Grass- vs. grain-fed in regard to the environment
August 20, 2010
As we look to the future and consider population growth predictions, it raises the question “how will food be produced?” Some continue to think technological advances are a detriment to the environment. Others believe we must adapt technology in order to have an ample, affordable food supply for the world population.
If you think back 70-some years ago, essentially all beef was produced on grass. Because of economics and preference for grain-fed beef, it has changed over time.
There is no question we have gained much by utilizing technology, be it hybrid crops or improved genetics of livestock. For example, we currently have one-third less cows than 50 years ago but still manage to produce the same amount of beef.
One of the challenges the beef industry faces is pressure from environmental groups that believe cattle are damaging to the environment, pointing to confined feeding or feedlots as the major contributor. The concept of grass-fed beef is even promoted by some involved in cattle production. It seems many things we hear today stress products that are “green,” everything from energy to protein – including beef.
Grass-fed beef is often touted as utilizing “green” production that is more friendly to the environment and healthier to the consumer. This sounds great until you consider the facts and compare grass-fed beef production with production utilizing grain concentrates in the feedlot plus and technologies available for growth and feed efficiency.
A comparison of finishing cattle on grass versus feedlot was recently made at Washington State University and presented at both the annual meeting of American Society of Animal Science and later at National Beef Cattlemen’s Association summer meetings in Denver. The researchers developed a model where grass-fed beef was grown at 1.9 lbs. per day with cattle in a confined feeding program grown at 3.50 lbs. per day.
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What surprised me was the differences in energy required to produce cattle with the two systems. It required a total of 47 mega joules (MJ) of energy for the feedlot cattle versus 118 for the grass-fed cattle or 2.5 times greater energy for the forage-fed cattle.
In regards to the “green” concept, the forage-produced cattle emitted three times more methane (149 versus 53 MJ) or nearly three times more methane – not less – for the total growing period. Researchers calculated the total land needed for the two systems and found grass-fed cattle needed 12.8 times more land. Although not published, they would also need more water for the production period.
In regards to methane, cattle do emit some methane in the rumination and eruption process. However, it is such a small part of the so-called “greenhouse gases” that it is a very low contributor, despite the attention from environmental groups. The facts are rice fields and rain forests produce more methane than cattle world-wide. So if cattle in the U.S. didn’t produce any methane, it would only effect world methane production around 1 percent.
Some have touted grass-fed beef as healthier for the consumer. Dr. Smith from Texas A&M has conducted two clinical trials utilizing humans that consumed hamburger from either grass-fed or prime beef and found that desirable blood parameters for better health favored beef from cattle to the Choice grade in the feedlot and some added improvement was noted from hamburgers from prime beef.
I have absolutely no problem with those that want to produce and sell grass-fed cattle. There is a small market for such beef and some will pay a considerable premium for such beef. Forage still comprises the major feed component in beef production when you consider the whole system.
I do, however, have a problem when I see grass-fed beef promoted as more “green,” environmentally friendly, or as healthier, when unbiased data simply does not support their claims.
In addition, if we are going to feed the growing global population, we must utilize advanced technologies in order to stay profitable and have an economical food supply for the consumer.
Those that promote grass-fed beef and believe that should be a trend for the U.S. need to consider the fact that it will be very difficult to compete with countries that can produce growing forages year-round with low labor and other input costs. The U.S. excels and is unequaled in high-quality beef production and the cattle industry is not damaging to the environment.