Does it really take more land to produce grass-finished beef versus grain-fed (feedlot)?
That's an experiment I was willing to take on that you'll read about more below. The results may surprise you.
I have a hypothesis that I want to test out on this blog post: I want to find out for a fact if forage-finished beef does in fact require more land than grain-finished beef, or whether it's a load of hot air.
The common rhetoric that, "There's just not enough land to produce grass-fed beef for everyone," is a common mantra repeated by several groups, more strongly the anti-livestock animal extremists, as well as the conventional agriculture promoters. And personally, I'm tired of hearing this rhetoric again and again without having some ammunition myself to debunk such claims. This ends now.
Have you ever done a Google search to even find out if there has been such an analysis done by anyone? I have, and the results are disappointing, to say the least. There is only one article (and this phrase is repeated by other articles, nothing that is original) that gives a very ambiguous comparison, supposedly from some unpublished research paper that hasn't even been cited in the article itself, which claims that, "a grain-fed cow will require three acres of land, while a grass-fed cow requires nine acres."
I'm sorry, but that's just pathetic.
And what makes it worse, as a major caveat, is that the very article claims that the author of that unpublished paper is partnered with a pro-CAFO (which includes feedlot production) company. That will certainly create a huge influence on land-use analyses and resulting data obtained.
So I think it's time I pulled back my sleeves and dug out my calculator and my formulas I used in my other blog post I had a lot of fun creating, to take a really good, hard look at just how much land is actually required by both forage-finishing and grain-finishing cattle, and to test the hypothesis that it is true that "grain-fed" actually do require less land than "grass-fed." As I write this out, this will be both an adventure for myself, and for you to read though
Key Points on Feeds, Forages and Cattle
Before I begin, there's several key things to understand.
The Typical (Canadian) Grain-finished Steer:
I start with a weaned calf weighing 500 pounds. I work through some different "step-up" diets from when he enters the backgrounding phase. The first five months is feeding through winter, and the next four months (the last half of the backgrounding phase) is continuing feeding in a drylot/feedlot situation, or the option for when he goes on pasture. He then gets sent to the feedlot when he reaches 1050 pounds, and is fed up over four months until he reaches target weight of 1425 pounds. All that is assuming that he was weaned and brought into the backgrounding phase when he was 6 months old, was 15 months of age when he entered the feedlot, and was sent to slaughter by the time he was around 19 months old.
Note: I understand that there's lots of times where beef cattle have been finished and sent slaughter at a younger age, like around 12 to 14 months old. But because I'm working with a British-type breed, that backgrounding period is needed for growth. If he were a Continental-type animal (like a Simmental or Charolais), he wouldn't need that backgrounding period and could be sent to begin the feedlot-finishing process almost immediately after weaning. Reasons are Continental-type beef cattle have different metabolic requirement where they need more higher-quality feed for bodily maintenance, growth, and (for cows only) lactation than British-type. Continentals are less likely to put on a lot of fat if put on a high-energy diet than British types when growing, because they reach maturity at a later age.
The Forage-finished Steer:
For the grass-fed/forage-finished steer, the weaning age and weight are significantly different. This steer is weaned at 8 months of age (born in late May, weaned by end of December), and weighing about 700 pounds. Target slaughter weight for this steer is going to be around 1100 pounds. Age at slaughter will be around 18 months of age.
Note: Depending on the animal's frame size, finishing weights will differ for forage-finished animals. Typically you'd want smaller-framed animals than the larger-framed ones, as they take less land and less forage to feed and finish up, and you tend to get more meat from more smaller animals than fewer larger ones. Also, animals with larger frame sizes and more later-maturing breeding, such as Simmentals or even Brahman-type cattle, tend to take longer to reach a decent finishing age on forage than early-maturing animals, such as Angus, South Devon, Hereford, or Shorthorn. Where an Angus or Shorthorn may take 18 to 20 months to reach finish on forage, a Simmental, Charolais or Limousin may take 24 to 30 months, and Brahman-type may take 30+ months to be ready for slaughter. This link from Grass-fed Solutions explains more.
What is being fed??
Before I launch into the feeds I've laid out for this post, I have to mention again the importance of understanding that forage/feed quality is never static and is always prone to change from season to season, year to year, farm to farm. I've chosen to go with average feed/forage quality values to prevent potential skewing the results from choosing instead from either extremes of best quality to poorest quality possible.
For forage-finished animals, I have to assume that the land is being managed as best as is possible with management-intensive grazing that is holistic in approach and adapted to forage quantity and quality. This is a significant difference from the grain-finished steer, which when given the option to be on pasture, is instead put in the typical conventional, continuous-grazing form of pasture management that purposely forces more acreage per animal on the landscape. You'll find interesting to note that, because the grain-finished steer is fed grain while on pasture, the amount of pasture he has access to is going to be less because at least a quarter of his feed requirements are met by the inclusion of grain in his diet, compared with if he wasn't fed grain during this pasturing period.
