Sustainability means different things to different people, but unfortunately in the case of livestock production, activists have convinced some consumers it means returning to an idealized version of your grandparents’ production systems.

But while less-intensive production can work for some producers, our greatest opportunities for enhancing sustainability is to improve overall productivity per unit of land and other inputs, explains Washington State University animal scientist Jude Capper, Ph.D.

Speaking last week at the Merck Animal Health Cattle Feeders Business Summit in Denver, Capper used a transportation analogy to explain the concept. Consider two vehicles: one that gets 35 miles per gallon of fuel, another that gets 5 miles per gallon. Over a 500-mile trip, vehicle “A” burns 14.3 gallons of fuel, while vehicle “B” burns 100 gallons.

So which is most efficient? On the surface, vehicle A appears to have a clear advantage. But what if vehicle B (a passenger bus) carries 50 people versus four in vehicle A (a car)? Vehicle A, carrying four people at 35 miles per gallon achieves 140 “people miles” per gallon. Vehicle B, carrying 50 people at 5 miles per gallon achieves 250 “vehicle miles” per gallon. Viewed in terms of productivity, the bus is more efficient and more sustainable from a fuel-use standpoint.

The same concept applies to animal agriculture, where improvements in productivity reduce the environmental “footprint” of each animal and the industry overall. In 1977, capper notes, it took five animals to produce the same volume of beef as 4 animals in 2007. In 1977, days to slaughter averaged 606 days, which dropped to 482 days by 2007. The volume of beef that took 3,000 animal days to produce in 1977 only took 1,900 animal days in 2007, using less land, less water, less feed and producing less waste.

Looking at the entire system, including feed inputs and transportation, Capper has documented these improvements since 1977:

  • Beef per animal – up 131 percent.
  • Number of beef cattle in the United States -- down 30 percent.
  • Amount of feed for U.S. beef production – down 19 percent.
  • Water used in U.S. beef production – down 14 percent.
  • Land use for U.S. beef production – down 34 percent.
  • Manure production – down 20 percent.
  • Methane emissions from U.S. beef production – down 20 percent.
  • Nitrous oxide production from U.S. beef production – down 11 percent.
  • Total “carbon footprint” of U.S. beef production – down 18 percent.

Capper also has conducted research comparing three production systems:

  • Conventional – calves pastured until weaning or to yearling stage, then finished on high-energy rations, using implants and treating sick cattle with antibiotics.
  • Natural – Same as conventional, except no hormones or antibiotics.
  • Grass-finished – Cattle remain on pasture to slaughter weights.

In Capper’s study, conventional cattle produced carcasses averaging 800 pounds, with 453 days to slaughter. Natural cattle produced carcasses averaging 714 pounds with 464 days to slaughter. Grass-fed cattle produced 615-pound carcasses with 674 days to slaughter.

Based on these examples, shifting all U.S. beef production to “natural” would require 14.4 million more animals to produce the same volume of beef. Shifting entirely to grass-fed production would require 64.6 million more animals to equal today’s beef production. An that’s not all. Grass-fed production at that level would require an additional 131 million acres of land – equal to 75 percent the area of Texas – dedicated to beef production. The system would require 468 billion additional gallons of water and produce 134 million extra tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

Capper stresses that she does not discourage or oppose natural or grass-fed production. If producers have an opportunity to meet a consumer-demand niche and find economic and environmental sustainability in producing beef with these attributes, the decision is theirs to make. Her gripe is with those who promote the idea that turning all beef production to natural or grass-fed systems would reduce environmental impacts or improve sustainability.

Capper also points out how activist groups use incorrect information to promote their agenda, with the media frequently repeating misleading numbers as facts. You’ve probably encountered the claim, often parroted by anti-meat groups, that production of one pound of beef requires 1,800 gallons of water. The figure comes from the Water Footprint Network, and Capper looked into its origins. The environmental group, she says, based their estimate on a beef animal needing three years to slaughter, producing 441 pounds of boneless beef. Based on average yields, that’s a 588-pound carcass weight and 948-pound live weight.

In reality, U.S. systems produce finished cattle weighing 1,300 pounds at slaughter, with 806-pound carcasses and 605 pounds of boneless beef. And they do it in 450 days, not 1,095.

While Capper frequently presents her research to livestock groups, she isn’t content with just “preaching to the choir.” She actively uses the Internet and social media to inform the general public about sustainability in agriculture. Check out her “BoviDiva” blog online.