The beef industry faces emerging challenges on several fronts, from wrestling with its role in climate change to increased competition from plant-based proteins. But ranchers and advocates for one of the state’s most important economic drivers remain bullish on beef’s future.
In Kansas, where the cattle population is more than double the human population, beef is a lot more than “what’s for dinner.”
It’s one of the state’s biggest economic engines, with cattle ranching, animal slaughter and carcass processing, meatpacking and further processing of meat products employing more than 82,000 people and generating almost $20 billion annually, according to statistics from the Kansas Departments of Agriculture and Labor.
It’s also a meal ticket that is facing daunting challenges on multiple fronts. From drought and wildfires to floods and bomb cyclones to EF5 tornadoes in December, there’s evidence that climate change poses a real risk to the future of the planet.
Most recently, a June heat wave that saw the temperature jump from below 80 to 100-plus is being blamed for killing thousands of cattle in Kansas.
Animal agriculture isn’t just impacted by the weather tumult created by climate change. It also faces increasing scrutiny for its role in contributing to greenhouse gas emissions that are causing that change. A growing interest in plant-based protein alternatives, which are becoming increasingly palatable to some consumers, represents another threat to the industry’s place at the dinner table as the so-called meatless burger has moved from the natural-food store to the fast-food drive-thru.
The challenges merge in the marketing of companies such as Impossible Foods. The California-based company and its competitors, which create meat substitutes from plant materials, claim that eating meat contributes more to climate change than the use of fossil fuels.
The company’s sales pitch clearly has younger consumers and climate activists in mind. By removing animals from the food chains, it says its products simultaneously ratchet up the health of buyers and the planet. New technology gives the taste and texture of meat to plant-based protein, allowing the Impossible Burger to rapidly gain market share while its competitor, Beyond Meat, makes strides as well.
The Impossible Foods website states one of its primary goals as “ending animal agriculture by 2035,” an unrealistically lofty but rhetorically powerful goal that would require a nearly unfathomable boost in production in just a 13-year time frame.
Beyond production costs, the plant-based protein manufacturers will have to come up with a way to bring down the price to the consumer before they can make a big increase in sales. A package of two Beyond Meat patties sells for about $5.99 in Kroger and Walmart stores. For the same price, you can buy a full pound of lean ground beef – enough to make double the number of patties. Consumers who buy in bulk can save even more.
The cost for sourcing plant protein is high because commonly used plants such as peas and kava beans are only being produced in a few countries and sold around the globe, according to a study conducted by Thinking Foods, a food and nutrition consulting company based in India. The cost of processing plant proteins to achieve a meat-like texture is also high.
Still, Dennis Woodside, president of Impossible Foods, says prices have come down twice in the last 18 months with the drop each time between 15% and 20%. And he points out the price now is only a little higher than organic, grass-fed beef. He predicts that as demand grows and the company is able to produce in larger quantities, prices will come down more.
At Beyond Meat, the goal is to produce at least one meat alternative product that is below the price of competing meat by 2024.
Supply chain issues and labor shortages are something both meat alternatives and the real thing have in common. Prices for beef are also up significantly as a result.
A big challenge for the beef industry will come when and if meat alternatives reach a price point that allows them to capture the consumers looking for the best bargain to maintain or add protein to their diet.
At this point, data from the American Meat Institute suggests that consumer confidence in beef remains high.
Beyond playing defense
But what would such a challenge mean for a state like Kansas, where beef production and consumption is both an intricately woven economic system and a marker of a way of life for many?
For the 34,000 people who live and work on the 26,740 farms in Kansas where cattle and calves are raised, ranching is about a lot more than the economic statistics. One response to dealing with the twin challenges posed by climate change and plant-based protein is to spend time and money fighting back. Another is to change production practices to reduce the climate footprint and increase the bottom line.
For the most part, veteran producers and industry leaders say they are confident that plant-based protein will not decimate the meat industry, if only because matching the volume of beef, pork, poultry and lamb consumed annually is a feat unlikely to be accomplished.
