Shameless self-promotion, but very excited to have an essay published in The Wall St Journal today defending conventional beef production.
Given my blog subtitle, I thought I should link to it! Would love to read your comments. Article here: http://www.wsj.com/articles/is-feedlot-beef-bad-for-the-environment-1436757037
Judith! Errr uh…. Dr. Capper! Well said indeed! I always enjoy your articles, it is like a good boxing match. You feint, duck, bob and weave then come back with a jab, cross and a hard right hook for the knock out!
Im really interested in the 135 million additional acres figure. Im curious to know if this figure takes into account the higher stocking rate that intensive rotational grazers can accomplish or if it is based on a set stocking rate. This would be even more pertinent considering evidence suggesting that intensive rotational grazing increases growth rates vs set stocking which would potentially reduce the necessary head of cattle and land.
Further, the 468 billion gallons of additional water is derived from an assumption that 50% of grasslands used to finish cattle is irrigated. This figure is stated in your 2012 paper (Is the Grass Always Greener? Comparing the Environmental
Impact of Conventional, Natural and Grass-Fed Beef
Production Systems). You state in the same paper that this is an area of uncertainty yet rely on the figure as part of the model. Has there been any refinement to the model with more accurate data?
Another figure i am interested in is the “27 million cars” in relation to additional carbon emissions. First, i assume the figure is derived from the same model that assumed the 50% irrigated grassland as an equivalent figure was cited (25.2×10^6 US cars). This is, as you again state, “an area of uncertainty” and the percentage of irrigated pastureland could be as low as perhaps 10%, which would therefore drastically reduce the carbon emission footprint. Secondly, in reference to carbon sequestration you state that a “well-managed pastureland may be a mitigating factor for carbon emissions within the GFD system, yet it was not accounted for throughout the study due to a lack of sustentative data”. To your knowledge has there been any sustentative data either way on the quantification or impact of carbon sequestration from well managed pasture land?
Another question before this becomes a wall of text…going back to your paper again…you state that a significant portion of the energy input into GFD systems was due to the cropping and harvesting inputs for overwintering the cattle. Were these inputs derived from an aggregate from farms spanning a diverse geographic area? For instance, a pasture based farm in Minnesota would have a considerably greater amount of input compared to similar production system in Florida or even Virginia due to the longer growing season.
thanks for your time
Thanks for your questions Arthur.
Re: water data – no more accurate national data has been released to my knowledge. USDA has good irrigation census data regarding how much pastureland exists, how much is irrigated, and the water used on that land; however, what’s missing is how much is used for beef vs. dairy and grazing vs. hay, not to mention grass-fed (throughout) vs. cow-calf or stocker. Hence the need to use some assumed values (50%, 10% etc). Yes, irrigation water use would differ regionally (e.g. AL vs. MT) as well as by terrain (flat land vs mountain range, etc) but I had to go with a representational average across the nation as per the irrigation water census figures. That’s why the 10% figure was also included – to give some balance as to how the number would change according to finishing pasture irrigation rate. There will absolutely be operations that do not irrigate just as other operations will have a high rate of irrigation or have to sell cattle early or supplement because of lack of grass in drought years. There are a myriad of different scenarios and while it would be possible to investigate hundreds of different ones, that was not within the scope of the study. Note that irrigation water for all feed components and forages (including corn and soy in the feedlot) was also included, again using data from the USDA irrigation survey.
Carbon emissions are primarily affected by animal performance – energy use for irrigation has a minute effect on total carbon. The paper was not intended to compare the most intensive grassfed operation to corn-fed, simply the average of each. That is why the growth rates were based on those outputted from ration balancing programs used in the industry based on common ration ingredients, and all feedlot concentrates were imported in rather than being assumed to be grown on-site.
Yes, I could have examined the best-performing intensively rotationally-grazed operations in an area where irrigation was unnecessary, and to make the comparison fair, could have also examined high genetic merit cattle with a feed:gain efficiency approaching 2.8:1 in a feedyard where all corn and soy was grown on-site, but that comparison would have given similar results. This was not intended to compare best to worst – if you look at the growth rates and finishing weights for both systems they are not at either end of the spectrum but in the middle. Would individual operation A compared to individual operation B give exactly the same results? No. But then neither would comparing the national average wages in the USA and the UK with the wages earned by Joe Bloggs (USA) and John Smith (UK) respectively. I agree that a more productive pasture could absolutely produce a greater total weight of cattle, just as could a better cow-calf pasture or a minutely-balanced feedlot ration. However, we are comparing the norm, not the extremes.
I don’t know if you have read the entire paper, but there is an analysis within it of the extent of carbon sequestration required to outweigh the decrease in performance of the grass-fed vs. the feedlot cattle. Unfortunately, no solid national sequestration data exists at this point. Sequestration is a developing area of science and again one associated with some uncertainty as to national averages, therefore the same principle applies as per the irrigation comments above. When we are comparing on a national average basis we cannot simply take a figure from one operation (good or bad) and assume that would be representative of all. Believe me, I wish there were better sequestration data out there!
Apologies for the long answer,