The study, commissioned by Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA), showed that improved genetic selection of animals, heavier finishing weights, increased survival rates, capping of artesian bores and a decline in irrigation, as well as an increase in lot feeding, have been key factors in reducing environmental impact.
Key findings include: a 14% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions intensity; a 65% reduction in consumptive water use for beef production, down almost a third from 1981; land occupation for grazing per unit of production was down 19%; while land use emissions were estimated to have decreased by 42%.
"The results from this study have given us valuable long-term data on the Australian beef system and a benchmark to equip industry with quantitative data and facts to reinforce Australia’s credentials as being producers of high-quality beef, both here and with our customers overseas," said MLA on-farm innovation and adoption general manager Dr Matthew McDonagh.
"This is also a critical body of research in helping industry respond to any misconceptions around the environmental impacts of beef production, given that the Australian beef industry covers almost half of Australia’s land mass and is one of the country’s largest agricultural industries, worth $17m to the economy and employing more than 200,000 people," McDonagh added.
Steve Wiedemann, FSA Consulting, and co-author of the study, said it provided a more accurate picture of the Australian beef industry’s environmental footprint.
"In the past, work has been undertaken to look at trends with emissions, water and land use, but this is the most comprehensive study undertaken to date using a life-cycle assessment approach – a widely accepted methodology which is used internationally for measuring the environmental performance of products such as beef," Wiedemann said.
"This shows that changes to farming practices actively pursued by the industry such as a focus on productivity and herd management have resulted in dual benefits by reducing environmental impacts per kilogram of product, at the same time as improving productivity."
While environmental efficiencies were improved on a national scale, grain feeding in feedlots showed specific improvement. President of the Australian Lot Feeders’ Association (ALFA) Don Mackay said this could be because cattle were now finished more quickly, resulting in a reduction in resource use over the life cycle.
"Feedlot cattle spend 85-90% of their lives on pasture, but feedlots allow us to finish beef more quickly, which means a reduction in overall emissions, water use, land use and waste. This is still the case even when additional feedlot management impacts such as transport and feed production are taken into account as they were in this study," Mackay said.