let's talk farm animals

Are grass-fed cows better for the earth?

By Leslie Ballentine, Farming and food commentator

It’s no wonder there’s a growing perception that farms which feed cattle on grass for their entire lives, are better for the environment than farms that finish their pasture-raised cattle in feedlots with grain. The image is that the grass is always lush and plentiful and the cattle self feed themselves with little dependence on machinery or other energy consuming equipment. Whether or not science has confirmed this perception is another story.

New research suggests grass-fed beef aren’t necessarily better for the environment than cows confined to feeding lots. It shows just the opposite. This recent US research report maintains that “grain finishing” – feeding cows grain during the final few months before they’re slaughtered – is more beneficial for the environment than “grass finishing.”

The report argues it has actually improved the environment because we don’t need as many cattle to feed more people than we did 30 years ago. The research shows that the US cattle population has been reduced by 5 million over a 30-year period, grain-feeding has reduced land use by 30 percent, water use by 14 percent and greenhouse gas emissions by 33 percent.

The research of Jude Capper, a Washington State University animal science professor has been studying the energy output of each kind of beef. She found that grass-finished cattle require about 2 1/2 times as much energy to produce as cattle in feedlots.

“There’s this human intrinsic perception that cows should be on grass in the same way dogs should have tails,” Capper says. By Capper’s estimation, cattle that eat grain during the final months before they’re slaughtered grow two to three times faster, reducing the amount of land and over all resources needed by ranchers to produce more beef.

Finishing a 1,200-pound corn-fed cow requires 3 acres of land, while finishing a grass-fed cow requires 9 acres. There’s also the methane – the powerful greenhouse gas that cows excrete into the air. Capper calculates that a grain diet and a shorter life span result in one-third the methane output of a grass-fed cow. And that methane output of grass-fed livestock cannot be compensated by the greenhouse gas capture rate of pasture grasses.

Research in Canada reports some of the same findings. For example, a 2007 report titled “The Livestock Industry in Ontario” shows that Ontario’s cattle numbers declined 33% between 1971 and 2001. That same study shows that the volume of meat, eggs and dairy produced increased 36% and saved over 2 million hectares including about 1 million hectares of pasture land. This is land that not only can be put to non-agricultural uses but has savings to the environment.

Since this 2007 study there has been an increase in market demand and production of grass-finished beef. It can be a lucrative market for cattle producers and retailers alike. But if purchasers are selecting this type of product to reduce their carbon footprint then they should be thinking about grain finished beef.

Until the Next Blog



Posted by FFC on March 13th, 2012 :: Filed under Beef cattle,Environment,Food,Misconceptions,Retailers,Sustainability
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