Diet of the Grain-Finished Steer
For the Canadian grain-finished steer, I've started him off with alfalfa-grass hay, barley grain, and eventually barley silage. Throughout the backgrounding phase, his hay is decreased and silage and grain increased. By the time he's in the feedlot, he's almost completely off the hay and fully onto grain and silage. The last 22 days he's been put on a finisher diet of mostly grain and silage. He is put on a "step-up" program of feeding, where changes in feed occurs every 50 to 60 days, up to that last 22-day final finishing period. This is based on the link Feedlots 101 - Alberta Cattle Feeders Association.
I figured I'd do an American feedlot-finished steer simulation as well, to satisfy the inquiring minds of my American audience (you're welcome). I just substituted the barley grain and barley silage for corn grain and corn silage. Rations are the same as with the Canadian feedlotted animals, and according to this link: Rations for Beef Cattle: University of Wisconsin Extension. You'll be interested to note the differences in amount fed, as well as land use results from what I have calculated.
Diet of the Forage-finished Steer
Coming up with the diet for a forage-finished steer was a bit more challenging. There are a lot of reasons why this would be made more challenging, and these range from different management practices to differences in climate as well as differences in forage species available for a forage-fed/finished animal to eat.
I would also like folks to understand that grass-fed has (and still does) gotten a bad rap largely because of poor management practices that encourage a continuous grazing system on pasture--just like what I did with the grain-finished steer above--leading to degraded pastureland.
So instead, I have chosen to have this steer in a well-managed system that encourages healthier soil with greater organic matter which feeds the plants and provides more nutrients to the plants, more biodiversity in the pasture stand, and therefore higher quality and quantity forages for grazing that you wouldn't find in a conventional operation. This well-managed system encapsulates high-stock density grazing (or mob grazing) with daily moves, with over double the stocking rate of continuously-grazed pastures. This way, in essence, I am purposely comparing the best way to feed and finish a grain-fed steer versus the best way to feed/graze and finish a forage-fed steer. And because there is such enormous variances in the types of forage to graze, I thought it best to come from two different climate type examples.
The first climate example is in a drier area (14 to 18 inches [350 to 450 mm] annual precipitation) in a more northern climate where the growing season is only from April to September (~5 months), and the rest of the year plants are in dormancy, often under the cover of snow. For this forage-finished steer, grazing is going to start mid May, and ends at the time when he goes to slaughter. However, since he is weaned by January, he's going to be on good quality legume-grass hay (or bale-grazed, using hay from that farm), until he's put on good quality legume-grass mixed pasture.
The second example is in an area that receives ~40 to 50 inches of annual precipitation, in a much milder area than above. Grazing is able to be done year round, with stockpiled forages from November to early April, and grazing green growth the rest of the time.
So, How Much are the Grain-Finished and Forage-Finished Steers Eating?
If anyone is trying something different from what I'm doing, what I need to caution you on is to never assume that a grain-fed nor a forage-fed steer eats the same amount from weaning to the point of slaughter. We are dealing with a growing animal that experiences changes in nutrient requirements and the amount need to be consumed on pretty well a monthly basis. In other words, what that steer is going to be eating just after weaning will not be the same amount a few months later. You'll see what I mean when you read more below.
I saved myself a lot of extra math and arithmetic by doing this first section on grain-fed/finishing by using a beef ration balancing computer program called CowBytes. I selected the feeds I mentioned above, and based on the step-up program used for transitioning weaned calves to all the way through to the final finishing phase I was able to come up with some fairly accurate values for how much to expect a steer to eat on a daily basis based on various parameters I set the program to account for. That means you don't have to see a bunch of complicated formulas posted here, just the values I came up with.
Barley (Canadian) Finished Steer Rations and Daily Feed Intake
For a post-weaned, 6 month old 500 pounds steer to have an average daily gain (ADG) of 2 lb per day upon being put into a backgrounding ration, he would be fed:
For a post-weaned, 6 month old 500 pounds steer to have an average daily gain (ADG) of 2 lb per day upon being put into a backgrounding ration, he would be fed:
Let's see now about how much a forage-fed/finished steer would eat from weaning to slaughter.
Northern (Canadian Prairie Provinces) Forage-Finishing Steer Consumption Levels
For a post-weaned 700 pound calf that is bale-grazed on good legume-grass hay, with an expected ADG of ~1 pound per day (slow growth in the winter is advantageous because it allows the calf to still grow good bone and muscle, and not develop too much fat), would be fed:
The totals of amount consumed overall are as follows:
South-Eastern USA Forage-Finishing Steer Consumption Levels
For a post-weaned 700 pound steer calf, with an expected ADG of 1 pound per day, the amount consumed is:
The total amounts of forage consumed over this period (250 days) are as follows:
The Land Use Comparisons of Feedlot Finished versus Pasture-Finished
For this next section with regards to calculating the land-use values for raising grain-fed cattle, I purposely used the averages for the amount of hay, silage, and grain produced to feed feedlotted cattle both in Canada (primarily Alberta), and the United States, to get an albeit more accurate representation of the amount of land that is going to be used. The sourced data is linked below for both countries.
