaporation from land and plant transpiration) from lands used for beef production into account.

Water use intensity of Canadian beef production in 1981 as compared to 2011

“A number of factors have driven this progress,” says 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.”

The group used 679 weather stations across the country to access evapotranspiration in the study that is among the most advanced globally, according to the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef and the Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC).

Of the total drinking water used for beef production, one percent is used as drinking water by cattle, while 99 percent goes towards growing the pasture, crops or by-product feeds.

While the study determined total water usage declined by 17 percent over thirty years, “blue water” (surface and ground water) use declined 20 percent.

“Our results show very clearly 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,” says Tim McAllister, a research scientist at AAFC Lethbridge and one of the study’s principal investigators. “There are also opportunities for continuous improvement through further advances in support of highly efficient Canadian beef production.”

This knowledge is critical, notes Bryan Thiessen, BCRC chair. “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.”

The study is part of a larger project, Defining the Environmental Footprint of Canadian Beef Production, expected to be completed in spring 2018.

 

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