Sustainability—that’s perhaps an overused term these days in both the ag media and the media world in general. Sustainability suggests a lot of definitions and narratives of production such as best practices, social responsibility, good stewardship and economic viability. You get my drift. Sustainability means different things to different people. In my personal view, I believe that sustainability pretty much defines agriculture and vice versa. Society throws the term around as something new and virtuous, in fact, it’s a necessity for the long-term success of any functioning business, no matter what that business is.
Sustainability is really nothing new
I’ve been involved in agriculture my whole life, as I was born and raised in a rural Nebraska community dependent on cattle ranching and grain farming. Communities like mine exist across the ag landscape and are full of hard-working, ingenious and self-reliant people. I recall, as a teenager in the 1980s, reading a small-town newspaper from rural Montana, where my grandparents lived. They were survivors of the Great Depression, and one of my great-aunts had written an article in that small-town paper reminding readers that recycling was nothing new. At the time, there was an emphasis on recycling that may have been new to my generation, but that Depression-era group of people recycled everything — from paper sacks to aluminum foil to gift wrap — because they had to. I recall my grandmother sending us Christmas gifts wrapped in newspaper — all because she was very conservative and wanted to reuse the newspaper; to throw it away would have been wasteful.
In agriculture, we cannot afford to be wasteful. Ours is a tight-margin business, and every input and output is carefully calculated. It’s evident that whether we produce corn, beef or milk, our industry has become increasingly efficient over the past century, with more bushels per acre, more milk yield per cow, etc. At CRYSTALYX®, we are proud to serve the livestock industry — particularly the beef industry, which is key to our business. The statistics don’t lie: According to Cattle Fax, in the mid-1970s, the U.S. Cattle Inventory included more than 130 million head and produced approximately 26 billion pounds of beef. Today, there are nearly 40 million fewer cattle in the United States, but we are producing 27 billion pounds of beef. These numbers back up a statement from the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, which says that “between 1961 and 2018, the U.S. beef industry has reduced emissions per pound of beef by more than 40% while also producing more than 60% more beef per animal. This is a result of continued sustainability efforts and improved resource use.”
Ignorance doesn’t cost much — but it pays even less
There is no way our society could enjoy the quality of life we have come to know without the efficiency of producing food. Much of our society takes our food security and abundance for granted, and those of us who produce food are often ridiculed for what we do.
Why? That’s a good question, and it probably has several controversial answers, but I’ll add my own controversial answer to that question and say that it’s out of ignorance. People removed from the Ag Society are ignorant out of no fault of their own. Most people in America today are two or more generations removed from a family farm, so they don’t understand our business. And people often time like to criticize or find fault in things they don’t understand or don’t have control over; that’s just human nature.
Tell the story we live every day
In agriculture, we’ve been our own best advocates, in telling ourselves how much we’ve improved over the years. These improvements need to continue, plus we need to strive and reach larger audiences with our message. At Alltech, we operate under the mission of Working Together for a Planet of Plenty. This really isn’t a slogan or platitude; it’s a way of conducting business every day. When we sell supplements like CRYSTALYX®, we are working together with our customers to improve their profitability and their stewardship and to help meet their production goals. We are living our mission.
Looking back at our business with CRYSTALYX® and the Alltech Feed Division over the years, there are many examples of how we’ve improved from an efficiency standpoint for our customers. A few that really stand out are the innovations of the BioBarrel® and our Blueprint® Nutrition programs. Our BioBarrel® is a true success, adding value to a common byproduct like wheat straw and turning it into a self-fed supplement container that’s also biodegradable. This reduces the need for using plastic or steel for containers and improves the efficiency of feeding the product — there’s no need to retrieve or dispose of an empty container. Sales of CRYSTALYX® in the BioBarrel® have been growing consistently over the past 15 years, and we expect them to continue to grow.
Blueprint® nutrition is one of the more exciting nutritional applications I’ve seen in my entire career. Blueprint® is focused on feeding only organic trace minerals and excluding inorganic trace minerals from the supplement. Some may have thought this was a radical departure from years of mineral supplementation practice (and conventional wisdom), but the benefits in production, health and animal efficiency have been very telling. Less is actually more with our Blueprint® nutrition programs.
Overall, today, I see better management and use of the right CRYSTALYX® formulas for the right reasons. A good example of this is that, in years past, people may have thought that any given CRYSTALYX® formula was the same as the next. A 20% or 30% protein product may have been fed in circumstances when a mineral supplement like Crystal-Phos® was more warranted. Today, we see a better matching of the right supplement to the feed resources at hand. This is a more efficient use of supplements and is more cost-effective, too.
We’ve discussed the use of CRYSTALYX® for better grazing distribution a lot in our blogs and elsewhere. The studies we have conducted over the years have helped our customers better appreciate range management and how to use supplements like CRYSTALYX® as a tool to help meet their range management goals. Range management has improved immensely as a discipline in the ranching business over the last 100 years, and it’s unfortunate that many areas of public land are under increasing pressure to reduce their livestock grazing under the pretense that not grazing is better for range health and the environment — especially when there’s a lot of evidence to the contrary. Look at the Nebraska Sandhills, for example; that ecosystem has likely never been more productive than it is today, and it’s been managed with cattle grazing for nearly 150 years.
Agriculture is the solution, not the problem
Agriculture is a high-tech industry with a lot of smart people. We are not the problem; we are the solution. Just look at what we do: We turn byproducts of our own industry into valuable feedstock, which, in turn, is made into meat, milk and eggs. We produce food, fuel and fiber — and we do more of that on less land than ever before. Our best practices need to be celebrated more than they need to be defended.
Today the need for agriculture to continue on its “sustainable” path isn’t perhaps any more important today than it was in the past; it’s just that those of us in our industry need to share our story better and project a better image of our technology and business practices.