Ranchers and environmental groups battle over beef over perceptions of meat

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Robbie LeValley considers his family’s ranch, settled in the high meadows near Hotchkiss, to be a linchpin in the state’s food chain and a fifth-generation steward of the local environment.

Le Valley Ranch borders the habitat of the Gunnison sage-grouse, an endangered ground-dwelling bird. The LeValleys say grazing helps the grouse thrive and meet recovery goals set out in the Endangered Species Act.

The water supply to the LeValley family’s public land also comes from private land. The family built a 27-mile pipeline that allowed water to flow from the pipeline stretch to a pond open to the public. The LeValleys argue this will ensure there is enough water in the fishing hole for Gunnison sage-grouse to breed.

Robbie LeValley says all the ranches in that part of the North Fork Valley, many of which were settled more than 100 years ago, have a common interest in preserving the local environment. .

“Each rancher, in their own way, has an ethic of improving and making the land safer for grouse and wildlife in general,” LeBarre said. “Ranchers provide the wide open space that wildlife needs.”

Large-scale ranching operations like the LeValleys’ have been targeted by activists for contributing to environmental degradation, including contributing to climate change. A study published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS Climate found that phasing out livestock farming over the next 15 years would have the same effect as reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 68% by 2100, reducing global warming. They claim that it can be reduced to 2 degrees Celsius. Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

“Reducing or eliminating animal agriculture should be at the top of the list of possible climate change solutions,” Patrick Brown, professor emeritus in Stanford University’s Department of Chemistry, told Stanford Magazine.

Ranchers say Le Valley Ranch and five other ranches have about 2,000 head of cattle raised on clean mountain water, fresh air, Colorado sun and green grass. The LeBarre family says they are not given any antibiotics, hormones or animal by-products.

When it’s time for the meat to go to market, the animals are slaughtered and custom processed at Homestead Natural Meat near Delta. This operation is also owned by LeValley and other ranchers.

Homestead Meat’s website says the property (including fencing, equipment, bedding, feed and water supplies) is regularly inspected by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Farm Runners store employees Lara Widner (left) and Dana Stoffer chat while stocking items in the produce section, Nov. 21, 2023, Staple. Located next to the town’s City Market, this store is a year-round retailer of regional foods serving local farmers and ranchers to the Roaring Fork, Gunnison, and Grand Valleys. (Hugh Carey, Colorado Sun)

There is also a retail store on site where you can purchase beef, pork, lamb and other meats provided by the ranch. Homestead sells Mexican shrimp, tuna, and salmon, as well as fresh milk and cheese.

The diversity of items offered to local and statewide customers is the result of area ranchers’ determination to stay afloat by responding to changing customer preferences in the 1990s, according to Robbie LeBarre. It is said that there is. The best way to do that, she said, is to open their own processing plants and retail stores where producers can speak directly to potential buyers.

“Everyone was running a cow-and-calf ranch back then,” LeBarre said. “We decided to diversify and add processing so that we can start selling directly to consumers. It provides us with an opportunity to interact with consumers.”

“This allows us to expand our customers’ knowledge of agriculture in general and what it takes to deliver a diversified enterprise,” she said.

Le Valley Ranch is approximately 40 miles from the processing plant in Delta. But few other producer-owned processors or retailers in Colorado allow ranchers to cut out the middleman. Ranchers often have to travel hundreds of miles to reach processing facilities.

And if a group of activists working on a 2024 ballot measure get their way, Denver’s only co-op processing plant would be permanently shut down.

A gaping hole in Colorado’s supply chain

LeBarre said the wide gap between ranchers and processing plants has created a gaping hole in Colorado’s supply chain and threatens the sustainability of meat production.

According to the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, Colorado has 13,000 beef cattle producers and 206 feedlots, all served by 24 USDA-certified slaughter plants. According to CCA, Colorado is the fourth largest exporter of fresh and frozen beef in the United States, with an export market worth more than $1 billion.

The small number of slaughter plants compared to the size of Colorado’s cattle production leaves Colorado’s food chain vulnerable to disruption. Food costs also increase because producers truck livestock from far corners of the state to Front Range processors, while smaller livestock are scattered along the Eastern Plains and Western Slope, LeBarre said. said.

