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Save water, eat healthy 

Cattle producers are improving the way they use water, and beef is part of a well-balanced diet

Going on year five of continuous drought, in addition to many preceding years of dry weather, California farmers and ranchers have an arduous task in continuing to produce food for their local communities, the state, the nation, and even the rest of the world. It is our livelihoods, and we are more than willing to gladly accept this duty. 

After reading Zaf Iqbal’s opinion piece titled “Save water, go vegetarian” in the June 25 New Times, I felt that as a fifth generation California cattle rancher, it was my responsibility to provide another piece of the dialogue that Mr. Iqbal’s piece failed to mention and one that consumers may not be aware of.

There is a place we can agree—he wrote: “We know that we have a mega drought in California. It is incumbent that all effective water conservation measures be taken to meet this monumental challenge.” But beyond that is where we’ll need to agree to disagree with Mr. Iqbal, and here’s why: Asking readers to remove a vital component of their diet that otherwise remains good for them and the environment is illogical. 

It is obvious for agriculturalists reading the previously mentioned opinion piece that Mr. Iqbal is not that well informed on the details of how agriculture works. I point out as a prime example, the implied usage of alfalfa by beef cattle. Beef cattle are supplemented with alfalfa in very, very limited amounts over the course of a year. Even if a rancher were to want to increase usage of alfalfa, it is economically unfeasable. A vast majority of alfalfa is used for other things. However, I want to focus on positive comments.

Farmers and ranchers have always had conservation at the top of their mind when it comes to preserving natural resources involved in the production cycle of food, especially cattle.

Beef, as a part of a healthy, well-balanced diet, can not only do your body good but the planet as well.

The fact is the beef community has made major strides in reducing the environmental footprint of beef. Improving the sustainability of beef is of the utmost importance to the cattlemen and women who are working to ensure the longevity of the industry, and we are committed to raising beef responsibly. According to the most comprehensive life cycle assessment ever conducted on a food system—conducted by beef producers, it’s called the Beef Sustainability Research program—beef made the following improvements from 2005 to 2011: 

  • • 10 percent improvement in water quality;
  • • 7 percent reduction in landfill contributions;
  • • 3 percent reduction in water use;
  • • 2 percent reduction in resource consumption and energy use; and
  • • 2 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

All these documented improvements have taken place in a few short years and efforts continue to improve even more.

Maintaining a water-conscious effort throughout our daily activities, in all sectors of society, will help curb the drought’s effects until we do get that much-needed rain we have all been praying for. 

According to the 2013 California Water Plan, in an average water year, agriculture uses 41 percent of the applied water in California, while urban water uses total 10 percent, and various environmental uses total 49 percent of applied water in the state. 

The bottom line is that water sustains life on the farm, the ranch, and the planet. Agricultural use of water and other natural resources provide the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and renewable energy to sustain our lives. 

As a beef cattle rancher, I take my job very seriously and maintain the highest standards I can to provide my consumers with the best quality product I am able. 

Cattle are great recyclers and can get nutrients out of foods we humans can’t eat, parts of fruits and vegetables, like carrot tops and almond hulls, and turn it into high quality protein for our diets. Beef can provide more than 10 percent of the daily value of 10 essential nutrients and vitamins our bodies need, including zinc, iron, protein, and B vitamins for less than 10 percent of our daily calories—per 3-ounce serving based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet. That’s one powerful protein!

Over the past several years, as drought has taken its toll on California and other parts of the country such as the Southwestern states, the number of cattle raised for beef have drastically decreased, resulting in the smallest cow herd in the U.S. since the 1950s. However, cattle ranchers have been able to create more with less through improved feed efficiency and animal health, two areas of improvement cited by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization as the key to future reductions in usage of water and other natural resources. 

It is also important to note that water “used” doesn’t mean that the water is gone forever. Much of the water in agriculture is re-used. For example, when crops are irrigated, that water is captured and recovered by aquifers, wildlife, wetlands and flows downstream into natural ecosystems to be used again.

California is the No. 1 agricultural producing state in the nation, and we are fortunate enough to have such an array of diverse agricultural products available to us, thanks to family farmers across the state! Did you know that more than 95 percent of farms and ranches in the United States are owned and operated by families like mine who take pride in the legacy their family has created and plan to leave it with future generations?

Recently, we welcomed the seventh Central Coast generation into our family. I hope that the hard work we are doing now to conserve water, to take the best care of the land for the benefit of wildlife and livestock, will allow our children, new baby granddaughter, and future generations to continue raising food and fiber for us all.

Kevin Kester is a fifth generation Parkfield, Calif., rancher and served as president of the San Luis Obispo Cattlemen’s Association and the California Cattlemen’s Association and currently serves as the Policy Division Chairman for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

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