“If you consider the land, people, water and resources it would take and the marketing effort to convince millions of people to change their diet, they aren’t going to end animal agriculture,” says Flint Hills rancher Debbie Lyons-Blythe, one of Kansas’ best-known cheerleaders for beef and a founding member and chairperson of the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. “But they can do damage to the image of the industry and erode consumer trust and confidence. We have to be ready to fight misinformation and defend our industry.”
In recent decades, the beef industry in Kansas has not only weathered threats but thrived. The sector has had to contend with human health concerns over fat, cholesterol and heart health; animal welfare questions; economic volatility; and environmental impacts. In 2022, beef demand is strong and growing stronger as more people in more parts of the world gain enough wealth to improve their diets, which almost always means adding protein.
One of the top industry fighters is the U.S. Roundtable, which was formed in 2015 to bring together producers, suppliers, processors, retailers and civil society organizations including academics, non-government and non-commercial institutions, foundations and others with a stake in the “beef value chain.” The goal is to provide information that could help producers improve their operations and become more sustainable.
At the time the Roundtable was organized, animal welfare was a major issue, Lyons-Blythe says, along with employee safety and well-being. Producers were concerned about efficiency and yield and the need to improve the use of water and land resources as well as improving air quality and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Working together, the partners in the Roundtable have made progress on improving the consistency of quality beef and in helping cattle producers identify and adopt practices that keep animals healthier, increasing the pounds of beef produced and expanding practices such as rotational grazing and grass finishing that help lower the industry’s environmental footprint.
In April, the Roundtable voted to set a goal of 100% climate neutrality by 2040, a goal that is technologically on track to be possible. But Lyons-Blythe says it will require serious buy-in by all segments and some “difficult conversations.”
Mark Gardiner, a fourth-generation rancher committed to continuous improvement of Angus genetics, raises cattle on 43,500 acres of native grass pasture, 4,000 acres of grazing wheat and about 1,000 acres of alfalfa and prairie hay in Clark and Comanche counties in arid southwest Kansas.
The Gardiner Ranch is a fourth-generation family operation that began as a 160-acre homestead in 1885. It was Mark’s father, Henry Gardiner, who set the stage for expansion. He was an innovator dedicated to using every technique available to improve cattle genetics. Mark took over management of day-to-day operations in 2000 and has grown the ranch into one of the largest AI and embryo transfer beef operations in the world, making more than 3,500 transfers per year.
But like many large ranching operations in Kansas, the whole Gardiner family is involved in the business. Mark’s wife, Eva, is a licensed veterinarian. Mark’s brothers, Greg and Garth, are part of the operation as are Mark and Eva’s sons, Cole and Ransom, and a nephew, Grant. Their youngest son, Quanah, is in his third year at the University of Kansas and plans to teach nearby and contribute to the ranching operation as well.
Mark says the industry has come a long way in the last 25 years to produce a nutritious, high-quality product. He said he thinks plant-based proteins will find an audience but that the demand for beef will continue to grow as well.
“I think beef is the world’s greatest protein and we are blessed to be able to use land that can’t be used to grow crops to raise ruminant animals that can turn grass into high quality food,” he said. “We need to be aware of the competition, but our main focus needs to be where it has been for the last two decades: on making our product better than ever.”
In sync with nature
Mark Lohrding is the fourth generation of his family to raise cattle in southwest Kansas. His ranching operation also sprawls across Comanche and Clark counties. He says his operation is often called sustainable, but he prefers the term “adaptive” when talking about his ranching methods.
Several years ago, he quit grain farming and moved his entire operation to grazing land, utilizing a range of cool season and warm season cover crops to provide forage. He says the sandy soils of the shortgrass prairie just aren’t meant for row cropping.
“I try to stay in sync with nature and control my input costs,” he says. “My cows calve later in the spring. I try to do everything I can to increase the health of the soil. I had a visitor tell me that his world is based on diesel fuel, and my world is based on sunshine and what rain I can capture. I thought that was about as good a compliment as I could get.”
