Are cows eating feed or food?

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As the world population continues to grow – expect ed to reach 8 billion by 2025, 9 billion by 2050 and  exceed 10 billion by 2100 – the concern about animals comp eting with humans for food continues to grow.  These concerns will likely impact livestock production but what does this mean to the future of livestock – especially beef production?

The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) published an Issue Paper “Animal Feed vs. Human Food: Challenges and Opportunities in Sustaining Animal Agriculture Toward 2050”. It gives an in-depth study of the subject and deals with the perception that “feed produced for livestock competes for human food supplies and represents an inefficient or wasteful use of resources”. The global livestock industry faces a challenge because this perception exists.

This task force noted the following:

  • Global animal agriculture provides safe, affordable, nutrient-dense food that supports human health, in addition to supplying medicines, manufactured goods, etc.
  • Large areas of land are incapable of supporting the production of human food crops.
  • Gains can be made by “recycling” safe, yet otherwise valueless, by-products from human food and fiber production.

I’ve heard it said that “corn drives everything that happens in the beef industry”. Are we too dependent upon corn? The future may dictate that we have to change. I’ve always heard it said that we have to have “at least 100 days of heavy grain feeding to have good eating quality in beef”. Maybe, but it’s time to question everything that we’ve been told.

Cattle (ruminants) aren’t as efficient in converting grain to meat as pigs and chickens (monogastrics). Maybe we should let them compete for feedstuffs (grain) that can be used as human food. But where would the cow feed come from? We must do a better job grazing cattle on land that isn’t suitable for crop production. Not just by better grazing management but also in selecting cattle that perform well on forage diets (that humans and nonruminant animals don’t eat). We could reduce the time they spend in the feedlots.

The CAST report stated that “research is continuing to optimize utilization of pasture, crop residues, and by-product feeds in all aspects of livestock and poultry production. As the world population continues to grow, livestock and poultry will be essential to convert feedstuffs that are inedible to humans to high-quality protein sources. Ruminant animals will be the most valuable because they can convert the energy in fibrous feeds to milk, meat, wool and other products.

But what about “eating” quality of beef? How much corn is needed? I know that we are making gigantic strides in genetics. Let’s select those animals that have the desired genes for tenderness, marbling and flavor. However, if we keep selecting animals based on information that is generated while on high grain diets, we may be going in the wrong direction. Look for animals that can produce and yield high quality meat on forage programs with more of the energy coming from by-product feeds during the finishing period. I think that we should use more forages and by-products so that we aren’t in competition with the human food supply.

It won’t be easy but times are changing. The CAST report said that sustainability can be divided into three components: environmental stewardship, economic viability, and social responsibility. It further states that the biggest challenge facing animal agriculture within the next 50 years is to maintain or improve these three facets of responsibility.

This is but a very brief look at some things that are dealt with in the report but as an industry, we have to stay grounded and keep a keen eye on the future. Remember, a good wing shooter doesn’t aim where the bird is ... but where it is going!

Source: Dr. Roy Burris, Beef Extension Specialist, University of Kentucky


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Robert    
Kentucky  |  January, 21, 2014 at 09:28 AM

Thank you for this balanced overview, Dr. Burris. I am not a cattle farmer but have studied ranching across the world and over time and I couldn't agree more with the report. I am especially heartened by the 3 suggested components. This is indeed the path to a successful future, despite the high beef prices of today. I hope your readers will understand the imperative of being open minded about inevitable change. In my view, and reflected by the report, change doesn't have to be hard, just smart.

wondering    
kansas  |  January, 21, 2014 at 09:32 AM

Is our society not a tad bit hypocritical to demand food animals to not compete with human grain consumption but turn around and demand that the fuel for their car compete with food availability?

Ray    
Georgia  |  January, 21, 2014 at 09:33 AM

Great commentary. I've eaten incredibly delicious beef in Argentina that was 100% grass fed. We don't have to feed beef cows corn. The beef industry should embrace the philosophy Dr. Burris has laid out. It is the only way to keep beef production and ethical industry in the future.

Robert    
Kentucky  |  January, 21, 2014 at 09:52 AM

Ray, of course it is. But please don't use that as an excuse to turn your back on the ideas here. While we have spent too much energy (pun intended) on fuels for our industrial lifestyle, it appears that the next few decades will shift to critical and complex issues involving the availability of food and water. This truly is a major challenge and ranchers and other food producers can no longer ignore or detour the discussion.

Robert    
Kentucky  |  January, 21, 2014 at 10:00 AM

My apologies to Ray for responding to the previous post by "wondering" under his comment. I totally agree with his experience with Argentine beef. In fact, beef from Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay is wonderful and until recently primarily grass-fed. Unfortunately, though, it appears that at least Brazil and Argentina are now rapidly expanding into the same production methods as the U.S. and Canada. This will change the dynamic (though corn is not the main feed) and adds yet another complication that I hope can be overcome by the suggestions made in Dr. Burris's post.

Robert    
Kentucky  |  January, 21, 2014 at 10:01 AM

My apologies to Ray for responding to the previous post by "wondering" under his comment. I totally agree with his experience with Argentine beef. In fact, beef from Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay is wonderful and until recently primarily grass-fed. Unfortunately, though, it appears that at least Brazil and Argentina are now rapidly expanding into the same production methods as the U.S. and Canada. This will change the dynamic (though corn is not the main feed) and adds yet another complication that I hope can be overcome by the suggestions made in Dr. Burris's post.

Jivaro    
Arizona  |  January, 21, 2014 at 10:29 AM

We worry about using grain (corn in this case) to fatten beef cattle, as been somehow wrong. Yet the same society uses up close to 50% of their corn production to make ethanol For a very low efficiency energy conversion gain. Plus a huge increase on grain based commodity cost to the populace. Argentina and Brazil have turned their Pampas and Savannahs into soybean and corn farms. And just like us they are growing their ruminants in the marginal lands. Economics supersedes everything, even our own misguided efforts.

Robert    
Kentucky  |  January, 21, 2014 at 10:40 AM

Certainly true. However, this is more an observation than a rationale or excuse, right? If we go over History we see that sometimes other concerns had to supersede economics for a society to continue or decline. Not an easy road, nor one every society has taken successfully, and of course resisted vehemently by many at the time. But we have the benefit of that hindsight, right? At least, let's hope so.


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