Quantifying the Canadian Beef Industry’s Impact on Biodiversity

Project Title

A Regionalized Life Cycle Impact Assessment Model for the Quantification of Canadian Beef Production Impacts on Biodiversity


Tim McAllister, Ph.D. and Kim Ominski, Ph.D. tim.mcallister@agr.gc.ca

Tim McAllister, Ph.D. (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Lethbridge); Kim Ominski, Ph.D. (University of Manitoba); Roland Kroebel Ph.D., Steve Javorek M.Sc. and Kerry LaForge, (Agriculture Agri-Food Canada), Edward Bork Ph.D., Cameron Carlyle Ph.D., JC Cahill Ph.D. (University of Alberta); Getahun Legesse (Manitoba Agriculture); Carrie Selin (Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute); Stephen Davis Ph.D. (Canadian Wildlife Service / University of Regina); Tom Harrison M.Sc. (South of the Divide Conservation Action Program) and Kristine Tapley M.Sc.(Ducks Unlimited)

Status Project Code
Completed March, 2023 ENV.07.17


The Canadian beef production life cycle is made up of extensive cow-calf and other grazing systems as well as intensive feedlot and confined feeding programs. Both extensive and intensive systems interact and impact the habitat of other native species across a wide range of natural and cultivated lands. Ultimately, the beef cattle industry plays a role in improving biodiversity, not only through directly preserving native grasslands but also through maintaining wildlife corridors important for species to hunt, forage, breed, and migrate to maintain ecosystem benefits that come with those activities. We know that the Canadian cattle industry is an important piece of the puzzle in preserving habitat and ecosystem health, but little research has been done to capture the true picture of the benefits of beef on the landscape and the potential opportunities and areas of improvement to enhance biodiversity on lands owned and operated by Canadian farmers and ranchers.  


  • Describe typical Alberta beef production scenarios in terms of population distribution, feed demand and overall land-use footprint,  
  • Identify the main drivers and processes by which beef production systems affect animal and plant biodiversity,  
  • Identify indicators to address changes in biodiversity and structural landscape connectivity at local to regional scales, and  
  • Incorporate multi-taxa biodiversity into a regionalized life cycle impact assessment (LCIA) of beef production systems in Alberta.

What They Did

To assess the impacts of Alberta beef production on biodiversity at the county level, first the percentages of each land cover type (i.e., cropland vs forage land vs native pasture) used by beef cattle were estimated. These estimates were derived from the AAFC Annual Crop Inventory (ACI) and based on the annual and perennial land cover types used to produce feed for beef cattle production and by considering four stages of beef production: cow-calf, feedlot backgrounding, backgrounding on pasture, and feedlot finishing. Data on multiple populations of flora and fauna and predictive habitat models developed by the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI) over the last 15 years for 974 native animal and plant species, representing birds, mammals, soil mites, mosses, lichens and vascular plants, were then used to assess impact of the characterized beef production systems on multi-taxa (multiple populations of living things) biodiversity. This was done based on a biodiversity intactness index, which compared the current abundance of each studied species to the predicted abundance assumed if it were completely undisturbed or natural habitat. To investigate the contribution of grazed grasslands to structural landscape connectivity, a species-agnostic approach was used to create a large-scale landscape-connectivity model for Alberta. This model was then used to understand how conversion of existing grasslands to crop land and other uses impacts the structural landscape connectivity at many scales throughout beef-producing regions in Alberta.  

What They Learned

Using native grasslands to support beef production protects biodiversity and maintains the population of native species within these natural ecosystems. The cow-calf and grass-fed yearling sector are the primary components of the beef production system that supports the habitat protection of multiple native species in Alberta. In contrast, components of the beef production systems that rely on feed from cultivated cropland have the greatest negative impact on biodiversity. This is largely due to the conversion of grassland or parkland landscapes to cultivated cropland. Plants and animals that are unable to relocate such as forages, soil mites, mosses and lichens, as compared to highly mobile species such as birds and terrestrial mammals, are particularly sensitive to this land use change.  

The results of this work highlight the need for considering a multi-species approach to improve biodiversity on land occupied by cattle and beef producers. Further conversion of existing grasslands, particularly in highly productive land areas will result in a continuous decline in structural connectivity from a local to a provincial scale across Alberta.   

Therefore, preserving the existing grassland corridors should be a priority in land use planning and management. Continued conversion of grassland to cropland or other uses will further reduce flow and contribute to the fragmentation of migration corridors within the province. The southeastern portion of Alberta is particularly vulnerable to grassland conversion as these regions constitute an important corridor for the south–north movement of native flora and fauna like Moose, Cedar waxwings and plant species at risk like the Western Blue Flag. These remaining ecological flow corridors are particularly important for grassland species as they connect remnant native grasslands in the southeast corner of Alberta with the central Parkland region through the lower and upper foothills east of the Rocky Mountains and with the remaining native grasslands in the southern section of the great plains.  

Different provincial and local strategies have been focusing on protecting the remaining grasslands from conversion to other human uses (e.g., croplands and urbanization). Among these strategies, keeping grazed grasslands protected through responsible grazing by beef cattle and other grazing livestock will sustain these threatened ecosystems and their biodiversity while promoting landscape connectivity and supporting biodiversity at and beyond beef-producing landscapes in western Canada.

What It Means

Grazing beef cattle promotes biodiversity and connectivity among migration and dispersal corridors. European colonization has already negatively impacted biodiversity and connectivity in Alberta, with this being most prominent in the highly urbanized central regions and areas of intensive agriculture in the south. Conversion of grasslands or parklands to cropland or urban areas is the primary factor responsible for negative impacts on biodiversity and connectivity. As a result, production of cultivated monoculture crops will negatively impact these metrics regardless of if the crops are used as feed for cattle or food for humans. Existing corridors that rely on intact grasslands are likely to play an increasingly important role in facilitating the dispersal of organisms and their genes across landscapes. These areas may become even more important as species rely on the capability to move to improve genetic fitness in order to adapt to climate change pressures. Incentives that make it economically viable to continue to protect these grazing lands as opposed to conversion to crops or