Lohrding says working in sync with nature means changing stocking patterns depending on the weather. His expectation of drought this summer led him to lease an additional 1,200 acres of pastureland and decrease the size of his herd by 250 cows.
“I’m planning 20 acres per cow this summer versus 11 or 12 last year,” he says. “You have to be out in front of it. The weather pattern we’re looking at reminds me too much of 2011 and 2012.”
Lohrding does direct marketing of some cattle from the ranch and is currently involved in a research project involving the raising of six registered cattle, finishing three on grain and three on grass. They will be sold to a New York farm-to-plate restaurant that will test them for nutritional quality, taste and tenderness.
“I think it will be interesting to see what they learn,” he says. “I think as an industry we have to be willing to explain what we do and how we do it. A large portion of the western U.S. is land that is not suitable for growing food that humans can eat, especially without irrigation. But we can grow nutrient-dense, delicious human food by raising livestock on that land. More and more consumers of my product care about the health of the soil and the welfare of those animals.”
He said he is hopeful that some of the lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic will result in more options for processing. “We’ve got four big packers, three of them with substantial foreign investors,” he says. “We put in all these standards trying to ensure that the food would be safe and healthy. But meeting all those requirements pushed a lot of smaller processors out of the market. I’d like to see some changes that would give producers more options when selling their product.”
What’s in a name?
From an industry standpoint, the fight for beef is centered on protecting recognizable names for animal products, such as burger, roast or chicken nuggets.
Aaron Propelka, vice president of legal and government affairs for the Kansas Livestock Association, says the industry is using beef checkoff dollars to fund a campaign to defend the environmental footprint of the cattle industry and to fight for laws prohibiting plant-based protein products from being labeled as meat.
He said the industry will insist on labeling that makes it clear that plant-based proteins are plant products.
The Kansas Legislature passed a law this year requiring disclaimers on plant-based protein alternatives to meat.
“Consumers associate words like burger with beef,” he said. “This is not a burger. They can call it a patty, but not a burger.”
Propelka says defending the carbon footprint of agriculture, especially animal agriculture, is also in the works.
“The industry does have validated studies that measure the carbon footprint of agriculture, both in crop and animal production and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has estimated the impact of agriculture on emissions as about 10% and the footprint of animal agriculture as negligible,” Propelka says.
The EPA numbers, however, come from estimates of the carbon footprint of agriculture in the U.S., where there has been little change in land use for generations and big changes in farm practices such as converting to no-till and cover crops are ongoing.
But the World Research Institute points out that beef is a global commodity just as climate change is a global problem. A higher demand for beef around the world is encouraging deforestation in South America as more land is cleared to raise cattle and grow feed for them. Converting forestland to row crops is especially damaging because burning, the classic method of clearing land, releases vast amounts of carbon stored in tree trucks, branches and leaves into the atmosphere and because row crops don’t store as much carbon as land covered with native vegetation.
Estimates of the beef carbon footprint internationally put it at the oft-quoted 17% of greenhouse gas emissions by factoring in the emissions created by land use changes, including the clearing of the Amazon rainforest, which if not stopped could lead to a climate calamity.
But unless those estimates account for land use, they only paint a partial picture, according to the World Research Institute. That’s because an acre of land devoted to food production doesn’t store as much carbon as one with native vegetation.
Yet despite the often-contentious relationships between environmentalists and the animal-agriculture industry, and the high-stakes messaging battles between plant-based protein and beef industries, the answer to the world’s nutrition and climate challenges is more likely to be “yes and” rather than “either/or.”
Becoming part of the solution
Experts see a variety of ways for ranchers to reduce their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions: improving efficiency and productivity, reducing methane emissions, improving manure management, and helping stabilize and sequester carbon in vegetation and soils.
Ruminant grazing is not only essential to maintaining the prairie ecosystem, but permanent grasslands are an effective and lasting carbon sink that rivals even long-established forests, especially in areas such as California where climate change is resulting in more and more wildfires, according to a study conducted by the University of California-Davis. Growing plants capture carbon and store it in root systems deep in the soil. Meanwhile, burning of grasslands, whether by prescribed burn or wildfire, effects only the dry vegetation on top of the soil and leaves most of the carbon stored. Trees draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and then store that carbon. A forest fire releases all that stored carbon back into the atmosphere. Fallen trees decay and release carbon back as well.
