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Beef. It’s What’s for Your Sustainable Summer Barbecue

Enjoying burgers, brisket, and shish kebabs is more eco-conscious than you think.

Presented by National Cattlemen's Beef Association, a Contractor to the Beef Checkoff By Ben McBee for Seattle Met March 29, 2021

The Derting family, cattle ranchers outside of Ephrata, Washington

Image: Staci Faw

It’s so close you can almost taste it: those glorious months when the gray has gone away. Pretty soon, rain jackets will be cast aside, and across Seattle backyards, so will grill covers. After more than a year cooped up inside, soaking in the sunshine and savoring the sound of steaks sizzling on the grill is going to feel like heaven.

But before you experience beef in its natural habitat (on your plate, cooked to perfection), it might help to explore its true provenance: the cattle ranches of Washington, where modernized practices are pushing sustainability to new frontiers in the industry. There’s nothing like science—and hearing directly from the source—to ease your mind about the myths surrounding the meat.

Ranchers are able to use food waste—including corn stalks, leftover brewing grains, and unattractive fruits and vegetables—to satisfy the diet of their herds.

Image: Staci Faw

Upcycling leftovers into nutrition

Cattle are composting superstars, and beef actually helps mitigate the negative impacts of the other dishes and drinks you might find on a potluck table. Producing the golden corn-on-the-cob, crispy French fries, delicious apple pie, and ice cold beer that we all love comes with unwanted byproducts that might well end up in a landfill, if not for cattle.

Ranchers are able to use food waste—including corn stalks, leftover brewing grains, and unattractive fruits and vegetables—to satisfy the diet of their herds. This returns stored nutrients to the earth, fertilizing the grass that feeds additional bovines.

When you consider that cattle turn refuse into high-quality protein our bodies need, it’s hard not to be amazed. In the past, beef has received a bad rap, thanks in large part to America’s misguided love affair with processed foods, but in light of recent studies, the red meat scare looks more like a false flag. As a valuable source of vitamins, minerals, and many essential nutrients, including lean beef in a well-balanced diet has been shown to support heart health by helping to maintain healthy cholesterol and blood pressure levels.

"We need to be on the forefront of sustainability to take care of these pastures," says Will Derting.

Image: Staci Faw

Stewards of the soil

Of all the beef farms and ranches across the country, 90% are family-owned, built upon generations of expertise and an intimate connection to the land. Will and Nicole Derting, owners of Post 5 Cattle Company outside of Ephrata, Washington, understand well that sustainability and the success of their livelihood go hand in hand.

“Here, we don’t have huge amounts of available land like they do in the Sandhills of Nebraska or Montana,” Will says. “We also have a lot less rainfall than they do farther east. So, we need to be on the forefront of sustainability to take care of these pastures.”

Through thoughtful orchestration of grazing patterns, they are able to nourish their herd while keeping the ground in peak condition for future seasons. At the start of each year, the Dertings work with the region’s main cash-crop farms, mapping out a schedule for when Post 5’s cattle can visit and essentially clean up any leftover plant matter after the harvest. In turn, the farmers can reduce their use of synthetic fertilizer, plus it saves them hours on the tractor.

“We do a lot of crop residue, but we’re also grazing some pretty rocky ground all over Central Washington—land that’s not usable for anything else, period,” Nicole adds. “It’s not farmable, but as a cow-calf operation we can stock it, and we graze off that dry fuel that would otherwise probably start a fire at some point.”

The culmination of the Dertings’ hard work is tasty, responsibly raised beef. But more than that, it’s about leaving a legacy for their three young children, so that if they want to someday graze their own cows, they will be able to.

Some of the Dertings' herd greet the day.

Image: Staci Faw

Methane misconceptions

It’s true: cows belch. Yet beef cattle account for only two percent of direct emissions in the U.S. And unlike carbon dioxide, methane exists in the atmosphere for 12 years before breaking down, so when it’s expelled at a steady (or even declining) rate, there isn’t any accumulation.

Still, some scientists are working to stop methane at its source—the trillions of microbes in each cow’s gut. Other technologies designed to capture and repurpose warming pollutants are being implemented with promising results; anaerobic digesters, for example, can break down manure, converting it to natural gas and, eventually, electricity.

The next generation of stewards of the land in Washington cattle country

Image: Staci Faw

The most impressive advancement in the field is the beef community’s optimization of breeding and nutrition to make the entire production process increasingly efficient. Today, the U.S. produces 18% of the world’s beef with just 6% of the world’s cattle. This is testament to the dedication of cattle farmers and ranchers, like the Derting family, to continuous improvement and stewardship of the land.

So, as you gather around the grill this summer, you can feel good about the delicious beef you are enjoying.

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