LUBBOCK, TEX. – As we boarded the bus, a woman handed us reading materials in white plastic bags that said “I <3 Beef.”
“You’re in the heart of cattle feeding country,” our tour guide told us as we hit the road.
I went to a conference for environmental journalists last week and found myself in the middle of a $2.5 billion hub of the beef industry.
Our tour took us to a 180,000-acre ranch and a giant feed lot. Along the way, I learned that Lubbock is part of a region called the Texas High Plains, a 26-county area where five million head of cattle are sold from feed lots every year. More than half of all the land in the Lonestar State is used for grazing livestock, according to a group called the Texas Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative.
Obviously, not all beef comes from the high plains of Texas. But if you want to know how most beef is produced, this is a pretty good place to learn. Especially because, as I found out, 96 percent of the beef on the market today comes through the kind of feed lots you find here in “cattle feeding country.”
On the tour, we interviewed professors of agricultural science and ruminant nutrition, rangeland specialists with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and managers of the Hale Feedyard and Pitchfork Ranch.
They stepped us through the stages of raising the cattle that eventually become steak and hamburgers, and they answered a lot of questions about the environmental impacts of the process.
One of their key arguments was that feed lots reduce the environmental footprint of beef by reducing water and land use, the amount of feed and manure, and the emissions of methane that come out of cows as they digest their food.
The industry wants to find more ways to reduce the environmental impacts of beef. According to executive director of communications Darren Williams, the National Beef Cattlemen’s Association is paying for a life cycle analysis of their product that will tally the impacts from feed production all the way to the consumer.
“We want to find more ways to reduce the environmental footprint of beef,” he said.
This animation by the Center for Investigative Reporting on “The Hidden Costs Of Hamburgers” explains why.
To understand how the industry might reduce its environmental impacts, it’s important to know some basics about how beef is produced today.
There are several different kinds of beef you can buy based on how the cattle are raised:
- Grain-finished beef comes from cattle that spend most of their lives on pasture and the last four to six months on a feed lot, eating a mixed diet of forage grasses and grains such as corn, wheat or soybeans. They may also be fed mineral and vitamin supplements and antibiotics or growth hormones.
- Grass finished beef comes from cattle that spend their entire lives grazing on pasture and may be given antibiotics, growth hormones, vitamins and mineral supplements. Only .1 percent of the beef on the market is grass finished.
- Naturally raised beef comes from cattle that can be either grain- or grass-finished but they have never received antibiotics or growth hormones. They may be given vitamin and mineral supplements.
- Certified organic beef can be either grain- or grass-finished as long as the feed for the cattle is 100 percent organic. The cattle don’t receive antibiotics or growth hormones but may be given vitamin and mineral supplements.
At Pitchfork Ranch, manager Brooks Hodges explained that his ranch keeps 4,000 cows and raises all natural calves without hormones or antibiotics. When they’re ready to be sold, they can be grass finished or grain finished depending on who buys them. An electronic ear tag on the cattle tracks them from the ranch to the slaughterhouse to verify how they’ve been raised.
Hodges said he knows how much grass each calf will eat every day – it’s about 3 percent of their body weight. And he knows how much grass is in the pasture, thanks to models. He manages the ranch so that the cows and calves eat half of the available grass and leave half to maintain healthy soil and future grass supply.
In most cases, calves are born on ranches and initially raised on grassland, according to Michael Brown, a professor of ruminant nutrition at West Texas A&M University. The young calves eat grass and drink milk for six or seven months before they’re weaned off their mothers’ milk. Then they’re turned out onto grass or wheat pasture for about a year.
When they reach roughly 800 pounds, they’re shipped to a feed lot for “finishing” on grain feed. That adds fat to their muscle and gets them to market weight faster than continuing to feed them on pasture.
When they’ve reached 1,100 pounds for a heifer, or female, and 1,300 pounds for steer, a male, they’re ready to go to the slaughterhouse. This process gets them from the “cradle” to the market in less than two years.
The two-year time frame is important to the argument the cattle industry is making about shrinking the environmental impacts of raising beef: Sending calves to feed lots speeds up their weight-gaining process and reduces the amount of time they’re taking water and food resources, as well as the amount of time they’re emitting methane.
A study by Judith Capper, an adjunct professor at Washington State University, found sending cattle to a feed yard reduced the amount of time it takes to raise them to market weight by 226 days compared with keeping them on a pasture. According to the study, that shorter time frame results in a smaller the environmental footprint per pound of finished beef, including 45 percent less land use; 76 percent less water, 49 percent less feed, 51 percent less manure and 42 percent fewer carbon emissions.
It did occur to me, however, that if bringing the cattle to slaughter in a shorter time frame means more calves are then taking their place on a shorter rotation, there could be fewer impacts per pound but more pounds of beef overall.
The Hale Feedyard grows some of its own feed and dispenses 1.9 million pounds a day.
Calves receive mostly grass-like, forage feed when they first arrive at the feed lot because that’s what they were used to on the ranch, but over time the feed mix changes to mostly carbohydrates from corn flakes, distillers’ grain from ethanol plants and wheat.
Brown said studies have shown the carb-heavy diet reduces the amount of methane produced by the calves’ rumen.
“There is less per unit of methane produced with readily digestible carbs versus a foraged diet,” he said.
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas – 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, methane emissions from livestock make up 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
According to manager Kevin Kuriyama, each of the cattle drink 10 to 20 gallons of water a day.
Waste water from the Hale Feedyard drains into a retention pond where it can be removed and used for irrigating crops such as the triticale growing nearby. The ponds are lined with a layer of clay to prevent the waste water from draining into groundwater, he said.
But there isn’t much waste water to begin with, said Kuriyama.
“In an average year, we have about 18 inches of rain and 72 inches of evaporation. So, we lose four times what we receive,” he said. “That’s one of the primary reasons cattle feeding has chosen to be in this area.”
The cattle at Hale Feedyard poop out a third of what they eat, Kuriyama said – each producing roughly 10 to 12 pounds of manure a day. All that manure is composted on site by a contractor that turns it into Back To Nature products in about 120 days.
A study by two professors at the University of Aarhus in Denmark identified four ways to reduce the carbon footprint of livestock products such as beef. Two of the findings involve using manure to offset other forms of greenhouse gas emissions such as producing an alternative to synthetic fertilizers or generating energy.
There’s also the recommendation by the Center for Investigative Reporting, which is for everyone to reduce the amount of beef they eat to reduce the environmental impacts. If you eat beef, are you concerned about the environmental impacts of producing it? Do you have any ideas for how to reduce its environmental footprint?