Rotational grazing of cover crops on land used for growing grain is also a critical piece of the regenerative agricultural practices that are gaining favor across the U.S., because either leasing the land for grazing or profiting from the sale of cattle helps make cover cropping for carbon sequestration more profitable.
“Rotational grazing of cover crops reduces, or over time eliminates, the need for chemical inputs for fertilizer or weed control,” says Gabe Brown, a consultant with Understanding Ag, a company that teaches farmers about regenerative agriculture. Brown consults on several projects designed to measure carbon sequestration from changes in farming practices and pay farmers for implementing them.
Plant-based food proponents blame beef
Proponents of plant-based alternatives paint a different picture of beef’s effects on the climate. The folks at Impossible Foods say that meat from animals is less healthy than protein from plants and that beef production is harming the environment and worsening climate change. They cite the volume of land use and water consumption as two of the main ways in which the beef industry damages the environment.
Producing one pound of Impossible meat substitute, they contend, uses 87% less water, requires 96% less land and produces 89% less greenhouse gas than producing a pound of hamburger from cattle. Company founder Pat Brown says his company’s product looks and tastes like meat and is comparable in nutrition.
In recent years, fueled by the success of Burger King’s Impossible Whopper, the company has grown rapidly in the food service industry and its products are showing up in more and more grocery aisles. Its competitor in the plant-based protein market, Beyond Meat, started out concentrating on the food retail industry and is now moving into food service and finding success with its plant-based alternative to chicken nuggets. Both companies have added faux sausage to their product lines in the last year.
At the end of 2021, Impossible Foods was producing about 500,000 pounds of ground beef substitute every month, or 6 million pounds annually. Meanwhile, Americans consumed about 9 billion pounds of hamburger and an additional 18.5 billion pounds of other beef cuts.
The “meat-taste” ingredient of the Impossible Burger is heme, a type of plant hemoglobin, which was discovered on the roots of soybean plants. But production of the Impossible Foods product doesn’t require the harvesting of vast amounts of soybean roots. Instead, scientists have created a genetically engineered yeast that can be fermented to mass produce heme.
The patties also include potato protein, soy protein, sunflower oil, coconut oil, food starch and methyl cellulose, although the website descriptions of ingredients do not break down the portions, and there are no statistics on total amounts of plant protein used for a year’s worth of production. That makes it difficult to calculate what the carbon footprint of total production would be.
The challenge of a depleting aquifer
One challenge both plant and animal agriculture face together in southwest Kansas, where three of the big four packers, Cargill, National Beef and Tyson have processing plants, is the steady depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer, the only freshwater source for most of the region.
Farmers and ranchers are girding themselves for continued drought after several years of above-average rainfall. Last year brought a summer with no rainfall for much of the year and the Kansas Geological Survey reports the biggest drop in the Ogallala Aquifer in six years, an overall drop of 1.2 feet and a much steeper 2.6 feet in southwest Kansas.
While municipalities and industries use some water from the aquifer, the overwhelming use is to irrigate crops and raise livestock. Irrigated land sells at higher prices than dryland, creating a 53% difference between the value of irrigated land over dryland, a $3.8 billion difference, a recent study from Kansas State University found. USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service listed sales from eight western Kansas counties overlying the aquifer at $4.7 billion, about one third of the total agriculture revenue in the entire state.
K-State professor of agricultural economics Nathan Hendricks, one of the authors of that study, says that $3.8 billion differential can also be used as a value for the underlying water.
That price difference, in turn, has a major impact on tax revenue that counties and cities receive. Beyond land values, crop production and livestock management support local businesses when farmers purchase materials and services.
