Biodiversity refers to the total species and ecosystems in a region/on earth and the ecological processes that they are part of, and to the measure of health in an ecosystem.

Canadian cattle producers understand the importance of biodiversity to the environment and take care to maintain and improve the environment. Swift foxes are one species that thrive on well managed range land habitat. In 2012, amendments were proposed to the Species at Risk Act (SARA) on the recommendation of the Minister of the Environment. One of the amendments was to downlist the Swift fox from endangered to threatened – a result ranchers helped achieve through careful range land management.

The CCA sits on Canada’s Species at Risk Advisory Committee (SARAC), which provides advice to the Minister of Environment, the Parks Canada Agency, and to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans on the implementation of the SARA, the effective stewardship of Canada’s biological diversity, and federal programs and activities related to species at risk so as to achieve the purposes of SARA.

There is a lot more to raising and producing cattle than what meets the eye - from efficient pastureland and feed practices to water management and wildlife conservation, producers are working to sustain the cattle industry for generations to come.

Land, air, water

Healthy soils and grasslands
Responsible beef production practices contribute to healthy soil and grasslands. Appropriate grazing management supports healthy grassland and soil ecosystems by maintaining plant vigour, and minimizing encroachment by brush, weeds, and other invasive species. Healthy grasslands also encourage biodiversity by providing a natural habitat in which native plants, insects, birds and wildlife can co-exist and thrive alongside cattle. Learn more

Clean air
In the early 1900's, it took between three to five years to produce an 843 pound beef carcass in Western Canada. Today, it takes less than 24 months. Combining those numbers with recent Canadian research regarding the impact of diet on GHG production indicates that modern practices can produce the same amount of beef in much less time, with only one-third to one-half as much methane. Learn more

Clean water
Cows use water, but they don't use it up – water cycles. Only a very small fraction of the water consumed is retained in the body. Most of the water that cattle drink continues to cycle in the environment. So the beef industry has a very important role in ensuring that feedlots and cattle wintering sites are sited so that runoff does not enter watercourses until particulate contaminants have had a chance to settle. Efforts to minimize nutrient loss also ensure that valuable organic nutrients are available for use as organic fertilizer on cropland.

The Canadian beef and cattle industry enjoys some internationally-recognized advantages that could help to differentiate it from competing industries and countries. A clean and environmentally-friendly production system is one of these advantages. Learn more

Cattle are an important element in a balanced and sustainable agriculture system. They utilize the forages and legumes which are part of a crop rotation system to improve soil fertility and decrease soil erosion. Forage crops used for cattle feed are an important part of most sustainable cropping systems. They help to decrease soil erosion, improve soil fertility, and assist in pest management.

In Canada, about 68 million hectares of land is classified as agricultural land. Approximately 30 per cent of Canada's farmland is not considered to be economically or environmentally suitable for cultivation, but does support sustained ruminant livestock grazing. Because of climate, topography, access, or land owner choice, almost 24 per cent of Canada's agricultural land is uncultivated native grasslands. Another 6 per cent is maintained as tame grass pasture land.

Controlled cattle grazing helps to keep Canada's grasslands healthy. Before there were cattle in Western Canada, huge herds of bison roamed the land. The bison herd would crop the grass short before moving on to another section of the prairie. The short-cropped grass would soon recover, growing back just as thick and lush until the next passing bison herd, or possibly a prairie fire, cut it back once more.

Canadian grasslands evolved under this cycle of growth and cutting back, and to this day native grasslands do best when they are periodically cut back. If allowed to overgrow, tall dead grass can choke out some plant species leading to loss of biodiversity.

Grasslands prevent soil erosion. Erosion is the removal of surface soil by a force of nature, such as wind or run-off from rain storms. Erosion is a serious threat to food production around the world. When fertile topsoil is eroded, the underlying hardpan that's left behind can't support plant growth.

The interconnected root systems of unbroken grasslands help anchor topsoil against wind and water erosion. Croplands that are vulnerable to erosion are often seeded to grass and turned into pastures for cattle. While the type of grass that's seeded is often tame grass specifically developed for pasture, there is a growing interest in marketing native grass seed for reclaiming both cropland and land that has been disturbed by other industries, such as oil and gas production.

Seeding land to grass for pasture has been an important soil conservation tool in Canada for over 70 years. In 1935 the Government of Canada formed the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration  (PFRA) in response to widespread drought, farm abandonment and land degradation of the 1930s. A key approach of the PFRA to land reclamation was reseeding prairie that had been broken then abandoned by homesteaders back to grass. Later known as Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s (AAFC) Community Pasture Program, the program actively maintained and enhanced the productive capacity of soils and agricultural lands for future generations, and managed 929,000 hectares of rangeland within 85 community pastures in Western Canada. The CPP worked with cattle farmers and ranchers to provide the necessary grazing treatment to conserve native prairie. In 2012, the Federal Government announced it would phase out federal involvement in program management and transition the land to users with a more direct interest over a six-year period. It was felt that the Program had achieved its original goal, by having returned more than 145,000 hectares of poor-quality cultivated lands to grass cover, significantly improving the ecological value of these lands and helping to increase the productivity of the area.

