1.4 The Environment

Environment Overview

Producers and their families pride themselves on being stewards of the land. The ranch is their home, their livelihood, their history and their future.

  • Quick Glossary
  • riparian

They strive to leave the land in better condition than they received it for future generations of producers. It is in both their moral and economic interest to take care of the land and continue to employ modern management practices on their farm or ranch. These best management practices vary from protecting riparian areas and waterfowl nesting sites to improving soil quality.

Environment Overview


Grazing and the Ecosystem

Grazing is an integral part of the grassland ecosystem and plays an important role in nutrient recycling. Pasture lands are important stores of carbon and provide habitat to many species at risk, as well as preservation of wetlands that otherwise may be subject to cultivation.

  • Quick Glossary
  • ruminant
  • aftermath
  • sward
  • Multiple Species at Risk (MULTISAR)
  • Ontario Environmental Farm Plan (EFP)
  • Cows and Fish

Grazing is a vital element of many species’ habitats in Canada. Grazing ruminant animals such as bison or cattle, have always been a natural component of grasslands.   Without a primary grazer such as cattle, many species would lose their ideal habitat. Grasslands are richly biodiverse and harbour many of Canada’s endangered or threatened species including the burrowing owl and the swift fox.

Plant communities rely on grazing for removal of aftermath, distribution of seeds and the provision of open niches that can increase sward biodiversity. Perennial forages reduce disturbance to prairie bird habitats and nesting sites for ducks and geese. Beef producers work with organizations such as Multiple Species at Risk (MULTISAR)Ontario Environmental Farm Plan (EFP),  and Cows and Fish to promote and protect the biodiversity found on their grazing lands. Producers may also restrict public access to these areas which decreases the amount of traffic disturbing and degrading habitats.

Grazing and the Ecosystem


Grazing Land vs. Crop Land

Not all agricultural lands are suitable for growing crops for human consumption. Some are too rocky or sandy, some lack adequate soil nutrient levels.

  • Quick Glossary
  • irrigation

Some land is located in areas with too short of a growing season and some areas do not receive adequate precipitation and do not have access to irrigation.   In Canada, one in every three acres of agricultural land is not suitable for growing crops but is suitable for grazing cattle.

These lands that are unsuitable for growing high quality crops are used for grazing or for producing lower quality feed grains for livestock consumption. By producing feed grains and pasture on these less productive land types, the agriculture industry is able to increase the agriculture land base in Canada dramatically. Cattle turn forages and low quality grains into a high quality protein source for human consumption.

Grazing Land vs. Crop Land


Nutrient Cycling on Grazing Lands

Pastures are an excellent example of nutrient recycling.

  • Quick Glossary
  • sequestered

Nutrient levels generally stay constant on grazing lands because the nutrients in the forages are consumed by cattle and then dispersed in the form of manure as cattle move throughout the pasture.  The only nutrients that leave the system are those that are in the form of beef; manure and residue forage remain on the land. Pastures are also important carbon stores as carbon is sequesteredin the roots of grasses and shrubs.

Nutrient Cycling on Grazing Lands


Feedlots and Resource Use

The majority of cattle in Canada are produced in a conventional system where they spend the majority of their life on grass before they are fed in feedlots.

Feedlots ensure efficient resource use through practices like feeding a ration containing high energy grains. With a higher energy diet, cattle gain weight more efficiently and this shortens the number of days to maturity. This results in significantly less feed, fertilizer, fuel, land and water used to produce the same amount of beef as well as reducing manure and greenhouse gases. Feedlots comply with environmental regulations by employing economically and ecologically sound practices and infrastructure, and are carefully monitored. Well-designed sloping pens and ditches drain into high capacity catch basins to protect surface water such as creeks and streams.  These sloping pens and ditches are just one of the many ways that feedlots manage their environmental footprint.

Feedlots and Resource Use


Reducing the Environmental Footprint

The beef production system does have implications for greenhouse gas production and water usage.

The primary greenhouse gases that are produced are methane from feed digestion, carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels for transportation and feed production, and nitrous oxide from excess quantities of nitrogen fertilizer applied to fields or excess nitrogen in rations.

There are many best management practices that are employed by beef producers to lower their environmental footprint when it comes to greenhouse gas production and water usage. Water is used in all levels of beef production from drinking water to sanitization. Water recycling and increasing production efficiencies result in a decrease in total water usage.  Soil nutrient testing and feed testing ensure that producers can feed balanced rations and apply appropriate amounts of manure and fertilizer to their fields and pastures without exceeding nitrogen requirements.

Proper pasture management results in healthy grasslands which play an important role in carbon sequestration and water filtration.  By incorporating feedlots into the production system, rate of weight gain improves and time to maturity shortens.  This results in lower methane production per pound of beef produced and reduces the environmental impact of cattle in Canada.

New practices and technologies are being constantly developed and utilized as a result of beef cattle research. Beef producers strive to continually reduce their environmental footprint while producing a high quality, safe and nutritious protein source.

Reducing the Environmental Footprint