Best of BoVet: Feeding Cattle Corn

As we approach the end of 2016, we want to look back on the top 10 articles from Bovine Vet this year. Read the number nine below.


recently received an inquiry from a college student conducting research for a public-health class project.

She sent a list of questions regarding the relative merits of finishing cattle on grass versus grain-based rations. Her questions, while somewhat biased, reflect common misperceptions of grain feeing and the kinds of question consumers are asking. For that reason, we have adapted the questions and answers into this article, to serve as possible "talking points" for our readers as you encounter similar questions from the public.

We'll be posting the 13 questions, along with our answers, over the next couple weeks. Here is question 8:


Can feeding cattle corn be a sustainable process?


This is a matter of considerable debate, with opinions depending largely on how someone defines sustainability. In my opinion, efficiency is a key component of sustainability, and finishing cattle on grain-based rations improves overall efficiency. We have a limited number of arable acres available to agriculture in the United States and globally, and that number continues to shrink while the human population increases.

Consider that the average per-acre corn yield in the U.S. is about 160 bushels. With a bushel of corn weighing about 52 pounds, that is about 8,320 pounds of corn from one acre. Cattle in a feedlot convert feed at about a six-to-one ratio. So, one acre of corn translates to about 1,387 pounds of weight gain. In contrast, one acre of highly productive Midwest pasture might produce about 4,000 pounds of forage (on a dry-matter basis) over one good growing season. Typically, cattle can only utilize about 75 percent of the forage in a pasture, so that's about 3,000 pounds of available forage. Cattle on pasture convert feed at about a 12-to-1 ratio, so the pasture would produce about 250 pounds of weight gain per acre. Pastures in the arid West, where many of our cattle are raised, are far less productive than this example.

Kim Stackhouse Lawson, PhD, conducts sustainability research for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. As a contractor to the beef checkoff, NCBA recently completed the largest life cycle assessment (LCA) ever to be conducted on beef. The

Beef Industry Sustainability Assessment

is the first step in demonstrating beef's path of continuous improvement. The assessment, recently certified by the NSF international, showed that in six years the beef industry has improved its overall sustainability by 5 percent and its social and environmental sustainability by 7 percent.

While on the faculty at Washington State University, animal scientist Jude Capper, PhD, conducted several studies on the sustainability of beef production. In one study, she compared the environmental impact of conventional (grain finished), natural and grass-fed beef production systems. She found that increased productivity in the conventional system reduced the cattle population required to produce a given volume of beef. The conventional system required 56.3 percent of the animals, 24.8 percent of the water, 55.3 percent of the land and 71.4 percent of the fossil fuel energy required to produce an equal volume of beef in the grass-finished system. The carbon footprint per volume of beef was lowest in the conventional system, intermediate in the natural system and highest in the grass-finished system.

See question 7 from this series



Latest News

Is Grass-Fed Beef Healthier or Better for the Environment?

Oklahoma State University meat scientist Gretchen Mafi has studied the scientific differences between beef that comes from animals finished on a grain diet versus those animals finished on grass.

How To Give a Calf Electrolytes, The Dehydration Lifeline

Electrolytes can serve as a needed boost for a scouring calf. Here's a look at what’s in electrolyte products, how much electrolytes should be given and a few ways and tips on how to give electrolytes to a calf.

Colostrum Management A Cornerstone For Dairy Calf Health

Dairies have made great strides in managing colostrum, but about 14% of calves fail to get passive transfer of antibodies. There is still opportunity to improve upon this, encourages Sandra Godden, DVM.

Be Prepared, Wheat Pasture Bloat on the Rise

As growing conditions improve on wheat pastures that have been grazed short all winter long, the threat of bloat rises. Here's how to combat the onset of bloat in grazing calves.

Cows Will Tell You What is Wrong with a Facility Design

As we transition the cows into a new facility, take time to watch the cows' usage of the facility. Cow behavior in the facility will indicate what may need to be adjusted.

What Does the Drought of 2022 Mean for Lactating Pairs in the Spring of 2023?

While some parts of the U.S. remain in drought conditions and the soil moisture profile is in a deficit due to months of below normal precipitation, grass growth will likely be impacted this spring.