“Many of these facilities are located in remote locations,” she said. “In some situations, you may have to travel from Fort Collins to Delta Air Lines for the procedure. That’s a huge expense.”

“And processing is a really important part of providing food security for us and the whole world,” LeBarre said. “It’s like the energy sector. If one processing center is affected by something, the whole system is affected.”

Homestead meat processor Hector Felix cuts the ribcage from half of an 800-pound cow at a facility in Delta State on Nov. 21, 2023. U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) recently introduced legislation to help small meat processors in Colorado and across the country. This bill creates grant and loan opportunities through the U.S. Department of Agriculture to shut them down. (Hugh Carey, Colorado Sun)

Le Valley is one of the leading meat producers supporting a proposal in Congress that would allow small and medium-sized meat processing facilities to expand. The Butcher Block Act, co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, authorizes USDA loans and loan guarantees to expand and modernize small and medium-sized meat processing and rendering facilities.

The bill would also develop new mobile facilities to improve local and regional access to processing and rendering services.

Meat industry leaders welcomed the bill, which could increase competition among rural processors and production capacity. Kent Swisher, president and CEO of the North American Renderers Association, said the bill ultimately focuses on the importance of recovering meat, bones and fat from animals and reusing them in other products. He said he was guessing.

“This bill is the first to recognize the important role of rendering as a safe and sustainable way to upcycle parts of animals and birds that are not for human consumption,” Swisher said in a news release.

But butcher block laws run counter to changing attitudes toward livestock production, local environmentalists say. Watchdog groups say large-scale ranching and slaughterhouses are morally wrong and environmentally destructive.

According to Earth First and The World Counts, approximately 15% of greenhouse gas emissions from livestock come from methane, primarily from gases emitted by livestock. Large-scale meat operations also destroy forests and take up land for wildlife, environmental groups say.

According to Earth First, mega-ranches are responsible for spreading food poisoning, while also occupying 30% of the Earth’s surface, leaving less land available for other uses.

Industrial livestock farming is a key driver of the climate crisis, and replacing industrial livestock farming is a necessary part of solving climate change, said Pro Animal Future spokesperson Aidan Kankyok. Ta. The group is leading an effort to put a measure on the 2024 ballot to ban slaughterhouses in Denver.

Superior Farms Inc. is the city’s only slaughterhouse, located in Globeville. The company has well over 500 employees and is one of the largest lamb slaughterhouses in the country, slaughtering more than 1,000 lambs each day, Kankyoku said in an email.

“Slaughterhouses dump toxic chemicals into waterways, and most of all, no one can watch the footage of what is happening to the animals in these facilities without feeling disgusted.” he said.

“New meat alternatives and changing cultural norms show that we don’t need to rely on livestock to thrive,” he added. “Society is moving away from dependence on livestock, and that’s a good thing.”

Kankyoku said Bennett’s bill would be a step backwards in moving away from factory farming. “Slaughterhouses have no place in the progressive and peaceful future Colorado voters want to create,” he said. “Governments should lead the transition away from animal agriculture, or at least stop tipping the scales against humane and sustainable farming alternatives.”

Superior Farms Inc. could not be reached for comment.

Superior Farms says on its website that it partners with more than 1,000 family-owned farms to provide high-quality lamb with a strong commitment to animal health and sustainability.

“Lambs graze primarily on open pastures, preserving the natural vegetation of vast grasslands that have existed for centuries, while benefiting the land through fertilization, erosion mitigation, and bushfire suppression. ” states the website.

The National Cattle Beef Association, along with other agricultural organizations, is fighting claims that beef producers have a negative impact on the environment, noting that U.S. beef producers are already world leaders in sustainable beef production. It’s here.

The Cattlemen’s Association said the industry is committed to climate neutrality for U.S. cattle production by 2040, according to a news release.

LeBarre points to work done at Colorado State University as an example of livestock producers working to keep livestock farming sustainable in an era of changing attitudes about meat. CSU’s website states that the Livestock and Environmental Research Institute convenes several groups from across the CSU campus in a variety of disciplines to balance issues of “economic growth and the environment.”

Such academic research and research will help determine how much impact farms and ranches have on the environment, for better or worse, LeBarre said.

“So far we have only focused on one side of the ledger,” she said. “We have been criticized for so many things without being recognized for what we do every day.”

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