For the pasture option, I also purposely created it so that it represents what is done conventionally, which I mentioned above as being continuous grazing.
However, for calculating land-use values for the forage-finished/grass-fed cattle section, I was also being deliberate with choosing to go with the best quality pasture to be expected under a well-managed, mob-stocked, multi-paddock grazing system. Also of importance is what I just mentioned: That the steer is not continuously grazed, but managed under a management-intensive, mob-stocked multi-paddock grazing system (or however you want to name it, because the name doesn't matter, only the management does), as I feel that is the best representative of producing forage-finished grass-fed beef.
Make sure you're sitting down when you read this next part. Because I was just as shocked as you when I plugged in the numbers.
Grain-fed Land Use Values: Canadian Barley-finished Feedlot Steer
Average yields of the feeds used to formulate this steer's ration:
Average yields of the feeds used to formulate this steer's ration (all data came from THIS LINK):
I used the same average yield for hay as in the Canadian feedlot example above, which is 1.9 tons/acre.
As far as pasture is concerned, I'm going ahead and saying that it's a very highly productive pasture, above that for hay (as hay is an average value). While the value I came up with for pasture productivity under management-intensive mob-stocked multi-paddock grazing seems pretty high, let's not forget that for one, these values are always prone to change, but too I'm trying to aim for a scenario that is under great management, and is thriving because of it.
In this case, the pasture is producing just above that of the average hay yield, at 126 cow-days per acre (or 4500 lb/acre with a 65% utilization rate). To put things into perspective, a hay yield of 1.9 tons per acre is 3800 lb/acre, which, if grazed at the same utilization rate, gives us 98.8 cow-days per acre. To also put things into perspective, it isn't uncommon for a lot of areas in the Prairie Provinces where hay yields are a bit higher than 1.9 tons/acre!
Finally, this steer is being finished on a high-quality annual polyculture pasture, which gives a nice high yield of 240 cow-days per acre (or 8000 lb/acre at 75% utilization rate).
For the actual amount of land used, the values I came up with are as follows:
Forage-fed Land Use Values: South-Eastern USA Grass-fed Steer
For this steer, because there's a bit more moisture than with the northern example above, there's going to be expected even higher productivity over all with the same management principles around mob-stocked multi-paddock grazing.
The stockpiled pasture should yield about 200 cow-days per acre (or 6670 lb/acre with 75% utilization).
The early grass pasture can be expected to yield a little less, at around 150 cow-days per acre (8340 lb/acre at 45% utilization rate)
The legume-grass pasture in this environment is expected to perform at 275 cow-days per acre (10,580 lb/acre at 65% utilization rate).
The land use values I came up with are as follows:
While the results that I calculated definitely are surprising and most certainly dispells the myth that you need much more land to raise grass-fed cattle than grain-fed, I implore on EVERYONE who read this to remember that the numbers that I came up with are not static.
Every single one of those values that I used are prone to change. There is always going to be the fact that more or less of the amount of feed and pasture, and the amount of land required to grow this feed and pasture will change for greater or for less than what the values that I came up with. That will all depend on annual environmental influences (such as precipitation), the vegetation being grazed, and the management.
The biggest caution I have is with the pasture values for the forage-finished steer. I may have angered some people or caused them to immediately question how and where I came up with these numbers and so on and so forth, but again these are based on the very, rather approximate values that I have found among those graziers who have significantly changed the way they have managed their land from the conventional way to the way that is much more holistic and accounting for the plants and the soil, not just their animals.
I tell you though, I am just as shocked and excited as you to see these numbers. These give me hope and reason to believe that there's a lot more benefit to forage-fed cattle (and therefore forage-finished beef) than we realize now. Like the simple fact that grass often will regrow to be ready to graze again anywhere from 1 to 4 months later, meaning the same land can be used again for grazing, unlike with annual crops when having to harvest for grain and/or silage.
I guess it's safe to say here that forage-fed beef and cattle really are better for the Earth!
By the way, Dr. Allen Williams had written a guest blog piece on the Holistic Management International's site that debunked the notion that there's not enough land available to produce grass-fed/grass-finished beef. He showed that with even a small part of cropland converted back to pasture, and with good grazing practices that increased carrying capacity of the forage base, there would be more than enough land available for producing grass-fed beef at the same level that feedlot beef is being produced, and this is only in the United States.
Range Nerd, Forage & Grazing Fanatic and a Bovine Enthusiast. A love for farming, and for the soil.
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