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How Much Grain (and Water) Does Beef Cattle Production Require?

NOTE Re Website- This article has been edited for the website by removing some material. There is a spreadsheet displaying my calculations titled “Grain Usage in the Feedlot Sector” which is also posted on this website. I invite and welcome criticisms as to methodology. CG.

Conventional wisdom holds that beef cattle are wasteful users of grain and are in direct competition with humans for finite supplies of food grains. It is argued that the large acreages devoted to feed grains production might better be deployed to the production of crops directly consumable by humans.

This observation may appear logical on the surface but, as with so many easy assumptions, the matter bears closer examination. Recently a professor of food science at the University of Guelph commented that it takes, “more than 10 pounds of feed and 8 gallons of water to produce one pound of edible beef”. The inference most readers would draw from his comment would be that this placed the beef animal in direct competition with humans for a supposedly limited supply of food grains and water.

The debate about the role of beef in our diet should begin with the facts.

I offer here a more realistic picture which explains that, far from competing with humanity for scarce food resources, the bovine, with its marvelous “ruminant” digestive system, greatly increases and enhances the human food supply by utilizing crop resources indigestible by humans and, importantly, by producing high quality protein laden foods from lands that are entirely unsuitable for any purpose more intensive than grazing.

Grain Consumption by Beef Cattle

I begin by presenting factual information on the consumption of grain by beef cattle. It is indeed true that beef cattle consume large quantities of grain but much less than is commonly claimed.

Cattle production begins with a beef cow and her annually birthed calf at pasture. The beef cow, of course, spends her entire life at grass or, in winter, consuming stored forages. Perhaps briefly, as a heifer being fitted for breeding, she might have been fed small quantities of grain but grain consumption by beef cows is not common practice. Her cousin, the dairy cow does consume considerable quantities of grain but that is consumed in support of her high level of milk production for human consumption.

The beef calf, meanwhile, grows on its mother’s milk and, after a few weeks, it both suckles and grazes until it is weaned at about 7 to 8 months of age. At this stage, the weaned calf has reached approximately 40% of its final weight and has, as yet, consumed no grain or protein supplement. Some cattle enter feedlot immediately as weaned calves, some as ”yearlings” and some a little later as “long yearlings” also known in the industry as “short keeps”. Depending on their age at entry into a feedlot they remain on feed for 4 to 8 months. If one could make an average animal out of this it would be placed on feed at very close to 55% of its final weight having consumed, up to that time, mainly pastures stored hay and silages and little or no grain.

When the animal arrives in a feedlot its ration, or diet, consists of a mixture of forages or silages and a grain ration consisting of corn or barley with a small amount of protein supplement, usually in the form of soybean oil meal. Because cattle nutrition is a science, the industry knows very well how much grain is consumed by the cattle while in the feedlot. This analysis is based on a cattle production break even analysis called “Trends” prepared monthly by CANFAX, the market analysis division of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association. A detailed spread sheet displaying all the calculations of grain consumption accompanies this article. An analysis of this data confirms that, on average, cattle in feedlot consume 7.2 lbs. of grain per pound of live weight gain.

But, if the grain consumed in feedlot is applied to the final weight of the animal, as it should be, the grain consumption works out to 3.3 pounds of grain per pound of final live weight.

This ratio of usage is expressed in terms of live weight and must next be converted to a retail weight basis. An average beef carcass weighs 60% of the live animal weight but the average retail yield is 73% of the carcass weight. So, the 3.3 pounds of live weight converts to 7.5 pounds per pound of retail beef yield.

But, even though that amount is well below the “more than 10 pounds” commonly mentioned, that is not quite the whole story. Annually about 16% of the total beef supply is produced from the culled cows and bulls that consume little, or at least negligible amounts of grain, aside from that consumed by the dairy cow to support milk production. That amount cannot be charged to the beef industry.Therefore, the figure of 7.5 lbs applies to only 84% of production and when spread over total annual production the correct figure to describe grain usage in beef production is about 6.3 lbs of grain to produce one pound of retail beef. That indeed is a far lower ratio than is commonly used to describe grain consumption in beef production.

Water Usage in Beef Production

What about the allegedly high water use in beef production. Drinking water requirements for cattle vary from a low of about 20 to a high of 65 litres per day depending on the type of cattle and the temperature. Recognizing this variability, a generous overall average daily consumption of 45 litres per day for a steer or a heifer means that at an average slaughter age of 18 months the animal has consumed 25,000 litres of water. The mother cow meanwhile would have consumed an additional 18,000 litres which I will round up to 20,000 litres to accommodate the sire. Recall that the sire is sire to approximately 20 offspring per year so his water consumption can be spread over that number of offspring.