“One concern with the aquifer is depletion over time,” says Gabe Sampson, Hendricks’ partner in the report. “The best way to look at the valuation of that depletion is to look at small changes in water stocks over time, or what is called saturated thickness.” Hendricks says that hydrologists have predicted what saturated thickness is likely to do over the next 30 years if farmers and ranchers remain on the same path they are on now.
“Under that simulation, we expect that in Kansas, the returns to land are expected to decrease by $34.1 million annually by 2050,” Hendricks says. “That is because we are going to have less saturated thickness in 2050.”
That simulation assumes that farmers and livestock feeders do nothing to slow the depletion of the aquifer and no changes are made to water management. Efforts are underway to try to extend to the resource’s useful life.
Legislation in 2012 allowed the creation of Local Enhanced Management Areas. LEMAs allow farmers to create a binding agreement to voluntarily reduce water usage by a specified percentage. The first LEMA, the Sheridan Six, saw six producers agree to a 20% reduction. Their effort was so successful that the LEMA was expanded to cover all of Groundwater Management District No. 4 in 2020. Since then two more LEMAs have been formed and more are being discussed.
In 2016, with help from K-State, western Kansas farmer Tom Willis established the first of what are now 15 water technology farms across Kansas, testing the impact that technologies such as soil moisture probes, variable rate irrigation and mobile drip irrigation could have in reducing the pull on the aquifer.
Changes in the way cattle are finished could also be part of a water use mitigation strategy. If pumping water to grow corn becomes cost prohibitive, the feeding ration can be tweaked to use less water-intensive grains such as wheat or milo.
Data Specialist Brownie Wilson of the geological survey says that stopping irrigation to halt the drop in the aquifer would have the same impact on land values as depleting it.
“The value of water is in being able to use it,” he says.
Chad McCormick, manager of Grant County Feeders, says the beef feeding industry is in southwest Kansas because the climate is ideal for finishing cattle. The processing plants are nearby because transporting cattle is expensive and the less distance fat cattle have to travel the better.
“It’s much cheaper to haul feed to them than to haul them to feed,” he says. “It’s also important to remember that a calf spends a relatively short period of time in a feedyard. For the first year, every calf is raised either on milk or grass. They typically spend only the last 90 to 100 days in a feedlot and even then they are fed a blend of roughage and grain.”
He also reveals a surprise about the source of corn for feedlots in the region.
“I don’t feed corn grown in southwest Kansas,” McCormick says. “Most of the corn in the ration at this yard comes from dryland farms in Nebraska and northern Kansas. The corn grown around me winds up in Oklahoma and Texas. In the industry, we say grain flows south toward the ports.”
He says the industry has experience in hauling in grain because of cyclical drought, which also enhances concern about aquifer preservation.
“You don’t see feedlots or farmers wasting water these days,” he says. “I am using less than 13 gallons a day to finish a calf and that’s all in – irrigation, flushing, the boilers in the mill. There are feedlots that are recycling every drop of water, using UV rays, chlorine and filters. We make every drop count.”
He says he isn’t worried about the challenge from meat alternatives.
“I’m producing a commodity product. My goal is to produce the most pounds of good quality beef I can for the least money. I see the production costs of turning plant protein into something that looks and tastes like meat as not being competitive financially when you try to scale it up,” he says.
So what does worry him about the future of his industry?
“Labor,” he says. “We need more people going into agriculture and agricultural careers. The biggest challenge is the labor force. Our industry is smart and creative. We can figure out how to survive and I think we can figure out how to save the aquifer and how to transfer water from flood areas to dry areas if it comes to that. But we can’t survive without population.”
More than a business
Strangely enough, though, the increased pressure that plant-based proteins could put on the beef industry might make the ranchers who produce it an even more important part of the system. How they care for their animals and the land, the extent to which they’re able to embrace additional innovation to become more efficient and reduce emissions, will be a key part of the industry’s future success in Kansas.
The families who devote their lives to conservation of the land and the raising of livestock say that you can put a measuring stick to the value of raising a family with the daily experience of the wonder – and sometimes the cruelty – of nature.
