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Climate impact of US beef cattle production not as bad as perceived

The climate and environmental impacts of beef cattle production and their effects on the overall sustainability of beef have become an issue of public concern. In a new lifecycle assessment to quantify important environmental impacts of beef cattle production in the United States (US), USDA researchers have found that widely accepted measures related to beef cattle's impact in the US are often overestimated. The study challenges widely reported assumptions about beef and carbon emissions.

Cow 5469 peers out of her shed at Wapnö dairy farm in Sweden, probably wondering what the fuss is about..

The climate and environmental impacts of beef cattle production and their effects on the overall sustainability of beef have become an issue of public concern. In a new lifecycle assessment to quantify important environmental impacts of beef cattle production in the United States (US), USDA researchers have found that widely accepted measures related to beef cattle’s impact in the US are often overestimated.

The new study, recently published in the journal Agricultural Systems, is the most comprehensive beef cattle lifecycle assessment (LCA) ever completed. The study, titled “Environmental Footprints of Beef Cattle Production in the United States” challenges widely reported assumptions about beef and carbon emissions.

Conducted by the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and The Beef Checkoff, the comprehensive LCA was designed to scientifically quantify the sustainability of US beef production. This was accomplished by collecting and examining feed and cattle production-related data from more than 2 200 cattle producers in seven regional production areas.

This lifecycle assessment delivers the most comprehensive and accurate assessment of the environmental impact of beef cattle in the US to date, said USDA researcher and study co-author Alan Rotz.

Conclusions were derived using a simulation model. Regional production data was used to estimate national impacts in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, fossil energy use, blue water consumption and reactive nitrogen loss.

Notable study findings include:

  • Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions: Beef production, including the production of animal feed, is responsible for only 3.3 percent of GHG emissions in the US. This is dramatically lower than the often-misapplied global livestock figure of 14.5 percent. Furthermore, through continuous improvements in production practices, US beef farmers and ranchers have avoided 2.3 gigatonnes of carbon emissions since 19753.
  • Grain feed consumption: Per pound of beef carcass weight, cattle only consume 2.6 pounds of grain. This is comparable to feed conversion efficiencies of pork and poultry. Additionally, nearly 90 percent of grain-finished cattle feed is inedible to humans, meaning these plants can only provide value to humans when they’re upcycled by cattle into high-quality protein.
  • Corn feed consumption: Corn used to feed beef cattle only represents approximately 9 percent of harvested corn grain in the US, or 8 million acres. By comparison, 37.5 percent of corn acreage in the U.S. is used for producing fuel ethanol.
  • Water use: On average, it takes 308 gallons of water to produce a pound of boneless beef. Previous reports have estimated upwards of 24,000 gallons5. Additionally, water use by beef is only around 5 percent of US water withdrawals, and this water is recycled.
  • Fossil fuel inputs. Total fossil energy input to US beef cattle production is equivalent to 0.7 percent of total national consumption of fossil fuels.

The study assessed cattle production in the farm and ranch portion of the beef supply chain. Emissions associated with energy, feed, machinery, seed, pesticide and other resources used in production. Related work is in-progress to assess production further down the supply chain, including processing, packing, distribution, retail, consumption and waste handling.

Together, these reports will comprise the most detailed and comprehensive assessment of US beef’s sustainability to-date.

This work produces baseline data the cattle industry can use to continue to improve the environmental and economic sustainability of US beef. Investments in this type of research demonstrate a continuous commitment to environmental stewardship by America’s farmers and ranchers said Dr Sara Place, study co-author and Senior Director of Sustainable Beef Production Research at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff.

About the Beef Checkoff

The Beef Checkoff Program was established as part of the 1985 Farm Bill. The checkoff assesses US$1 per head on the sale of live domestic and imported cattle, in addition to a comparable assessment on imported beef and beef products. States may retain up to 50 cents on the dollar and forward the other 50 cents per head to the Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board, which administers the national checkoff program, subject to USDA approval.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) is a contractor to the Beef Checkoff Program. The Beef Checkoff Program is administered by the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, with oversight provided by the US Department of Agriculture.

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