Is Grass Green? Considering Sustainable Beef

GLOBAL - Pork and protein sectors far out-strip beef in terms of feed efficiency but the caveat is that these proteins use resources that could have gone into human food.
calendar icon 9 July 2015
clock icon 2 minute read

This is the point many cattle advocates make when questioned about the viability of beef production long term – it manages land often not fit for arable production.

And this is what UK land management and heritage organisation The National Trust said back in 2013 when it said grass-fed beef is best both for the environment and consumers.

It said optimised beef production was better than maximised beef production.

Meanwhile, due to urbanisation and land degradation, arable land is due to decrease at a rate which will reach a nadir of 0.15 hectares per person in 2050.

This is according to Dr Jude Capper, who has underscored the ‘dilution of maintenance’ theory and the importance of productivity and birth to slaughter metrics in benchmarking the world’s cattle industry.

An advocate of the feedlot systems when used well, Dr Capper has noted that productivity increases “demonstrably reduces” beef’s carbon footprint.

And a UK study is serving to illustrate the range of criteria and metrics, in addition to land use type and carbon, which can be used to benchmark the sustainability of a beef operation.

Animal performance in daily weight gain; inputs and sales in pounds and pence; greenhouse gas emissions; animal health and welfare and biodiversity are what grassland studies conducted at the Rothamsted Institute integrated research farm - North Wyke – are looking at. read more

The UK study is assessing land related efficiencies by carrying capacity, nutritional quality and nutrient and soil loss to water.

All beef production systems are “potentially sustainable”, according to Dr Capper.

But dilution of maintenance means systems incorporating feedlots often work out more efficient in terms of carbon, methane, land use and animals used, she says in a study.

Her US assessment characterises grass-fed beef as taking over 200 days longer than conventional feedlot beef to produce cattle 90 kilos lighter than a 'conventional' US system.

Grass-fed takes 77.5 per cent more animals, 88 per cent more land has a 54 per cent higher population nutrient requirement.

A Dr Capper study included the calculation that if all US beef produced in 2010 has been grass-fed the country would have had to have grown by 75 per cent the size of Texas.

Figures for water use per system are a little vaguer though and depend hugely on the extent of irrigation.

In the coming decades it will be water efficiencies and footprint, as opposed to carbon, that Dr Capper predicts will be the most important measure for society and farming.

Michael Priestley

Michael Priestley
News Team - Editor

Mainly production and market stories on ruminants sector. Works closely with sustainability consultants at FAI Farms

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