Collaboration and transparency were two key strengths New Zealand beef industry leaders observed in the North American beef sector on a recent visit.
Members of the Beef + Lamb NZ genetics team have just returned from a study tour of the North American beef industry for the Informing NZ Beef programme.
Dan Brier, BLNZ’s genetics GM, said there were some lessons for the NZ sector in the exceptional level of co-operation witnessed across academic, commercial and government groups when addressing issues like methane emissions and genetics.
As NZ producers grapple with the implications of He Waka Eke Noa and Scope 3 demands from retailers, he said, US producers’ focus has tended to be on feed conversion efficiency, something that ultimately impacts methane emissions within feedlot systems.
“It is a different problem they are trying to solve. On a feedlot if the animal is grown faster, that is, more efficiently, less methane is produced by it. In NZ, with a grass-based system, if we grow more grass than needed, we feed the extra to another animal, so the nuance is definitely there in our challenges.”
However, the United States also has 29 million head of pastoral free-range animals, so research on inhibitors is starting to ramp up, too. Brier said the horsepower behind such efforts is significant, as is the level of collaboration.
“The level of collaboration is very good, with some very smart PhD students working on quite specific problems.”
Kansas State University, for example, has 1000 students plus 100 post-grads dedicated to animal science with methane emissions and maternal fertility growing areas of focus.
Brier noted how in New Zealand, on the other hand, university-focused, science-based research on the sector’s challenges appears to have diminished in recent years.
There is a real possibility NZ risks being left behind as the likes of Canada and US double down on their challenges, he said.
Collaboration in North America extends to a cross-breed programme that provides commercial farmers with a genuine means of comparing different breeds’ performance, something that remains harder to do in NZ.
In the US the ability to compare across breeds is partly attributable to the impressive US Meat Animal Research Centre in Nebraska.
The centre is home to an 8000-cow multibreed herd that generates an enormous amount of genetic data and has a germplasm evaluation programme extending back over 50 years.
As in NZ, there is a solid body of farmer sentiment that measuring methane remains difficult, and there are few clear financial signals from processors to encourage a reduction. The US’s grading system does offer a pathway to include a recognition for “low methane” beef in the future.
“They have an exceptional meat grading system that recognises composition including intramuscular fat levels or marbling,” Brier said, and adding in a grade parameter for lower methane footprint is a realistic option.
Brier said he was surprised at the focus on dairy beef production also going ahead as a relatively new area in an industry where the ratio of beef to dairy is almost the opposite of NZ’s.
Extensive use of sexed semen in the dairy sector in the US has pushed for more focus on options to deal with the remaining male dairy beef stock.
Brier said NZ breeders can claim to be doing a good job in understanding and improving breeding cow longevity compared to their US counterparts, but this too is an area the North Americans are starting to study harder.
“We are doing a good job, but we do have work to do on feed conversion efficiency. We were expecting to see big cows up there, but really they were not too much bigger than our own.”
As NZ focuses on methane reduction and low-carbon beef as a value proposition, the concept of “sustainability” differs somewhat for US and Canadian producers.
“It tended to refer more to being locally grown and sold, and even being part of a circular economy. One farm, for example, was collecting waste food from its customers and feeding it back to its cows.”
An award-wining short film, Guardians of the Grasslands, has recently raised the profile on how free-range pastoral cattle can play a role in maintaining Canada’s grassland ecosystems.
Brier said their US counterparts were keen to exchange more information and work with NZ on methane reduction and carbon foot printing.
“My worry is that we well be left behind in the methane game, and we need to act quickly.”