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Mission: optimum beef sustainability

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

According to Washington State University professor Jude Capper, it doesn’t matter what you do, or where you live – in every magazine, book and social media there is always something about climate change or energy efficiency, and it isn’t an idea that will go away.
    Additionally, she says it’s a major concern for every stakeholder involved in food production.
    Capper spoke at a mid-March beef sustainability webinar hosted by Drovers CattleNetwork.
    “The first thing we have to understand is that this concept has three components – as an industry we have to be environmentally responsible, economically viable and socially acceptable as we move forward to prove beef’s impact in the future.”
    “It isn’t just about carbon anymore,” she said. “It’s about land, water and ‘factory farms.’ They’re all becoming big considerations, because as we move forward from 1980 to 2050 we’ll increase our population from 7 billion to over 9.5 billion. That means, over that time, we need 70 percent more food, which means more poultry, pork and beef.
    “We face quite a challenge, because as we have more people we have less arable land per person, and that’s land for both human food and animal feed. We have to improve efficiency and productivity to achieve optimum beef sustainability.”
‘Meatless’ impacts
    Capper mentioned the powerful images used by anti-animal agriculture activist groups – images that resonate with consumers. She mentioned a banner that claimed one pound of meat takes 2,463 gallons of water to produce.
    “Those images are powerful, but more powerful because there are numbers involved,” she said. “They have power even when the assumptions behind them don’t hold true.”
    Capper also mentioned the concept of “meatless” Mondays, which came about after the Environmental Working Group released a report detailing the carbon footprint of one kilo of food. Another paper published in 2008 detailed “food miles,” claiming that shifting one day a week from red meats to chicken, eggs and a vegetable-based diet would achieve more greenhouse gas reduction than buying all locally-sourced food.
    “We can’t compare local food to meatless diets – there are no control groups,” said Capper.
    “According to the EPA, on a national basis dairy and red meat – pork, lamb and beef – production in total contributes about 3.05 percent of national carbon emissions per year,” stated Capper. “If every person, every Monday, for the whole year, went dairy- and red meat-free, in total that would impact national carbon emissions by .44 percent. The concept of going meatless every Monday doesn’t make a big difference, yet it’s held up as a way to cut total carbon.”
    Capper said the meatless concept also raises other questions – what happens to consumer choice?
    “If we accept the basis that everyone should have the choice to eat chicken, beef, fish or tofu, and we enforce meatless Mondays, that takes away that choice,” she said, adding that another question is what replaces the things besides food that society gets from animals on those meatless Mondays.
    She also added that if, on a national basis, everyone went to eating tofu, beans and peas on Mondays, there would be another source of methane.
    “Humans make methane, as well, and that will have a big impact on our human emissions one day per week,” she noted. “We can’t take this basic approach, with the assumption there aren’t any other longer-term consequences.”
Reducing animal days
    Although the total impact of beef on the environment isn’t as big as some would suggest, Capper said that improving efficiency and productivity would cut carbon emissions, land use, water use, fossil fuels and other resources.
    “We have an opportunity to increase efficiency and productivity by improving growth rates per animal – every fewer day the animal is on the planet, we need less land, water and resources,” she stated.
    In 1977, Capper said it took five animals to produce the same amount of beef as four animals in 2007.
    “More importantly, in 1977 the average animal took 606 days from birth to slaughter, and in 2007 it was 482 days. In total, that makes 3,030 animal days in 1977 of feed, land and water, and in 2007 we had four animals at 1,928 animal days of feed, land, water and resources. We save 1,100 animal days by improving growth rate per animal.”
    Comparing 1977 to 2007, there was a 31 percent increase in beef produced per animal, which means that in 2007 only 82 percent of manure, 82 percent of methane and 88 percent of nitrous oxide was produced.
    “In 2011, per pound of beef, we had a carbon footprint that was 84 percent of 1977,” she said. “That’s a 16 percent decrease per pound of beef by doing what the beef industry does best – improve efficiency and productivity – which has economic advantages and social impacts in making more safe, affordable and nutritious beef.”
Low tech, high numbers
    Capper said there seems to be a consumer movement toward grassfed beef, with the perception that it’s better for the animals, people and planet.
    “I am not anti-grassfed beef. There is a place for every beef system. But, if we play on consumer fears to imply that hormones are bad, corn is bad and grass is good, then we’re doing a disservice to the industry,” she said.
    In 2011, animals in the conventional system were harvested at 1,200 pounds, with carcass weights of 800 pounds.
    “It took 464 days to raise those animals from birth to slaughter, and if we take the growth technology out and keep total days the same, we see a decrease in carcass weight of 86 pounds to 714 pounds. At that rate, it would take 14.4 million more cattle to produce the same amount of beef we had in 2011, she said.
    In grassfed system, Capper said animals were harvested at an average 900 pounds, with a carcass weight of 615 pounds, and it took 679 days from birth to slaughter.
    “That 679 days, or 22 months, is entirely in line with some grassfed systems in the States. To make the same amount of beef as the conventional system from a grassfed system, we’d need an extra 64.6 million animals in our total beef population,” said Capper.
    “If we assume a change to grassfed overnight, we’d have an extra 64.6 million animals, needing more land, more carbon and more water,” she outlined. “To put that in context, producing 26.1 billion pounds of grassfed beef would increase land use by 131 million acres, increase carbon by 26.6 million cars and increase water use by 468 billion gallons, the equivalent of adding 53.1 million U.S. households, which would be a 30 percent increase.”
Improve all systems
    “We have to improve efficiency and productivity across all systems,” said Capper. “Everyone can improve growth rates, feed efficiency, mortality and parasites and have a huge effect. If we all had one calf per cow per year, bringing the percentage up from 88 to 98 percent, that would make a huge difference overall.”
    “Every system has its niche, and if all those systems would improve productivity and efficiency, that would have positive effects on carbon, land use and fossil fuels,” said Capper. “But we have to do it based on science, as opposed to a touchy feely perception of environmental impact.”
    Christy Martinez is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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