WASHINGTON, Jan. 25, 2017 - To hear Todd Allen tell it, Cargill is only now talking publicly about feedlot improvements that have been in the works for years.

After looking around and seeing the food and ag landscape trend toward sustainability, the company decided to be a little more intentional and organized – and public – about how they are moving toward that goal.

“We’ve been working in this space (sustainability) for a number of years, but really hadn’t told our story and gotten credit for what we were already doing,” Allen, the president of Cargill Cattle Feeders, told Agri-Pulse recently. “Really, this assessment we did, to be honest with you, had a whole lot to do with organizing a lot of the work we were doing because it was just good business.”

Mike Martin, a director of communications with Cargill, said the company hopes their plan of attack catches on. 

“We want our initiative that we started in 2014 to be a model for how it should be done,” he said. 

Here’s how Cargill’s system works: they track about 130 metrics feeding 90 indicators. Those indicators all fall into four major categories: environmental; economic; animal health and wellbeing; and community and employee. The metrics provide ways of measuring the progress of the indicators, which in turn gauge the company’s progress in the four major categories.

The philosophy of measuring where you’re at on key sustainability initiatives is a good start, says Jenny Ahlen, a supply chain director with the Environmental Defense Fund. But she wants to make sure companies have the intention of turning that data into action. 

“I think baselining, understanding where you are and having good data is always a great place to start,” Ahlen said in an interview with Agri-Pulse. “Doing that benchmarking as a first step is important, but I would say that measurement alone isn’t enough. You have to then do something with that information to make it really valuable.” 

Allen says the system is in place at nine feedlots which together beef up about 1.3 million head of cattle annually. Two are owned entirely by Cargill, the others are involved in some form of partnership, and they all stretch from West Texas to eastern Colorado and western Kansas. 

As many other companies are finding out, getting in the sustainability business is good for the bottom line. According to a Nielson report, 66 percent of consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable brands. The report – released in October 2015 – also pointed out that sales of consumer goods “from brands with a demonstrated commitment to sustainability” shot up 4 percent in the previous year compared to an increase of less than 1 percent for other companies. 

Allen noted that Cargill – which mostly sells its product to other retailers and not directly to consumers – is aware of the broader consumer interest in sustainability, but the company is also tracking these metrics for the sake of the company. 

“We did it for the business to become a better business, not to satisfy somebody’s indicators that they had out there,” Allen said. Specifically, he pointed to things like humane handling of animals, environmental impact, and employee safety. 

Cargill’s plan really has just one goal: continuous improvement. The company isn’t necessarily setting a goal of lessening environmental impact by 35 percent in the next five years, but rather to have a better outlook in 2017 than what was observed in 2016, and then even better again in 2018. Some areas – water use, antibiotic use, manure composting, feed efficiency, Allen used as examples – are already seeing continuous improvement.

The initiative also takes into account the elephant in the protein production room: a renewed public focus on animal welfare. Publicity campaigns by animal rights groups have left a major black eye on gestation crates in the pork sector and laying cages in the egg market, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to see cattle feedlots as potentially coming in the crosshairs of these groups in the future. While that wasn’t the single motivating factor behind the indicators and metrics, Allen said it wasn’t entirely ignored either.

“We need to be able to validate that we’re not harming these cattle with production systems, that we’re providing the care and the conditions that they can prosper in and that we would all consider to be humane,” he said. “If you have a pen of cattle and 20 percent of them are crippled going to the plant, you haven’t done a very good job on the humane handling aspect.”

“We didn’t do that with this in mind, but we are obviously aware that that’s (animal welfare) an issue with our consuming public,” Allen added. 

Cargill has no problem with talking about their ambitions for their sustainability initiative, but they are keeping the nuts and bolts of the program to themselves. Allen said some of the indicators involve proprietary information for internal use only, but others have been shared with Cargill customers and some industry groups hoping to learn more about the system.

Entities like the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef have asked to peek under the hood of Cargill’s plan to see how it’s been working and how it could help other companies, but Allen said those other companies will learn more about how to improve their systems through a thorough internal review, like Cargill did.

“We didn’t hand it to them, because there’s a real value in going on this journey by yourself as an individual to learn and understand and not just have it handed to you,” he said. But other feedlot operators, including some direct competitors, are now starting down the same path Cargill did two years ago, and Allen says they should. 

“We wanted to help define and help build what we think is an acceptable system,” Allen said. “We didn’t want Cargill’s fingerprints all over the system because everybody would say ‘Well, that’s just Cargill’s system.’”


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