Is grass-fed beef better for the animal?
The answer is a resounding “YES.”
I’m drawn to the idea of cattle grazing freely in fields. I’ve seen the pictures of the green hillsides, and I’ve seen the pictures of the muddy feedlots. I asked Temple Grandin, one of our foremost experts on animal welfare, whose work informs livestock systems across the country, whether grazing cattle are happier than feedlot cattle.
The first thing she said was, “grain is like cake and ice cream to cows,” and I can’t help thinking that eating something they find delicious contributes to the animals’ happiness. It certainly does to mine. But, just as it’s unadvisable for us to make cake and ice cream our sole ration, cattle shouldn’t be eating only grain.
“Grain is fine as long as there’s plenty of roughage,” says Grandin. Otherwise, the pH in the animal’s system can become too acidic, and that leads to all kinds of health problems. The idea that feeding grain to a ruminant, whose digestive system is fine-tuned for grass, leads to suffering is both right and wrong.
“The problem comes when you push too hard,” says Grandin. Animals grow faster on grain, she points out, so there’s a financial incentive for the rancher to up the grain ration. Like anything connected with the care of animals, feeding cattle grain can be done well or poorly.
Grandin talked about other issues as well. If the feedlot is dry, roomy and shaded, cattle are perfectly content. If it’s muddy, crowded or hot, they’re not. One of the keys to cattle happiness, it turns out, is drainage. “The feed yard should have a 2 to 3 percent slope to keep it dry,” says Grandin. Pastures can pose problems, too. “Cattle also really like to graze,” she says, “but that hillside when you have a blizzard is not so nice.”
The key to cattle’s well-being isn’t in the venue. It’s in the management. What’s maddening is that, when you’re standing in front of your market’s meat case, you usually can’t know which feedlot, or which pasture, the beef came from, let alone how it’s managed.
Is grass-fed beef better for the planet?
Here’s where things get really complicated. In general, beef is not planet-friendly. Cattle produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and beef routinely tops the charts of foods you should eat less of to curb climate change.
Grass-fed advocates maintain that well-managed grazing can offset or even completely compensate for methane and other greenhouse gases associated with beef cattle by locking carbon in the soil. The vegetation soaks up and stores, or sequesters, carbon, preventing carbon dioxide — another greenhouse gas — from being released into the atmosphere.
The operative phrase is “well-managed.” When poorly managed, grazing can degrade pasture, and scientists and ranchers are experimenting with various densities and grazing patterns to try to figure out which ones lead to more effective carbon sequestration.
According to Jason Rowntree, an assistant professor at Michigan State University who specializes in grass-eating cattle, some researchers have managed to sequester three metric tons of carbon per hectare, about 2.5 acres, per year. (Sequestering a ton of carbon is the equivalent of locking away 3.7 tons of carbon dioxide.)
But Rattan Lal, director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State University, sets expectations lower. He says one metric ton per hectare is a reasonable estimate of the maximum that grazing can sequester in a place like Ohio, where growing conditions generally are favorable, and a half-ton would be more realistic in drier areas. He supports grass-fed beef but says carbon sequestration “can’t completely compensate for the greenhouse gases in beef production.”
Weighing carbon sequestration against methane production is a dicey business, and I’ve read many different estimates. To get a back-of-the-envelope sense of how the two compare, I did the math. The methane produced yearly by a beef steer is approximately equivalent to the carbon sequestered in an acre and a half (at Lal’s one-ton-per-hectare rate). The steer’s methane isn’t the only issue, of course: The climate cost of each steer has to include a whole year’s worth of its mom’s methane, since cows have only one calf annually. Then there are all the other inputs, including what goes into growing and harvesting the hay the steer eats when pasture is unavailable. As always, it’s complicated.
I found little agreement on how much carbon well-managed grazing can sequester, but across-the-board agreement that it can certainly sequester some. But, diabolically, so can well-managed grain farming: Systems that use crop rotation, cover crops, composting and no-till also sequester carbon. If we’re comparing grass-fed with grain-fed, it’s only fair to assume excellent management in both systems.
There are a few other confounding issues. Cattle fed grain emit less methane and grow faster, which means they’re not alive — emitting methane — as long. Confining cattle in feedlots allows manure to be collected and fed to a digester, which converts it to energy — or, of course, it can leak out of badly managed facilities to pollute our water. In winter, bringing in harvested hay requires more energy than bringing in grain, because you need more of it. But grass-fed cattle turn a plant that humans can’t eat into high-quality people food, which is important in places where marginal land will grow grass but not crops. It’s a very mixed bag.
Grass-fed cattle are better for the planet than grain-fed.
Where does that leave us?
Well, it’s left me a little less doctrinaire. Almost always, when I talk to scientists and farmers about food supply issues — whether it’s farm size, organic methods, animal welfare, GMOs, climate impact — the answer is complicated. When it comes to feeding people, there is never one right answer. It depends on the farm, the area, the animal, the crop, the weather, the market and a bazillion other things. Both Rowntree, who has spent years figuring out how best to graze cattle, and Lal, who has devoted a career to climate-change mitigation, are quick to tell me that grass-fed isn’t the only way.
“No matter what strategy you choose,” says Lal, “there are always trade-offs.”
What the grass-fed vs. grain-fed debate really tells us is how inadequate labels are to differentiate good from bad in our food supply. Yet those labels are regularly embroidered on flags and hoisted over intractable positions. Grass-fed beef is better! Buy organic!