Ranchers know all about staying up all night checking on heifers, rescuing newborn calves from a snowbank and warming them up in the cab of a pickup, dragging cows or steers out of the sticky mud in a depleting pond, riding fences looking for breaks, moving cattle from paddock to paddock, and more.
Those who work with cattle day in and day out develop an emotional relationship with nature and animals that runs far deeper than the nuts and bolts of running an average business.
They talk about the grief of losing an animal to weather conditions, illness, accident or even wildlife encroachment. Tragedies such as wildfires or floods can wipe out years of work and tens of thousands of dollars of investment in an afternoon.
By an early age, ranch children take joy in feeding a bottle calf and sob with loss for one that doesn’t thrive.
Debbie Lyons-Blythe writes a blog, “Kids, Cows and Grass,” about her love for her five kids, for her cows and for the amazing grasslands of the Flint Hills.
“When Duane and I got married, I was the one who wanted to actively manage the ranch and Duane took a job in town and helped on weekends and evenings,” she says. “We both grew up in ranching families and we knew we wanted to raise our family on the ranch.”
A little over a decade ago, she made the decision to become an active advocate for ranching and for beef. She regularly appears on panels to talk about her love for ranching and her pride in supplying high quality, nutritious food to consumers.
The prairie ecosystem in the Flint Hills, the last remnant of vast prairies that once covered most of the Midwest, still exists because the land is too rocky to plow. Farther east, where rainfall is more plentiful and soils deeper, plowing the prairie created some of the richest farmland in the world, but it left no trace of the prairie ecosystem.
In parts of southwest Kansas, with its mixed grass and short grass prairie, the soil is shallow and sandy and the climate is arid, making row crops unprofitable. But both the Flint Hills and the Red Hills are excellent grazing lands.
Ranchers’ management of the grasslands, including prescribed burning to eliminate woody invaders such as Eastern red cedar and thorny locust trees and grazing by large ruminant animals, keeps the ecosystem healthy, Lyons-Blythe says. Without burning and grazing, the fuel load of grasses would result in more and bigger wildfires and encroaching woody invaders would result in the loss of the grassland population of birds such as prairie chickens, meadowlarks and sandpipers.
Downey Ranch in Wabaunsee County is known for its commitment to the conservation of the rangeland. Owners Barb Downey and Joe Carpenter regularly share stories of efforts to improve grassland and its ability to nurture cattle.
They maintain a Facebook page that details their experiments with such practices as bale grazing in the winter, soil health improvement, fall burning for control of sericea lespedeza and other invasive species as well as sharing stories of daily life on the ranch, volunteer firefighting and more.
Followers of the page were treated to an 11-day roller coaster ride in January 2017, rooting for a premature calf. Carpenter shared the story of finding the baby just minutes after his birth on Jan. 5. The due date was Feb. 25.
Carpenter and Downey named the calf Miracle. Carpenter took him to the ranch’s “hospital barn,” put him in a calf warmer and fed him colostrum through quarter-inch tubing.
Every day, Carpenter worked with the baby, helping him stand, feeding him through the tube until he was strong enough to walk on his own and suck a bottle. On Jan. 9, Miracle’s mama was brought into the barn and Facebook fans cheered a video of him nursing.
But then came days of ups and downs – Miracle appeared to get stronger only to develop problems with vomiting, then he came back to thrive for a day or two, only to fall back again. Finally, on Jan. 16 came the final post:
“Sad to report that there will be no more Miracle updates. After nursing and looking promising yesterday he took a drastic turn for the worse. It was clear he was no longer able to take up fluids and was dehydrated,” Carpenter wrote.
“But I am glad he gave it a good go and gave me an opportunity to share with you a bit of what ranchers do. We have 500 more to go (hopefully they will wait another four weeks) and we will do our best for all of them.”
By the time of that sad post, hundreds of Kansans were following Miracle’s story and had additional insight into the care and concern ranchers bring into managing their herds. It’s an approach that goes back to the first uncoiling of barbed wire in Kansas.
The cattle industry will surely evolve in the decades to come. But it might not be wise to bet too much against its resilience.
A version of this article appears in the Summer 2022 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
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