A new study recently published in the journal “Agricultural Systems” is a comprehensive beef-cattle life-cycle assessment. In the report, “Environmental Footprints of Beef Cattle Production in the United States,” the researchers found widely accepted measures related to beef cattle’s impact in the United States are often overestimated.

The assessment was conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service and the Beef Checkoff. It was designed to scientifically quantify the sustainability of U.S. beef production. That was accomplished by collecting and examining feed and cattle-production-related data from more than 2,200 cattle producers in seven regional production areas. Conclusions were derived using a simulation model and the regional production data. They estimate national impacts in greenhouse-gas emissions, fossil-energy use, blue-water consumption and reactive nitrogen loss.

There were various notable study findings.

greenhouse gas emissions —

  • Beef production, including the production of animal feed, is responsible for 3.3 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States. That’s dramatically less than the often-misapplied global livestock figure of 14.5 percent. Through continuous improvements in production practices, U.S. beef farmers and ranchers have avoided 2.3 gigatons of carbon emissions since 1975.

grain-feed consumption

  • — Per pound of beef-carcass weight, cattle consume 2.6 pounds of grain. That’s comparable to feed-conversion efficiencies of pork and poultry. Almost 90 percent of grain-finished cattle feed is inedible to humans, meaning those plants can only provide value to humans when they’re up-cycled by cattle into excellent-quality protein.

corn-feed consumption —

  • Corn used to feed beef cattle represents about 9 percent of harvested corn grain in the United States or 8 million acres. By comparison 37.5 percent of corn acreage in the United States is used for producing fuel ethanol.

water use —

  • On average it takes 308 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of boneless beef. Previous reports have estimated more than 24,000 gallons. Water use by beef is about 5 percent of U.S. water withdrawals; that water is recycled.

fossil-fuel inputs —

  • Total fossil-energy input to U.S. beef-cattle production is equivalent to 0.7 percent of total national consumption of fossil fuels.

“This life-cycle assessment delivers the most comprehensive and accurate assessment of the environmental impact of beef cattle in the United States to-date,” said Alan Rotz, a researcher for the USDA and study co-author.

The study assessed cattle production in the farm and ranch portion of the beef-supply chain, including 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 the reports will comprise the most detailed and comprehensive assessment of U.S. beef’s sustainability to-date, according to the USDA.

Sara Place is a study co-author and senior director of sustainable beef-production research at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association — a contractor to the Beef Checkoff.

“This work produces baseline data the cattle industry can use to continue to improve the environmental and economic sustainability of U.S. beef,” she said. “Investments in this type of research demonstrate a continuous commitment to environmental stewardship by America’s farmers and ranchers.”

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