So, the water requirements to produce a finished steer or heifer totals roughly 45,000 litres. The output is a steer or heifer carcass weighing approximately 380 kg. (I am ignoring the fact that the culled cow and bull also contribute to the beef supply). So that means that 45,000 litres of water were consumed in the production of a 380 kg. carcass. That works out to about 118 litres of water per kg of carcass weight or 162 litres per kg of boneless beef.

So, it is apparent that the claim that 8 gallons of water is needed to produce one pound of beef (equates to 80 litres per kg of edible beef) is a considerable underestimation. Probably the lower estimate of 80 litres referred only to water consumption in the feedlot and did not include the water consumed by the animal before it arrived in feedlot or the water consumed by the dam and sire.

But what does this mean? Certainly, a large volume of water is used in beef production and, as I have shown, in almost exactly double the amount claimed. But so what? Water, especially water used in agriculture is the ultimate renewable resource and every drop of it is returned to nature to be used again and again. All of the water used to produce that pound of beef, except the moisture content of the beef itself, was back in nature before the animal was marketed. Not one drop was destroyed or wasted. Water usage in beef production becomes an issue only where it is scarce and is needed for other more urgent purposes and that is not a problem in any of the beef producing regions of Canada.

With the math concerning grain and water usage explained we can move on to the main issue.

The approximate total annual grain and oilseed production in Canada presently is 75 million tonnes. Course grains production, which includes feed grains, contributes roughly one third of that supply. About half of the coarse grain supply is used for industrial purposes such as malting, while the other half, about 14 million tonnes, is used as “feed grains” for cattle, hogs, poultry and all the minor livestock species. Currently the prices of all grains are somewhat depressed and would be even lower were it not for the demand for feed grain exerted by the livestock sector. In addition to consuming “feed grains” livestock are the only outlet for the significant but variable quantities of weather damaged or “off grade” food grains. Without a market in the livestock industry such weather damaged and off grade food grains would be wasted.

So, if one looks at the situation in a balanced way one can see that by utilizing forage crops and pastures and a modest amount of feed grain, beef cattle provide high quality protein-dense beef to augment the human food supply. It is true that they consume quantities of feed grains during the feedlot stage but much less than is commonly supposed. Furthermore, they make beneficial use of lower quality or spoiled food grains and other crop residues that have no other use or value.

It is indeed possible to produce only grass and forage fed cattle but to do so would take longer, due to the slower rate of gain achievable on pasture and forages. It would also require more forage production to replace the feed grains and would therefore take up much of the land than was previously devoted to feed grain production. The longer feeding interval and slower growth rates would likely result in production costs that would be reduced little, if at all. The grain portion makes up only about 23% of total cost of production in the feedlot and, such is the arbitrage between all forms of livestock feed, the cost of a pound of gain would not likely change significantly. But one should not forget the point mentioned earlier and that is the impact reduced demand for feed grains would have on grain prices generally. Grain prices have to be high enough to support production costs or that production will not occur.

So, should beef production be reduced in an effort to increase the global food supply? This is the approach advocated not only by anti-meat activists but by many concerned people who accept on its face the claim that cattle, and other livestock species are in direct competition with humans for a finite grain supply. Far from improving either the quantity or the nutritional quality of the human food supply this approach would result in a lower supply of high quality protein and a sharply reduced total supply of human food. To understand this apparently illogical observation one has only to recognize that vast areas of land that are unsuitable for the intensive cultivation necessary to produce grains and fruit and vegetable crops would no longer contribute anything to the human food supply. Vast tracts of land on every continent are suitable only for grazing; being too steep, too stony, too shallow, too cold, too dry or too wet to support any agricultural activity other than ruminant grazing. And even on better farming land the presence of animal agriculture requires soil sustaining crop rotations and the return to the soil the tilth and fertility provided by livestock manures. So, to reduce or eliminate beef production would mean that the large acreages of land that are suitable only for grazing could no longer make any contribution to the human food supply. Of the 160 million acres of agricultural land in Canada 50 million acres were described as pasture land meaning tame and natural pasture land. An additional 17 million acres was devoted to tame hay.

It might be prudent to recall the devastation visited upon vast areas of land in both Canada and the United States during the “dirty thirties” when millions of acres of fragile grasslands on the Canadian and American prairies were “put to the plow” in response to temporarily strong wheat prices. Though these areas were, and remain prairie lands with insufficient rainfall to support crop production the tragically mistaken belief was that “rain follows the plow”. The lesson learned at that time, that some land should remain in grass, should not be so quickly forgotten. Humanity has had centuries of experience with balanced livestock and crop production and only very recent and localized experience with an agriculture without livestock.

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