Where you stand on an issue depends a lot on where you sit. And looking at “sustainability” from a feedyard manager’s chair can help shed a new and different perspective on the world and the industry’s place in it.

At least that’s Tom McDonald’s perspective. And looking at a feedyard from his chair as vice president of environmental affairs for JBS Five Rivers Cattle Feeding, he says sustainable thinking not only encompasses much more than just the environmental aspect of cattle production, but it’s also essential for the feedyard’s long-term future.

“Sustainability is the life of a business and that makes it fun. Sustainability is our future. These are the things that are going to write our paychecks going forward,” he says.

Sustainable solutions to industry issues are designed to capture opportunities. “They’re collaborative. They make good business sense. That’s part of the definition because it’s not sustainable if it doesn’t make business sense,” McDonald says.

Taking the “triple bottom line” concept of sustainability, which considers social equity, economic prosperity and environmental integrity, McDonald says to ask yourself these questions whenever you’re thinking about making a capital investment:

• How is this going to impact the environment? How will it impact the air, the water, the land, your fossil fuel usage?
• How does this affect animal well-being? Will it improve handling, nutrition, health?
• How is this capital investment going to affect the human component? How will it affect your employees?
• How will it affect the neighbors that are near the feedyard?
How will it affect returns? “It is a good thing, it is a sustainable thing, for you to be profitable. If it’s not profitable, it’s not sustainable,” explains McDonald.

When thinking about sustainability as it relates to cattle feeding, McDonald said to think small and dream big. “I think we need to be looking for the little things. If you can get 2 mpg better fuel efficiency, that’s a win. If you can reduce your natural-gas use in the feedmill by 2%, that’s a win. If you can get a tenth-of-a-pound more gain out of your cattle, that’s a big win.”

But don’t be afraid to look at the future with big dreams. “We’re not going to have those out-of-the-park homeruns come at us every day. But we better be thinking about them. We better be wracking our brains thinking ‘what can we do to make this business better?’”

The people who can help you find those answers are close by, he says. “Generally, when I think of sustainable solutions, they come from people closest to the business. If you will talk with your line-level employees, they will tell you ways that you can do business better. They’ve all got ideas because they know the business – they’re the ones out in it every day. If we will listen and if we will give them the power to make some of the changes, I think we will move our businesses ahead.”