Beef delivers priceless ecosystem services

Cows meander through the morning fog at D & D Seyb Farms in Donnellson, IA.

You may start to hear the phrase “ecosystem services” in the conversation about beef sustainability. It may sound new, but the concept behind it is old and something with which ranchers are quite familiar.

A common definition of ecosystem services are the benefits people derive from ecosystems. Effectively, the services that ecosystems provide. This definition usually involves four different types of benefits:

• Provisioning—goods derived, specifically things like food, water, materials, fiber, etc.

• Supporting—maintenance of needed systems such as nutrient cycling, soil building, etc.

• Regulating—mitigation of disease vectors, stabilizing climate, air and water purification, waste processing, etc.

• Cultural—supporting cultures, enriching spirituality and education, etc.

But the concept can be reversed. “Ecosystem services” can also mean the services human activity—like managed grazing—provides the ecosystem. This is a valuable paradigm for cattle operators.

“Beef cattle ranches provide a flow of ecosystem services that is probably not available from most other alternative land uses,” noted Dr. David “Tex” Taylor, Extension specialist from University of Wyoming, during his presentation at the recent checkoff-funded ag media conference hosted by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

He outlined a number of potential ecosystem services cattle ranching provides that producers will recognize; maintaining and improving biodiversity in grass communities, managing invasive species, improving forage quality, improving soil quality, maintaining and improving wildlife habitat particularly with water infrastructure, and many other effects of good land management.

Taylor presented several recent studies that drove home these points. One study out of Canada showed cattle ranching produces large positives for biodiversity, cultural heritage, and habitat maintenance; moderate positives for food and non-food production; and slight positives for soil quality, recreation, and tourism.

The report and Taylor acknowledged some negative ecological services impact of cattle ranching, such as greenhouse gas emissions, the potential for water pollution, and water use. Unfortunately, these are topics that often dominate the sustainability discussion. Still, there were more positives than negatives, and the positives were more intense.

“Overall, not a bad scorecard and probably better than other alternative land uses we might be looking at,” Taylor opined.

Measuring value

While “ecosystem services” is a valuable concept for ranchers, evaluating it is hard.

“We’ve established there are some ecosystem services associated with cattle ranching,” Taylor said. “The question then becomes, ‘how do we measure them?’ The bottom line is, it’s not easy,”

He observed, with a chuckle, that “You can’t go down to the store and buy a six-pack of biodiversity.”

Dr. Nicolas Quintana Ashwell, a post-doctoral fellow and water economist who presented and works with Taylor, expanded upon the difficulty of quantifying the value of ranching’s ecosystem services. He noted any valuation effort faces the dual challenge of first figuring out how to measure something, then determining where to get actual dollar-value data to measure. In many cases, they and others must rely on implied values since there is no formal marketplace for ecosystem services.

Ashwell presented a project he and Taylor have been working on. By using pasture rental rate data from the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service; Grassland Reserve rental rate data from the USDA Conservation Reserve Program; hunting, fishing, and recreational wildlife watching value data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services; and cattle and grazed acreage numbers from the 2012 Census of Agriculture, they estimated the annual ecological services value of a beef cow at about $726 in 2016 dollars.

This estimate comes with many caveats, however.

Taylor and Ashwell stressed that the data they used in their valuation effort is not comprehensive, does not include all beef cattle in the U.S., and—very notably—does not cover federal grazing land. Based on these limitations, the $726 value is likely a conservative one.

Neither man, nor any speaker at the agricultural media conference, brought up the ecosystem service of fuel reduction in relation to wildfires. A full valuation of ranching’s ecosystem services would likely include such services. Though the value of that service has been discussed in the past, it is also very hard to quantify.

Value of valuation

The valuation project Ashwell and Taylor presented was a project funded through the checkoff. They both explained that the importance of trying to put a dollar value on ranching’s ecological services lies in the growing importance of the sustainability discussion.

Mainstream consumer-focused discussions of sustainability in animal agriculture often focus on greenhouse gas emissions without considering anything else. The single item of emissions is relatively easy to measure, and “cap and trade” or “carbon tax” efforts have put dollar values on those emissions.

Ashwell explained that, by putting a dollar value on these undersung ecological services, ranchers might have a more level playing field in the sustainability discussion.

“If when we talk about greenhouse emissions and that sort of stuff, that can have a dollar amount tag on it, then the ecosystem services that are being provided by the ranching community can also have a dollar amount tag to it. Maybe then we can compare these two dissimilar things.” — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor

WLJ Managing Editor

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