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Australian beef and environmental impact: 30 years of progress and innovation

Peer-reviewed research, published in Agricultural Systems, has quantified the environmental impacts of Australian beef production, using Life Cycle Assessment.

The Australian beef industry has reduced water use by 65% and emission intensity by 14% since 1981. Emissions due to land use change have fallen by 42%.

Key developments that have reduced the environmental impact and improved the productivity of Australian beef farmers include:

  • improved genetic selection of animals
  • heavier finishing weights
  • increased survival rates
  • capping of artesian bores
  • a decline in irrigation, and
  •  an increase in lot feeding since the early 1990s

Some of the most notable results include:

  • 65% reduction in consumptive water use, from 1465 litres/ kg LW to 515 litres / kg LW
  • 14% reduction in Green House Gas (GHG) emissions intensity, from 15.3 to 13.1 kg CO2-e / kg LW
  • 42% reduction in emissions associated with land use change, mainly due to vegetation protection and tree planting.  

How did Australian beef farmers achieve this improvement?

Most improvements were achieved through efficiency gains, including:

  • Heavier slaughter weights (474kg- 574kg) 13.5% on average
  • Increased growth rates of grass fed cattle
  • Improved survival rates (mortality rates declines from 4%-2.7%)
  • Greater numbers of cattle being finished on grain

What areas of cattle farming didn’t improve?

  • Despite great improvements across a number of areas, energy demand almost doubled from 6.3 to 11 MJ/kgLW as a result of intensification in the supply chain
  • The increased energy use was associated with the supply of higher quality cattle feed, resulting in improved livestock performance and associated reductions in livestock emissions, primarily enteric methane.
  • The reduction in livestock emissions was considerably greater than the increase in carbon dioxide from energy use.
  • The rise in energy use is mainly due to an increase in supplementary feeding on farm and feedlot production
  • The industry continues to investigate ways to reduce energy use including the adoption of renewable energy sources on many farms and in feedlots. Feedlots are also implementing energy saving technologies such as extracting energy from manure and effluent and recycling energy where possible.

Is there room for further improvements in the Australian beef industry?

  • Due to the seasonal conditions over the 5 year period from 2010 when data for this study ended it is likely that further improvements will have occurred, particularly with emissions, water use and also land use change
  • There are also areas with potential for improvement into the future, such as:
    • Improvement in reproductive performance, which would reduce impacts across a number of areas
    • Further reductions in water use may come from capping remaining GAB bores in western districts.  If the trend towards higher costs for water continues, further decreases in irrigation water are likely.
    • Further reductions in methane production as a result of continued research are possible

How does Australian cattle farming compare to the rest of the world?

  • There aren’t any studies available that enable a direct comparison to this study, however similar trends have been observed in other major beef producing countries such as the US and Canada
  • There are some areas where Australia performs better, such as we produce lower amounts of nitrous oxide, but there are also areas where we do not perform as well such as productivity, which is largely due to our variable climate
  • Water is an area where Australia looks to perform more efficiently.  Over time we have massively reduced the water we use.

Does beef still has the biggest impact of any food product?

  • All food production has an environmental impact and across many of the indicators beef does have a higher impact. 
  • However with the world’s growing appetite for high quality protein Australia needs to look at what it is most suited to producing.  With enormous areas of land that can’t be cropped, the most efficient and in many cases only option is grazing cattle and sheep to produce high quality food for the world.s growing population

Research overview

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About the authors

Steve Wiedemann

Steve Wiedemann is an Australian agricultural scientist with extensive expertise in the field of livestock research, including water analysis, greenhouse gas emissions research, nutrient management research and life cycle assessment.  His publications in the area of life cycle assessment include industry first Australian studies on beef and lamb, pork, chicken meat and eggs. Steve is a member of the Livestock Environmental Assessment and Performance (LEAP) partnership led by the United Nations FAO, where he contributes as an expert for the large ruminants and poultry technical working groups. Steve is a member of the International Technical Working Group for sheep and wool LCA, co-ordinated by the International Wool and Textiles Organisation (IWTO). Outside the field of LCA, Steve has an advisory role to the Australian Government Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency in developing and reviewing GHG abatement technologies for the dairy, beef and sheep industries.  Steve is also leading research in GHG measurement (co-funded by the Australian Government and industry) and the development of methodologies for the Australian Emissions Reduction Fund, a scheme enabling livestock producers to generate and sell carbon credits for mitigating GHG. 

Associate Professor Beverley Henry

Assoc. Professor Beverley Henry is a Principal Research Fellow in the Institute for Future Environments at Queensland University of Technology, and an agricultural consultant. She has almost 30 years’ experience working in academic, government and livestock industry bodies on research areas that include managing for climate variability, climate change, sustainable land management, livestock production and food security.  She participates in advisory and technical groups for several national and international organisations including the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, International Standards Organisation and the International Wool Textile Organisation. 

Eugene McGahan

Eugene McGahan is an agricultural engineer who works for FSA Consulting in Toowoomba.  Eugene’s work focuses on environmental sustainability issues for intensive livestock industries, including: undertaking industry-specific research to provide solutions to particular environmental challenges; assessing the environmental performance of individual farms; designing and providing environmental management training; and developing industry environmental and planning guidelines and codes of practice. He has consulted widely with the beef feedlot, dairy, piggery, egg and meat chicken industries.

Tim Grant

Tim Grant is a specialist in life cycle assessment (LCA) with sixteen years experience developing and applying LCA with a wide range of companies and organisations.  He is the Director of Life Cycle Strategies Pty Ltd and an Adjunct Research Fellow with CSIRO Division of Marine and Atmospheric Research.  Tim was founding member and president of the Australian Life Cycle Assessment Society (ALCAS), and is chairman of the Technical Committee of the Australia Life Cycle Database Initiative (AUSLCI). He is a co-author of the book Life Cycle Assessment: Practices Principles and Prospects (CSIRO, 2009) and previously contributed to Design + Environment: A Global Guide to Designing Greener Goods (Greenleaf, 2001). Tim works across many different sectors in LCA including agriculture, energy, fuels, water products, buildings and waste management. In addition, he has worked on the development of LCA databases for Australia. He is also a member of the international editorial board and the Australian geographical editor for the ecoinvent LCA database.

Caoilinn Murphy

Caoilinn Murphy is a chemical engineer with a masters in Sustainable Energy and Green Technologies.  The primary focus of Caoilinn’s work is life cycle assessment (LCA) for intensive livestock industries. Caoilinn has carried out LCA research investigating GHG emissions, energy use, fresh water consumption and land occupation for the beef, lamb, pork and meat chicken industries.

Dr Geoffrey Niethe

Since graduating in 1974, Geoff worked for 12 years for the NT government in the development and successful implementation of Brucellosis and TB eradication programs. He obtained his Masters in Productive Herd Health & Management at the University of Melbourne and was appointed Principal Animal Production Officer with the Department in Darwin.  In 1988 he was appointed Director of the University of Queensland’s Pastoral Veterinary Centre at Goondiwindi where he lectured in Beef Cattle Medicine and Production to veterinary students and supervised postgraduate training in pastoral herd management.  He has consulted both interstate and overseas and spent 2 years in Turkey establishing a successful lot feeding operation for McDonalds. Geoff was president of the Australian Association of Cattle Veterinarians (1994/95) and national president of the Australian Veterinary Association (1998/99).