Efficient Livestock Production a Key to Global Agricultural Sustainability

These series of posts are the result of agricultural sustainability research paired with on-farm interviews conducted by The Clark Group, LLC with 12 farms utilizing some of these practices.  

Efficient Livestock Production

Selecting superior genetic stock, using high quality and efficient feed, reducing animal stress allows for getting livestock to their end weight in fewer days resulting in less energy and pollution.

Description: iStock_000015862938Small.jpgProducing livestock in a sustainable way is about more than the animals being kept “cage-free” or only being “grass-fed”.  Like the term “organic,” these words have been inserted as short-hand for sustainable livestock production.  However, when we look at the rapidly growing meat protein demands of developing countries, it is clear that we will need to employ much greater efficiency than small-scale systems can provide if we are to avoid significant habitat destruction for increased meat production.  This would occur in response to a lowering of production in the U.S. if our large, efficient livestock providers were unable to stay in business.  While modern feedlots are often given a bad image from the media and some activists, they can serve as an extremely efficient way to generate protein with less resources, cost and environmental impact than the more idyllic small-scale and organic systems.

There seems to be a misconception about “corn-fed” cattle – that is, that beef cattle are born penned behind a trough of corn, and spend their whole lives being force-fed grain.  In reality, “grass-fed” and “corn-fed” cattle should really be called “grass-finished” and “corn-finished” (or, better yet, grain-finished), since, for the majority of every beef cow’s life, it grazes on pasture.  Since the days of pre-history, animals have been fed a rich diet shortly before the slaughter, as in the well-known “killing the fatted calf” metaphor.  Ranchers in ancient times knew that feeding pasture-raised animals a richer diet during the pre-slaughter months yielded more, and tastier, meat.  This practice continues today in modern feedlots.  Cattle who have spent most of their lives grazing on pasture are brought to feed lots to increase per-cow meat yield, which is especially important during the winter months when forage is scarce.

Looking closer at grass-finished beef and grain-finished in terms of land use or energy use metrics, grain-finished beef is much better than grass-finished on both measures.  A recent partial life-cycle analysis found that grass-finished cattle took more than twice as much energy and three times the land to produce, per pound.[1]  This is due in part because it requires more individual cows to produce the same amount of meet if they are fed exclusively a grass diet.  Specifically, grass-finished beef requires 4 lives for every 3 grain finished cattle to produce the same amount of meat.[2] For each additional animal, there is more manure and enteric emissions created and more land and feed are needed.  All of these resources add up over time to create significant energy and pollution impacts – especially at the global level.

Another efficient livestock practice is to capture value added through certification and packaging of premium pork and beef.  Typically livestock are sold on the grid, or processed at central facilities that don’t distinguish between grades or types of meat.  By integrating with the food processing and packaging process, producers can add value by grading or verifying the age or source of a particular cut of meat.  This practice is also sustainable because it allows a particular grade of meat to be used for a directed purpose, which uses the livestock in the most efficient way possible.

Grazing and Feeding Practices

Rotational grazing practices, or allowing the ground to “rest” between usage, allow pastureland to re-grow and remain healthy.  Moving livestock across pasture in an orderly manner can avoid over-grazing any one part of the land.  Grazing practices can help manage soil erosion that occurs when over-grazed land does not have the grassroots systems to hold soil in place and store carbon in the ground.

Changing the time of year when cattle calve their young from fall to spring also impacts forage by decreasing winter-feeding.  The benefit of spring calving is less need for feed in the winter – when forage is less available.  Spring calving allows the cattle to graze naturally more so than fall calving.  This process decreases reliance on crops that are harvested and stored; and because fewer crops are needed for feed, the costs (and carbon) associated with planting and harvesting are reduced. 

Effective Livestock Manure Management

Efficient management of livestock manure is important to ensure that manure is disposed of efficiently – producing the least odor, runoff and emissions – or even re-used as fertilizer on cropland.  The reuse of the nutrients in manure as fertilizer keeps those nutrients in plant growth, and avoids the application of additional fossil fuel-derived fertilizer.  Some studies also indicate that handling manure in solid form, such as composting, may also decrease methane emissions, a greenhouse gas, though it may increase nitrous oxide formation.[3]

A manure management plan should be used in conjunction with applying manure to cropland to ensure that nutrients from manure will be used by crops and not over-applied.  Manure can be analyzed for nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and other nutrients to understand the composition of the manure.  Soil tests can be used to measure the nutrient reserve held in the soil profile from previous crop years and applications of fertilizer.  These types of procedures can be used to determine the nutrient needs of the fields to make sure the right amount of fertilizer is applied.  The fields can then be inspected to ensure that resources are meeting production needs.

One example of a manure management best-practice is a flush gutter system that uses bacteria to break-down manure.  Rotating the flushing of different barns or areas on the farm can allow bacteria to grow to an optimal level to decompose the manure.  This type of system reduces odor production while the manure is decomposed.

Another way to manage is with an anaerobic digester.  Anaerobic digestion is a natural process by which biomass, such as livestock manure, is decomposed by bacteria in the absence of oxygen, or “anaerobically”, producing methane and other byproducts or “biogas”.  Anaerobic digestion provides a variety of environmental benefits including odor control, reduced pathogens, and improved air and water quality.  “Green” energy is produced from methane, the primary constituent of natural gas.  In addition, the capture of methane through biogas recovery reduces greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere.  However, anaerobic digesters are very expensive (in the millions of dollars) and none of the farmers interviewed were currently using this practice due to cost limitations.

[1]Capper, J. L., & Cady, R. A. (2010). The environmental impact of corn-fed vs. grass-fed beef finishing systems. American Dairy Science Association / American Society of Animal Science 2010 Joint Annual Meeting.


[2]Capper, J. L., & Cady, R. A. (2010). The environmental impact of corn-fed vs. grass-fed beef finishing systems. American Dairy Science Association / American Society of Animal Science 2010 Joint Annual Meeting.




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