Is beef production today more efficient now than it was in the past? Have the environmental impacts of producing beef improved over the years? These questions were answered by Dr. J.L. Capper, Assistant Professor of Animal Science at Washington State University, who compared the environmental impact of modern beef production (2007) and beef production in 1977. Using variables, including feedstuffs, water, land, and energy usage, changes in the animal itself, and wasted outputs (feed, energy, GHG emissions), Capper calculated that modern beef production utilizes considerably fewer resources than the equivalent 1977 system to produce one pound of beef.
Capper describes that the beef industry is broken down into several segments, and most cattle go through at least two segments prior to harvest. Typically, cattle start out in a cow-calf operation, which is a pasture based system where calves are born and raised until weaning at approximately 205 days of age. Calves may then go to a stocker/backgrounder stage, where they are grown with moderate rates of gain on pasture or in pens fed harvested forages until they reach appropriate body weights to enter the feedlot. In feedlots, cattle are fed high energy diets to achieve fast, efficient gains until they reach finish weights and are shipped to harvest. Capper reported that in 1977 cattle always went through the stocker stage. However, in 2007, depending on weaning weight, sometimes the stocker stage was skipped. This helps to save time, money, and resources when preparing the cattle to meet a certain body weight (avg. slaughter = 1,340 lb in 2007 vs. 1,031 lb in 1977). It was estimated that 16.5% of calves entered the feedlot directly at weaning in 2007. In addition, cattle were, on average, 123 days older at slaughter in 1977 than 2007 (608 vs. 485 days).
By improving production efficiency, a reduction in the environmental impact is achieved by a dilution of maintenance energy requirements. For the beef industry, this does not occur daily on an individual basis, but across individual animals over time and, on average, across the whole industry. The energy requirements for growing steers were 14,100 calories per day in 1977 and 20,300 calories per day in 2007. However, because of the shorter days to harvest in 2007, only 27,000 calories were required to produce one pound of beef in 2007 compared to 30,593 calories in 1977. Combined with the heavier carcass weights of modern cattle, in 2007 the United States produced almost 2.9 million more pounds of beef while harvesting 825,000 fewer cattle than 1977.