Sara (Van Newkirk) Cover, who recently accepted a position with Greater Omaha Packing Company, an independent beef packing company in Omaha, Nebraska, said her company is focused on producing a high quality product, meaning she buys cattle of that quality and performed in the feedlot.
“Sustainability is a buzzword right now. Greater Omaha takes this seriously,” she said.
New equipment at the plant helps reduce water consumption by capturing steam from their boilers to preheat their water, for example.
“We were asked how our suppliers were sustainable. Our answer is: “we do business with smaller breeders. They use their own crops grown on the farm. Their food is not transported over long distances. They spread the manure on their fields,” she said.
“We know the consumer isn’t as informed about it, so our goal is to start sharing the story of our suppliers, without having them change anything,” she said. Cover said consumer data is “everywhere” when it comes to sustainability. “They don’t really know what that means. There’s a lot of information there. The data we have seen focuses on humane animal handling. We think our growers are doing a great job with this now, we don’t see it as a major area of concern, we just need to communicate the practices we currently use in the industry. Second, they want to know the environmental impact, and that’s something we’re constantly working on,” she said.
“I think agriculture in general is not recognized enough to know how far ahead we are in sustainability than some other industries. That’s really one of my jobs, is to start sharing our sustainability stories with our customers,” she said.
“Our producers are really efficient – they wouldn’t be in business if they weren’t. Our goal is to partner with them, not change their practices,” she said. Cover said she hopes to build relationships with cow-calf producers who raise the cattle that end up in local feedlots before being transported to Greater Omaha. Cover grew up on the Van Newkirk Hereford Ranch near Oshkosh, Nebraska, so the cow-calf business is nothing new to her.
“We pride ourselves on having good relationships with our suppliers,” she said. “About 75-80% of our purchases are on the spot market. I think breeders really appreciate that we are in the market every week. We are known for that,” she says.
Cover said she’s been working with UNL researchers to learn more about the beef industry’s methane production, carbon impacts, and more.
Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, Director of AgNext at Colorado State University, shared the 3 pillars of sustainability she focuses on: social, financial, and environmental impacts.
Stackhouse-Lawson, who was JBS USA’s director of sustainability, said the industry needs to establish individual baselines so growers know what their current environmental impact is and then learn how to make improvements. The cost of implementing a mitigation strategy could be offset by a premium program, she said. Because cattle operations across the country are so diverse, there is no “one size fits all” solution to the issue of sustainability, she said.
“AgNext is a leader in animal and ecosystem health research while improving supply chain profitability and serves as a hub for growers, industry partners and researchers to come together to innovate real-time solutions. for the sustainability of animal agriculture,” said Stackhouse-Lawson.
AgNext is in partnership with Fiver Rivers, LeValley Ranches, Farm Credit Services of America, Safeway/Albertsons, Rabobank, Beef Marketing Group and many others.
“When a producer asks me ‘how or where do I start?’ I tell them that efficiency metrics are the most important things we can track to demonstrate sustainability.” She thinks farmers need to record what she calls “evidence points” to establish a baseline. benchmark for their operation and then focus on “continuous improvement”.
Stackhouse-Lawson suggests tracking data on fertility rates, weaning and calving rates, daily feeder gain, and more. She also suggested producers develop or put on paper a pasture management plan that would demonstrate responsible production standards.
Collecting data helps growers make more informed decisions, she said. Although few incentive programs exist for this kind of effort today, she urges growers to make the effort because it will also help the grower in their operation.
“Farmers and ranchers have been sustainable for a long time focusing on efficiency and high quality land management, so we need to keep focusing on that and be able to keep improving,” he said. she declared. “If we measure and quantify these things, we should be able to make better decisions in the future,” she said.
Could small producers or independent producers be disadvantaged if and when restrictive policies are implemented in the United States? “There are a number of corporate, environmental and social sustainability commitments that have really grown stronger over time. These corporate commitments could have lasting impacts on the food system as we know it today,” she said. “We need to better understand how implementing these commitments could best transform our food supply chain and ensure that we inform this transformation with other important sustainability outcomes.”
Stackhouse-Lawson said recent research projects are producing accurate information regarding the beef industry’s impact on the climate. But sometimes researchers can’t measure data in real-world scenarios. For example, measuring actual methane emissions from cattle in a pasture or even in a feedlot has been very difficult. “We’re getting pretty close, and yet I would say the data is only going to get better,” she said. “I am confident that the data we have is accurate.”