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Beef's Carbon Hoof Print Shrinks

Cattlemen are gearing up to the challenge of feeding a hungry world on a smaller environmental footprint

Published on: Oct 5, 2010

By Harold Harpster

The days of raising animals any way we want and keeping consumers in the dark are so over! While we must do a much better job of educating the public to the realities of food production, we're already doing a much better job of it.

Sure, returning to the days of small, low-tech farms is appealing to many. But we can't feed the world with those techniques.

In less than 40 years, the world population is expected to increase 33% to an incredible 9.15 billion people. At the same time, per capita income in developing countries will increase significantly.

By the year 2050, some experts predict overall food demand will increase 70%. And, demand for animal products will rise 100%.

One of the more interesting presentations at the recent national animal science meetings in Denver was a presentation by Jude Capper of Washington State University. She compared beef production efficiency in 2007 versus 1977.

In that 30-year time span, the industry produced 13% more beef products while slaughtering 13% fewer animals. That's more consumable products for mankind, using fewer resources.

Decreasing our carbon footprint is the big buzz phrase in most industries. Consumers should enjoy these buzz words calculated by Capper about beef changes over the last 30 years:

  • 18% fewer total carbon emissions
  • 9% less fossil fuel energy
  • 10% less feed energy
  • 20% fewer feedstuffs
  • 30% less land
  • 14% less water

Rethinking grass-based systems

Many think that turning to an all grass-fed system is the solution. But the facts make it hard to support that notion.

Capper pointed out that the average "days to finish" in feedlot cattle is 219 days. It is 431 days for grass-fed systems.

Producing an equivalent amount of beef it takes about 3.5 times more land base for grass-fed versus feedlot. It's simply a matter of energy density. And "concentrates" have that name for a reason!

I'm not casting dispersions on those devoted to grass-fed beef systems. We just can't begin to feed the world if the whole industry adopts that method.

"Confinement" and even "feedlot" are evil words in many circles that really haven't thought it through. As long as animals are humanely cared for, aren't we using less of the world's open and/or wild spaces by concentrating animals on a smaller land area?

That's food for thought to bite into!