Tracking Beef’s Shrinking Footprint

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A study published in this month’s Journal of Animal Science found that raising a pound of beef in the United States today uses significantly fewer natural resources, including land, water, feed and fuel than in the past. “The Environmental Impact of Beef Production in the United States: 1977 compared with 2007” (Journal of Animal Science, December 18, 2011) by Jude Capper, PhD, Washington State University, documents that each pound of beef raised in 2007 used 33% less land, 12% less water, 19% less feed and 9% less fossil fuel energy than equivalent beef production in 1977. Waste outputs were similarly reduced, shrinking the carbon footprint of beef by 16.3% in 30 years.

According to Capper’s research, improvements in the way cattle are raised and fed in the United States between 1977 and 2007 yielded 13% more total beef from 30% fewer animals. Raising more beef from fewer animals maximizes natural resources while providing essential nutrients for the human diet. As the population increases, it is crucial to continue the improvements demonstrated over the past 30 years to meet demand for nutrient-rich beef while reducing resource use and mitigating environmental impact. Turning back the clock on these advancements is not the solution to feeding a world population that recently reached 7 billion and will grow to 10 billion by the year 2050, concludes the author.

“As the number of mouths to feed increases and the quality of diets in many areas around the world improves, the demand for nutrient-rich protein like beef will increase,” says Capper. “At the same time, resources like land, water and fossil fuels will become increasingly scarce. These realities are like two trains speeding toward each other on the same track. If we listen to alarmists shouting at us to slow down, we could face a head-on collision of epic proportions. The only way to avoid this disaster is to accelerate the pace of progress.”

Capper attributes much of the reduction in beef’s environmental footprint to raising cattle on grass pasture before finishing them on an optimal balanced diet of grasses, grains and other forages in a feedyard. According to previous research conducted by Capper, each pound of grain-finished beef requires 45% less land, 76% less water and 49% less feed and  at the same time generates 51% less manure and 42% fewer carbon emissions than grass-finished beef.

“As we work on solutions for the future it is important to understand how far the U.S. livestock industry has come in reducing its environmental footprint in the recent past and how this significant reduction was achieved,” says Capper. “The facts are in. Improved cattle diets in the feedyard and responsible use of science-based technologies to improve the ability of cattle to convert feed to pounds of beef, reduces the amount of land, water and fossil fuels it takes to raise beef. “

Capper says focusing resources to provide more nutrient rich foods like beef, which provides more than 10% of the daily recommended value of ten essential nutrients and vitamins for less than ten percent of daily calories (based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet), is a critical success factor in meeting nutrition needs at home and abroad.

”Making the best use of resources like land, water and energy to raise nutrient-rich beef is the key to sustainability,” says Capper. “The result is delicious, healthful beef you can feel good about.”

This project was supported by the Beef Checkoff Program through a research grant from state beef councils in Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Washington.

Learn more about your beef checkoff at  


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Donnachadh McCarthy    
London  |  December, 21, 2011 at 02:34 AM

This is one of the most hilarious blatantly biased articles I have ever read concealing the massive environmental impact of western high meat diets. Thanks for starting my day with a smile.

Graham Neale    
uk  |  December, 21, 2011 at 04:06 AM

another load of bull from the meat and dairy. You guys are shameless about the exploitation of humans, animals & planet. Has the numbers of feedlot beef increased since 1977?

SD  |  December, 21, 2011 at 04:35 PM

Newsflash to the UK! Cattle production in the USA is very different than in your neighborhood. Maybe the extreme southerastern USA might have some similarity, but in much of the US, there are vast prairies of native grasses where the much of the cow herd grazes year round, needing very little supplementation other than a bit of protein in extreme winter weather. The calves, which become the beef, graze along with their dams, and may spend the last four to six months of their 18 to 30 month lifespan in a feedlot eating a diet of the same forages with a small amount of grains to 'finish' the tenderness of the meat. The fact is, cows can raise a larger calf today than even 15 years ago because of better nutrition and management of the animal. We have increased weaning weight of our calves considerably in that time frame, thus, more beef produced with fewer cows. AND that beef is lean and nutritious due to the better diet.

Maxine Jones    
SD  |  December, 21, 2011 at 04:53 PM

Average consumption of meat in the USA is less than 2 OUNCES per day per person. You folks from the UK may not know that beef production is vastly different here than where you are, if you even know much about it in the UK. First, much of the cattle raising parts of the USA are quite arid, and it requires 25 or more acres to keep a cow and her calf for one year. Little grain is eaten by beef cows during their productive lives. The calf may be in a feedlot the last 4 to 6 months of its 18 to 30 month life and still will conusme mostly forages dried for such use, along with a moderate amount of grains and waste vegetable materials from canneries. The cattle today are managed more effecitvely since animal science has shown the way. We do raise more pounds of beef with fewer cows because average weaning weight of calves at about 6 months age has risen from about 350 pounds a few short years ago to 500 pounds and more today.

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