The ‘Sustainability’ of U.S. Cow Production
Consumers increasingly demand farmers pay attention to animal welfare, and the environmental impact of producing meat. One of the main ideas behind the trend in “organic” or grass-fed cows is that allowing cows to live on pasture land, as opposed to grain-feeding them while confined to feedlots, allows the cows to express their natural behavior. Raising grass-fed cows is also thought to be better for the environment than more intensive forms of cow production, an important point since meat from cows is considered to be one of the most environmentally harmful animal products you can consume.
This new article explores a potential shift in U.S. cow production from grain-fed to grass-fed, and its potential environmental impacts. The picture is far from utopian: Based on data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the authors estimate that a total shift of current “beef” production would actually require more cows to be raised and killed, that there is not enough pastureland available to support such a shift, and that it could still negatively affect the environment.
In the U.S., almost all cows killed for their meat (32 million in 2016) spend the first 10.5 months of their lives grazing on pasture land. But only 1% of them stay there and continue eating grass until they’re slaughtered. These are what we call “grass-fed” cows. All others are confined to feedlots for the remaining 7.5 months of their lives before being killed at an average of 18 months of age. On feedlots, farmers feed the cows grain to rapidly increase their weight and maximize the amount of meat they can produce.
As many advocates know, feedlot systems can negatively affect the environment, human health, and animal well-being. In recent years, the U.S. market for meat from grass-fed cows has increased by 20-35% annually. In light of this trend, the authors estimate what would happen if the entire amount of “beef” currently produced in the U.S. would come from grass-fed cows. Their calculations are based on data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The key results are:
- 23 million additional cows—a 30% increase of the current population—would need to be raised and killed. The main reason for this is that grain is denser in nutrients than grass. Cows who only eat grass don’t gain weight as fast and as much as grain-fed cows.
- Only 61% of the current amount of meat could be produced with existing pastureland and using supplemental forage for grazing cows.
- Methane emissions would increase by 41%. This would be an 8% increase of total U.S. methane emissions. Methane is a greenhouse gas which is emitted in the process of cows’ digestion, mainly by belching. The authors consider other environmental trade-offs, such as lower nitrous oxide emissions from manure, but do not quantify them.
The authors conclude that a shift towards meat from cows raised on pastures can only be sustainable if consumers eat much less “beef.” They also consider how a reduction in this meat consumption would affect farmers. A domestic shift to more grass-fed cows could sustain or even improve U.S. farmers’ incomes, if they could gain market share from exporting countries and if prices of meat from grass-fed cows would stay high.
With regard to animal well-being, the authors point out that improvements of open pasture grazing also come with challenges. For example, cows would be exposed to harsh weather conditions on pastures. Currently, there is a lack of legal protection for cows in those conditions.
Advocates could use the findings of this study to argue that reducing meat consumption is needed even if living conditions of farmed animals improve. Emphasizing potential market gains and higher prices, advocates might reduce farmers’ resistance to campaigns advocating for reduced meat consumption and a shift in production methods.
However, there is a risk that the results of this study could be used by current agricultural interests to defend conventional “beef” production from grain-fed cows. They might argue that a shift from grass-fed to grain-fed is neither practical nor environmentally sustainable and therefore undesirable. Advocates should carefully consider how to include the findings in their messaging to improve cows’ well-being.