Canadian beef cattle are using less water than they used to several decades ago.
It’s a trend that is expected to continue, says the Canadian beef industry based on a recently-completed study which found it takes 17 per cent less water to produce a pound of beef now than in 1981.
The reduction is partly from less water used to raise crops cattle are fed and partly from cow management.
The study was done by researchers at the University of Manitoba and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) Lethbridge.
It involved extensive data integration, modelling, and assessment of numerous factors associated with the water footprint of Canadian beef over a 30-year period, using the data-rich principal census years of 1981 and 2011 as the reference.
More can be gained through additional advances in feeding efficiencies and in reducing water requirements for feed crop and pasture production., the study says.
It is part of a larger project “Defining the Environmental Footprint of Canadian Beef Production”, which previously found similar reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and resource use intensities related to Canadian beef production over the same period.
“Our focus has been to develop an accurate assessment of the Canadian beef industry’s water footprint and how that is evolving with advances in production efficiencies,” said Dr. Tim McAllister, a research scientist at AAFC Lethbridge and one of the study’s principal investigators.
“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. There are also opportunities for continuous improvement through further advances. . .”
Drinking water consumed by cattle accounted for less than one per cent of total water use related to beef production, while feed production – i.e. water required, including rain, to grow pasture, crops or produce by-product feeds – accounted for 99 per cent of total water use related to beef production.
For crops, increased yields accounted for the water-use reduction. For cattle it was higher carcass weights, improved feed efficiency and growth rates.
“Water is a precious resource and Canadian beef producers are committed to supporting responsible water use across our production systems,” said Bryan Thiessen, manager of Namaka Farms near Strathmore, Alberta, and chairman of the Beef Cattle Research Council.
“Knowledge is critical. 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,” he said.