AAFC pledged to continue working with the governments of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, which own more than 90 per cent of the pasture land, with the transition to ensure that the process optimizes future economic and employment opportunities for the affected rural communities.

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are believed to contribute to climate change. Cattle production both contributes and removes GHG’s from the atmosphere. A great deal of research has gone into finding ways to reduce methane emissions from cattle and increase carbon storage in grasslands. For example, it's known that methane emissions are reduced when the plants cattle eat are of higher quality, and that healthy grasslands store more carbon. Cattle producers are learning that improving the quality of their pasture benefits not only their livestock, it benefits the atmosphere too. 

The primary GHG’s include, methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N20) and carbon dioxide (CO2). These gases become trapped in the atmosphere, raising the global temperature.  GHG’s are emitted from many different sources, including the exhaust from vehicles, air conditioners and refrigerators.

The primary gases emitted by animal agriculture are methane from livestock digestion and manure, and nitrous oxide from manure handling and storage and commercial fertilizer.

Cattle and other ruminant (four-stomached) animals have a unique ability to digest plant materials, such as grass and straw, which have high contents of cellulose. This plant material is digested by the micro-organisms such as bacteria, protozoa and fungi that are found in the rumen. The anaerobic (without oxygen) digestion by the micro-organisms, also known as enteric fermentation, results in the production of methane which the animal belches back into the atmosphere.

Feeds high in fibre, such as straw, result in the production of more methane than forages of low fibre content, such as fresh green grass. The addition of grain to the feed also lowers methane production by cattle. During the short stage of their lives that beef cattle spend in a feedlot, they actually produce less methane than when they're on pasture, because of the grain in their feed rations in the feedlot.

The carbon production from cattle, in the form of methane burped into the air, is not the same as the carbon produced when fossil fuels are burned. Cattle are recycling carbon that was once in the atmosphere. This carbon is either sequestered by the soil or by the grasses the grazing cattle eat.

Agriculture doesn't produce much carbon dioxide - the biggest contributors to carbon dioxide production in Canada are transportation, electricity and heat production. Rangelands and tame pastures remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In fact grasslands are capable of storing about twice the carbon as woodlands.

Carbon sequestration is the result of plants taking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and using it for plant growth. Most of the carbon is stored below ground in the roots of plants. On grasslands the soil is usually left undisturbed, and so the carbon remains sequestered from the atmosphere.

The amount of GHG emitted from cattle manure depends on a number of factors, including the way it is handled, stored and applied.  As stored manure begins to decompose it emits different gases. The amount of oxygen available during decomposition affects the type and amount of gas released. For example, if manure was stored in closed containers, limited oxygen is available. This lack of oxygen causes a chemical reaction called anaerobic decomposition to take place. This anaerobic decomposition can also take place at the centre of a manure pile. The results of this reaction are moderate levels of methane and higher level of nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide emitted into the environment.

Overall, GHG emissions can be reduced with improved agricultural practices. Research is playing a strong role in this effort, finding ways to increase feed efficiency, improve manure handling, develop cropping systems that reduce soil disturbance and enhance engine efficiency, all of which are factors in emissions.

High quality water is conserved and maintained by cattle producers. New technology is offering cattle producers innovative ways to water their cattle. Producers are experimenting with methods of encouraging less direct access by cattle to water courses.

A mature beef animal will drink between 35 and 66 litres (8 to 15 gallons) of water per day, depending on the temperature. Most of the water cattle drink returns to the soil as part of the natural recycling process.

Clean water is a goal of cattle producers. Producers are voluntarily changing management practices to improve water quality for themselves and for their communities. These practices include moving wintering areas away from streams, using ridges and ditches to divert corral run off into lagoons, and sloping corrals away from water sources. Irrigation is not widely used in Canada to produce feed for cattle.

Producers are using manure management techniques to significantly reduce chances of ground or surface water contamination. Ongoing research is assisting producers to determine appropriate manure application rates using soil testing and manure analysis.

Cattle manure is a natural nutrient and a valuable source of soil-enhancing organic matter. When properly applied, it improves soil structure, increases the water-holding capacity of soil and reduces erosion. But for all of manure’s benefits, it can lead to soil-nutrient imbalances if handled improperly, which can contribute to water quality concerns. To realize the full potential of manure while avoiding pollution problems, good management practices are essential.