- About Us
- Policy Center
- GAP Report® & GAP Index™
- Harvest 2050 Blog
Livestock Productivity: The Innovation Imperative
By Roger Cady, PhD
Global Sustainability Lead, Elanco
Roger Cady currently serves as Global Sustainability Lead for Elanco working across animal protein species in support of sustainable agricultural practices. He is currently focused on methods to reduce natural resource use in the production of animal protein and promote environmentally sound and economically viable practices in the food animal value chain.
Feeding the 2 billion additional people who will inhabit our planet in the next 35 years while reducing the resources we use today to produce food is a fundamental challenge of sustainability.
Throughout history, humankind’s habit has been to use local resources as the population grew and move on when local resources were depleted.
That option is no longer available. Today nearly all arable land is already cultivated and any available land mass is quickly shrinking due to urbanization, erosion, desertification and competition for other uses of land.
Reducing food waste and reducing overconsumption or changing diets are certainly solutions, yet, these efforts are not sufficient by themselves to meet the challenge.
The fact is we will still need more food produced.
For meat, milk, and eggs, there are only two ways to do this; increase animal productivity or increase the number of animals. Increasing animal numbers will only increase the resource demands of animal source protein production, as well as the associated greenhouse gas emissions from sheep and cattle.
A better solution is to increase the efficiency of livestock systems, or enabling each animal to provide more eggs, meat and milk.
Living organisms are hard-wired to survive on carbon based food, so it is misleading to call food systems “carbon-free.” Furthermore, survival, known as maintenance, is an obligatory function meaning it is a need met above all other non-obligatory bodily functions. The non-obligatory functions that do not contribute to daily survival of an individual animal are growth, lactation, and reproduction. These are the functions that provide us with the meat, milk, and eggs used for food. Only after maintenance requirements are met are we able to get meat, milk and eggs.
Using an economic term, maintenance feed is a fixed cost to food production. Given this, another economic principle applies; the only way to reduce fixed cost per unit of production is to spread that fixed cost over more units of production (to increase productivity).
For example, a dairy cow producing 15 liters of milk needs 15 kg of feed daily. If that same cow was producing 30 liters daily she would need 21 kg of feed. If we needed 30 liters of milk, we save 9 kg/d of feed (21 kg instead of 30 kg) by having 1 cow producing the 30 liters instead of two cows producing 15 liters each. This savings is called “dilution of maintenance” because we need to maintain fewer cows to get the same amount of milk.
This principle applies across all animal protein production. For egg production, the analysis is the same. For meat production, we count the number of days from birth to market to determine how much feed is for maintenance.
Today we know how to produce animal-sourced foods more efficiently. Through innovations such as better livestock care and health practices, better feeds and fodder, use of the best genetic resources in animals, and application of precision agriculture systems, we can reduce the amount of feed required, use less land and use less water than ever before to produce the same or even more meat, milk and eggs. And we can do this with fewer animals, which lowers the greenhouse gas impact of our food production.
Innovation will be key to achieving this new efficiency—are we willing to use and extend it to more farmers around the world who need it?