A Southeastern Colorado rancher is getting a unique opportunity to represent the cow-calf industry at an agricultural sustainability summit this week held far beyond the state’s borders.

A Southeastern Colorado rancher is getting a unique opportunity to represent the cow-calf industry at an agricultural sustainability summit this week held far beyond the state’s borders.

Steve Wooten, who runs 300 cows on the Beatty Canyon Ranch near Kim, was scheduled to appear in conversation Wednesday with the senior director of global supply chain management for McDonald's during a packed two-day conference of lectures and moderated panel discussions.

“I don’t think we’ll surprise each other too much, but you never know,” he said prior to the event. “When you share your story, you never know who might be hearing it for the first time or isn’t aware of what it takes to get something done. There are elements of their business where we as ranchers probably have very little awareness.” The Sustainable Ag Summit held in Atlanta, Georgia, was hosted by the dairy industry in partnership with multiple crop and livestock alliances and included many international companies that buy, sell and process agricultural commodities, such as Wal-Mart and General Mills.

While the concept of sustainability is challenging on many levels and is vigorously opposed by some producer groups, Wooten said cattle producers need a mechanism to demonstrate what they are doing right.

“I think we need to take a critical analysis of each segment of our industry and share that collectively, regardless of where we are at in the system,” he said. “We need a way to say: Here’s where our strengths are, here’s our weaknesses and let’s fix them.”

When the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef was first organized a year and a half ago in Denver, Wooten attended the meeting and quickly signed up as a member. He said it made sense to him to have a seat at the table and try to influence the process in a way that would help keep ranchers on the land.

“People are part of the four main legs of sustainability, as we define it, and we need viable economies and people on working landscapes to get this done,” he said.

The U.S. beef roundtable spent the past year identifying sustainability indicators and metrics that could be used to evaluate progress in those areas, Wooten said.

“We’re turning that over to a verification working group that will look at the key elements and decide how to measure the progress we are making,” he explained.

Looking for and making small improvements is something cattlemen do every day, he said. He gave the example of dust clouds that often obscure roadways next to feedlots.

“Feedlots are so important to our rural communities, but we do have an air quality problem associated with that. Do we have some tools in place we can use to reduce that issue? That’s just a small example of what we’re working on,” he said. “It’s not going to be a regulatory mechanism, it’s industry driven, and that’s the whole point of this.”

Wooten pointed out that taking a proactive approach to public concerns had already been successful in the conservation arena. He cited private and civil interests working together on measurable outcomes in helping to keep the lesser prairie chicken and the sage grouse from being placed on the federal endangered species list.

“We all know this works better than a regulatory approach,” he said. “When you have everybody from the cow-calf producer to the biggest retailers in the world all sitting together at the same table and sharing the projects they’re working on, it’s hard for a regulatory body to come in and run over everybody.”

The two-day Atlanta conference was billed as the first time crop and livestock agriculture came together in the same venue with large merchandizers, processors and retailers to share sustainability efforts that are happening all across the food supply chain.

“Beef is not the only industry going through a sustainability analysis, many of the others are doing the same thing,” Wooten said. “There’s no reason to re-invent the wheel each time.”

The big player on the crop production side is Field to Market, an alliance of hundreds of members that includes numerous commodity organizations, crop protection companies, recreational and wildlife groups and universities like Colorado State.

Participants at the summit this past week also included sustainable investment companies, specialty crop producers and distributors, federal agencies like the Natural Resources Conservation Service and nongovernmental organizations like the Nature Conservancy.