A two-year national project brings together representatives from each step in the beef value chain to communicate and collectively seek progress for the first time.
Squabbles in the backseat momentarily pause as a McDonald’s paper sack is passed through the driver’s window. Steam rises from the crinkling bag, filling the car with a savory aroma. Hamburgers are handed out, and bites are taken before the young family journeys on to piano lessons and sports practices.
It takes mere minutes to comfort a stomach’s grumbles and continue on with life. In the moment, to quench hunger and enjoy flavor are primary concerns. But once the rumble quiets, the minds of many eaters continue to roar. They question how their buying decisions affect the health of their families and the planet.
A hamburger wrapper holds the culmination of the entire beef industry’s efforts. There are ranchers, feeders, packers, processors and retailers who, together yet separately, move beef from pasture to plate. Each faces their own trials and triumphs. Each lives their own story of constant improvement, of doing more with less.
Integrity Beef Alliance members implement best management practices and keep detailed records. They raised the calves that are part of the national beef sustainability pilot project.
When a calf leaves a ranch, the rancher’s story ends while the feeder’s story is just beginning. When the feeder’s story comes to a close, the packer’s starts, and so on. Oftentimes, the lines of communication from stage to stage remain silent, and two-years-worth of effort and dedication goes unknown by the time a hamburger reaches the drive through.
“What’s left is disconnect between segments of industry and between producers and consumers,” says Chad Ellis, the Noble Research Institute’s industry relations and stewardship manager. “But really, each party strives to do its best. We all want to make tomorrow better than today, and we can do a better job of making progress if we work together to improve and to communicate our larger beef story.”
This is the aim of a two-year national industrywide pilot project focused on identifying ways to improve sustainability across the beef value chain.
About 2,300 head of cattle reached Beef Marketing Group (BMG)’s feedyard in central Kansas in December 2017.
A crew of cowboys settled the calves into their new home for the next six months. There, the calves will lounge around, eating a well-balanced diet formulated specifically to help them develop the intramuscular fat most Americans consider an essential part of a good steak. Or juicy hamburger.
This is daily work for BMG, a network of feedyards that works with local farmers and ranchers to maximize efficiency. But the cattle are part of the national beef sustainability pilot project, which began in 2017.
“Many times in our business we look at our role as feeding cattle or as raising calves and we don’t look at it in a way that is connected all the way to the consumer,” says John Butler, BMG CEO. “We really have a responsibility to do that.”
BMG and the other project partners, McDonald’s USA, Tyson Foods, the Noble Research Institute and Golden State Foods, are members of the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (USRSB), a national coalition that first convened in 2015. For the first time, through the USRSB, producer groups, processors, retailers, allied industry and civil society have come together to discuss what they do and why along with what sustainability means to them and how they seek improvement.
Integrity Beef Alliance members Meredith Ellis Ulibarri (center left) and her father, GC Ellis (center right), talk about raising beef cattle on their ranch, G Bar C Ranch, near Rosston, Texas, during a tour organized by McDonald’s.
“It’s an important conversation and one that needs to include voices from throughout the beef industry, especially those of producers,” says Ellis, who also serves as the Noble Research Institute’s USRSB representative. “If we don’t get involved, someone else will define sustainability for us.”
The group identified six indicators of sustainability: animal health and well-being, efficiency and yield, water resources, land resources, air and greenhouse gas emissions, and employee safety and well-being. Then each sector identified ways it can measure how it keeps these resources healthy. This self-direction, Ellis says, will be what makes the effort successful.
Now, through the pilot project, they are testing these metrics and sharing information throughout the chain in ways that have never been done.
For example, producer Meredith Ellis Ulibarri, one of the Integrity Beef Alliance ranchers who raised participating calves from birth, is looking forward to receiving information from the processor, Tyson Foods, about which calves produced the most desirable yield and quality meat. This information will help her family make better breeding and management decisions for their cow herd.
Eventually Golden State Foods will turn some of the meat into a portion of the 100 percent beef patties served by McDonald’s. The rest of the meat will be sold through the chain as conventional beef.
Full results are expected to be available in fall 2018.
“Being able to communicate up and down the supply chain is something we’ve never been able to do,” Ulibarri says. “Plus it will help us better communicate with consumers. I hear misconceptions people have about how we raise cattle, and I see their surprise when they learn about the ranch and realize it’s not what they thought. It’s a paradise here, and I see my job as caretaker of the land and animals. Being able to tell our story on such a huge platform as McDonald’s opens up a lot of opportunity. Only good can come from it, from my perspective.”
To improve the sustainability of the beef industry, all production levels must work together.
Here is how the beef sustainability project will work with its partners across the U.S.