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S.D. cattlemen ponder sustainability

PIERRE, S.D. -- In a world of volatile prices and regulation, the South Dakota Cattlemen's Association is working to make sure the environment is friendly to beef producers.

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A cattle feeders subgroup discusses research on the effects of manure in water quality at the South Dakota Cattlemen's Association's 67th annual convention and trade show in Pierre, S.D. Photo taken Dec. 9, 2015, in Pierre, S.D. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)

PIERRE, S.D. -- In a world of volatile prices and regulation, the South Dakota Cattlemen's Association is working to make sure the environment is friendly to beef producers.

At their 67th SDCA convention and trade show Dec. 9 in Pierre, more than 250 attendees heard from a wide variety of speakers, ranging from the group's desire for full repeal of federal Country of Origin Labeling laws, to property taxes and state education funding. The mood is still optimistic, but price volatility and industry opposition are worrisome.

One of the speakers was Tim Hardman, the beef director of the World Wildlife Fund, which has a board seat on the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. The USRSB is a concept in which the cattle industry hopes to have a bigger voice in the sustainability debate.

Hardman said the board includes stakeholders such as producers, processors, retailers, food service operators, packers and associated industry and non governmental people. The goal of the roundtable today is agreeing on "three pillars" -- environmentally sound, socially responsible and economically viable.

Hardman described how the group will develop "sustainability indicators" and how it is working to establish voluntary, verification methods for those indicators. The group will collect real world "practical" data and look to demonstrate its principles.

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The USRSB wants to balance social, economic and environmental demands with feeding the world "while conserving natural resources, reducing waste and preserving biodiversity," he said.

Beef benchmarks

Some producers at the convention openly questioned the motives of WWF, which is tied to the issue of conserving natural resources, including protecting grasslands. The WWF is headquartered in Washington, D.C., but has a global priority place in the Northern Great Plains. The WWF was established in the 1940s and is now represented in 100 countries with support from 1.2 million members in the U.S. and 5 million globally.

One of WWF's projects is the Sustainable Ranching Initiative, established in 2011, which works to develop productive dialog between conservation interests and the ranching community.

"The cross-cutting goal we're both driven by is maintaining grasslands to make sure ranching stays viable and sustainable," Hardman said.

Hardman said the USRSB is coming together to "establish metrics and criteria" which will help create "benchmarks" to measure improvements for sustainability in beef. The WWF interest in the project stems from its Living Planet Report that is updated every two years.

The latest report in 2014 said that in the course of a year, because of consumption patterns, "one and a half times the earth's natural resources are used globally," Hardman said. The world is "drawing on natural resources stores," he said, and the food industry is challenged by some of its land and water use, as well as greenhouse gas emissions.

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"I don't want to say that's worse, in connection to food, but these are some of the impacts that food production and processing have on natural resources," he said.

Heavy hitters

The USRSB board includes the WWF and other heavy-hitters, including Cargill, Beef Marketing Group, Texas Cattle Feeders Association, Micro Technologies, Merck Animal Health, JBS USA, McDonald's, Wal-Mart, The Nature Conservancy, Noble Foundation and King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management. The organization has 95 members, including the above, as well as state cattle organizations from Colorado, Florida, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Oregon and Texas.

The South Dakota Cattlemen's Association and the North Dakota Stockmen's Association are not members, yet. Cost is an issue, with memberships at $500 for individual producers. Groups are charged based on gross revenue -- $1,000 for groups under $2 million to $5,000 for groups with more than $10 million in gross revenue.

Jodie Anderson, executive director of the SDCA, said some producers "raise eyebrows" over some conservation groups, but support conservation as a rule. "The fact that there are so many beef producer groups involved," gives them comfort. It's important to be at the same table with groups like the WWF, so we can move forward on the things we do agree on," Anderson said.

Global principles

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USRSB uses principles and criteria for sustainability established in November 2014 by the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef in Brazil. Neither the GRSB nor the USRSB will mandate or verify performance of participants in the program, Hardman said. It is "pre-competitive," meaning it doesn't give one company a labeling advantage over another, and is "technology-neutral," meaning it doesn't endorse organic, natural, grass-fed or other systems.

Nations or regions with similar roundtables include Brazil, Canada, Columbia, Mexico and the U.S. The WWF is linked with some of those, Hardman said.

Some producer organizations in Australia have opposed the roundtables, worrying about alignment with groups like the World Wildlife Fund.

Troy Hadrick, a western South Dakota cattleman and blogger, called the effort a waste of time and breath, as did Trent Loos, a broadcaster and rancher from Nebraska. Cattlemen have already proven they are sustainable because of longevity and results, Loos said. Hardman said longevity is "only one measure of sustainability."

Todd Wilkinson, president of the SDCA, said one of the important issues South Dakota cattlemen are facing is the potential of changes in rules regarding manure application. He urged producers to be aware of hearings on standard general permitting processes. A hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m., Dec. 16, at the South Dakota Agriculture Department in Pierre. Some members of the public that are trying to influence the rules would like to see livestock operators "put out of business," Wilkinson said.

Related Topics: AGRICULTURE
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