Ontario beef relies on grasslands: pastures and hay fields. We can’t produce beef without grasslands, which are recognized by government and environmental groups as extremely valuable environmental features on par with wetlands and forests. We’re proud to be caretakers of Ontario’s grasslands, which do so much more than produce beef.

To better understand the impact of Ontario beef farming on the environment we invested in research to study and improve our environmental footprint. After all, Ontario’s beef farmers are specialists when it comes to cows and grass – they are intimately connected to the soil, water and wildlife on their farms. And sustainable food production matters to all of us.

The grasslands used for beef production serve as habitat to many species of wildlife, birds and pollinators, in addition to providing for soil health, water quality and carbon sequestration and storage. Let’s take a closer look at that research, which can get complicated but is well worth the review.

Grassland Birds

In Canada and around the world, grassland birds are currently experiencing a steep decline[1]. Since 1970, the population of grassland birds in Canada has plummeted by 57%[2]. In Ontario, the population of Bobolinks and Eastern Meadowlarks have declined by at least 77% and 62% respectively between the year 1970 and 2013[3]. Loss of grasslands to urban development and population growth are both cited as causes.

The good news is that more recently, habitat losses have been partially offset by pastures and hayfields on farms acting as surrogate habitats[4]. In fact, most of the nesting and breeding of grassland birds in Ontario and North America currently occur on hayfields and pastures[5]. One researcher says, “were it not for the creation of these agricultural habitats – pastures and hayfields- for livestock, the two species – Bobolinks and Meadowlark – may well have disappeared from large parts of their original range.”[6]

Pollinators

A similar situation presents itself when assessing the decline of pollinator populations in Ontario. Studies have shown that the bumblebee – one of the most threatened pollinator species in Southern Ontario – has experienced drastic declines in species richness, diversity and abundance over the years[7]. At least 13 out of 18 bumblebee species that occur in Ontario are listed as species in decline[8] and other pollinators like butterflies (e.g. the monarch butterfly) are experiencing similar declines[9].

As it turns out, agricultural grasslands, including hayfields and pastures, are one of the major sources of habitat for the threatened populations of pollinators[10]. In Ontario, many pollinators depend on grasslands for nesting and overwintering and are capable of surviving in surrogate habitats like those provided by agricultural grasslands. Sustainable grazing, a management technique used on beef farms, can make agricultural grasslands even more suitable for a wide range of pollinators, especially those at higher risk of extinction[11].

Climate Change

While emphasis has largely been placed on trees and forests for carbon sequestration and storage, the role that grasslands play in mitigating climate change is also vital[12]. Grasslands are estimated to contribute between 10-30% of the world’s soil carbon stock[13] – a percentage that is expected to increase with improved management. A recent study in California revealed that in the long term (over decades to centuries), grasslands serve as more robust carbon sinks than forest areas prone to drought and high risk of fires[14].

Recent analysis by the Beef Cattle Research Council has demonstrated that grasslands, where beef cattle graze, represent an important storage of carbon and may contain up to 200 tonnes of carbon per hectare. Carbon storage can also be increased if cropland is planted back to perennial pasture.

The production of beef cattle in Canada is also impressively efficient at less than half the world average. The carbon foot print of beef (without considering carbon sequestration potential in perennial pastures and hayfields) in northern Ontario has been calculated at 23.5 kg CO2eq kg-1 beef carcass weight and within 5% of the carbon footprint of beef produced in the southern Ontario production system (22.4 kg CO2eq kg-1 beef)[15]. The Beef Cattle Research Centre highlights a 15% reduction in greenhouse gases when comparing 1981 production data to 2011 production data.

It is well known that the largest source of greenhouse gas in beef production comes from the methane produced in the gastrointestinal tract, accounting for over 60% of total emissions. What’s interesting about ruminant methane emissions is that they are partially offset by grasslands. To better explain this let’s consider how methane breaks down into carbon dioxide and water. The carbon dioxide originates from grass in a cattle’s diet and can be absorbed back into plants. Add to this, new feeds that have been developed to reduce methane admitted from digestion, and it is clear greenhouse gas emissions are being addressed.

Water Quality

Water is an abundant resource in Canada but we also know it demands protection and care. There tend to be two pressing questions when it comes to beef production and water. How much water is used to produce beef? And how does beef production impact water quality?

Recent research has clarified that every kg of beef produced uses around 1,150 liters – 17% less than 30 years ago. And what’s interesting is that most of the water required is sourced through rainfall and recycled via feed and agricultural grasslands. Pasture and hayfields play a key role in recharging groundwater and maintaining watersheds while perennial roots and ground cover (really we are talking about grass here) help filter nutrients and reduce soil erosion.

Continuing the Conversation

The research (and the evidence on our farms!) is helping to tell an accurate story about the land used for beef production and the environmental benefits provided to the planet and to communities. Ontario beef farmers and the grasslands they manage play an important role in providing wildlife habitat, mitigating climate change, improving soil health and supporting biodiversity. To learn more, check out our other stories or contact us to talk, we would like to continue the conversation.


[1] McCracken et al., 2013

[2] North American Bird Conservation Initiative Canada, 2019

[3] McCracken et al., 2013

[4] Frei, Bennett, & Kerr, 2018; Kirk, Lindsay, & Brook, 2011; MacDonald, 2014; McCracken et al., 2013; A. Pintaric, 2018; A. L. Pintaric et al., 2019

[5] Brown & Nocera, 2017

[6] McCracken et al., (2013: V)

[7] Colla & Packer, 2008

[8] Colla, 2016

[9] Hogsden & Hutchinson, 2004; Pitman, Flockhart, & Norris, 2018

[10] Liczner & Colla, 2019

[11] Colla et al., 2012; Delaney et al., 2015

[12] Hui, Deng, Tian, & Luo, 2016

[13] Ghosh & Mahanta, 2014

[14] Dass et al., 2018

[15] Susantha Jayasundara and Claudia Wagner-Riddle, 2017

WANT TO KEEP READING?

Try one of these other great articles