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Beef and Sheep Sector Increases Eco-efficiency

06 May 2013

NEW ZEALAND - New research shows the New Zealand sheep and beef sector has a much lighter environmental footprint than in the past.

Beef + Lamb New Zealand Chief Executive Dr Scott Champion says a recent paper by Dr Alec McKay, published in the Proceedings of the New Zealand Grasslands Association, used the Overseer model to look at the changes in the relationship between inputs (eg, livestock numbers, nutrients) and outputs (eg, meat and fibre, greenhouse gas emissions, nitrate).

The research was conducted using the Ministry for Primary Industries sheep and beef farm monitoring models that cover hard hill country (Gisborne and Central North Island) and easy hill finishing (Manawatu) over the last 20 years.

“For the hard hill country, extensive sheep and beef farm operation, the productivity gains made since 1989-90 translate into significant eco-efficiency gains,” Dr Champion said.

“We have seen a 47 per cent increase in saleable product per hectare, a 21 per cent reduction in nitrate leaching per kilo of saleable product, and a 40 per cent reduction in the greenhouse gas emissions per kilo of saleable product.”

For more intensive sheep and beef operations in the easy hill finishing country, the gains have been more modest.

The study aligns with similar greenhouse gas reductions already seen from the sector.

Dr Champion said the sheep and beef industry’s enormous productivity gains over the last 20-plus years have been made through a combination of new technologies. These include advances in animal genetics and health and improvements in farm practices, such as nutrient, pasture, and animal management.

“Beef + Lamb New Zealand Economic Service data shows the national average lambing percentage has gone up from 100 to 120 per cent since 1990, lamb carcass weight per ewe from 13 to 17kg and wool per head from five to six kilos.

“Even though dairy conversions have seen a decline in the land area used for sheep and beef farming, the export value of sheepmeat and beef has more than doubled since 1990 – from less than $2.5 billion to more than $5 billion.

“Our greenhouse gas emissions are also below 1990 levels while production has remained roughly constant. It’s the same for our water footprint, where we are producing more but nutrient leaching has not increased. This is the result of focusing on productivity rather than just putting more animals on the land.”

With a growing focus on environmental issues – and freshwater quality in particular – it is gratifying to be able to demonstrate that the sheep and beef sector has maintained a nitrate leaching profile at very low levels, Dr Champion said.

“What this research shows is that it is possible to improve productivity without adversely affecting the environment.”

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