Summing Up: Grass Versus Grain
By: John Maday
Over the past two weeks, we’ve been running a series of questions and answers regarding the practice of feeding grain to cattle. The series developed after a college student, conducting research for a public-health class project, sent Drovers 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 adapted the questions and answers into an article, to serve as possible “talking points” for our readers as you encounter similar questions from the public.
As expected, the series generated considerable discussion and comments from readers, some agreeing with our conclusions and some disagreeing, which is not surprising given the complexity of the issue.
This article combines the full list of questions, and our answers, as they ran over the past two weeks. A key point is that finishing cattle on grass is a viable option for some producers, depending on their forage resources, type of cattle, marketing channels and management capabilities. The system requires, however, an ability to feed cattle forage year-around, land area in excess of that required to maintain cows and grow calves to weaning or yearling weights and more time to grow cattle to slaughter weights. Grass-finished cattle need to sell at premium prices to account for higher production costs, and retail prices for grass-finished beef typically are significantly higher than those for conventional grain-finished beef.
Grass-finished beef offers opportunities for some producers to tap into a premium market, and at the retail level, it helps address the diversity of consumer preferences. For most producers though, and for most consumers, our conventional production system capitalizes on forage gains for much of the animal’s life while incorporating the efficiency benefits of grain finishing. This system produces retail beef products with a combination of affordable price and eating quality that suits the preferences of most consumers.
Here are the questions and answers:
Do you approve of feeding cattle a corn based diet? Explain please.
Yes. But first let me outline the typical North American beef-production system and how corn fits in. Most beef calves in the U.S. and Canada spend their first 8 to 16 months on pasture, either on the ranch where they were born, or in some cases they move to other areas with more available forage after weaning. Then they move to feedlots where they consume rations containing grain as an energy source, typically for about 120 to 150 days. Initially their rations contain mostly forage, and the cattle gradually step up to rations containing more corn as their digestive systems adapt. So, while there are some exceptions, most U.S. cattle spend about 70 percent of their lives on pasture and 30 percent eating grain-based rations. That is in contrast with pigs and poultry, which eat grain-based diets throughout their lives.
An analysis from the Noble Foundation and the Livestock Marketing Information Center shows that the total amount of grain fed per pound of beef produced is equal to that for a pound of chicken (2.5 pounds) and lower than that for pork (3.5 pounds). The reason is that much of the weight gain in beef production occurs on grazing land.
In your professional opinion, who is responsible for the trend to feed cattle corn?
There are several stakeholders involved, including corn growers, cattle producers and consumers. The practice of finishing cattle on corn-based rations began in the Corn Belt area, essentially as a way for farmers to manage their financial risk. These “farmer-feeders” found that in years when corn prices were low, they could improve their financial returns by purchasing cattle, feeding some of their crop, and selling finished cattle in place of corn. In years with high corn prices, they sold more corn and fed fewer cattle.
Over time, American consumers learned to prefer grain-finished beef, and that preference continues today. That led to expansion of the cattle-feeding business, and much of the feedlot business eventually moved from the Midwest to the High Plains region, largely because the drier climate is favorable and our transportation infrastructure made it feasible.
After World War II, the USDA made a policy that encouraged farmers to feed livestock corn in order to reduce a surplus. Besides that economic incentive, why do you think farmers didn’t resist feeding cattle corn?
In addition to the factors listed under the previous question, producers found that finishing cattle on grain-based rations significantly improved weight gains and production efficiency. Cattle also reached market weights at a younger age and produced beef that was desirable and valuable to consumers.
Also, in much of the U.S., grazing is limited or not possible during the winter months. Harvested forage is bulky and expensive to transport, which affects the efficiency of grass-finishing production systems.
Is it economical to feed cattle corn considering the downstream environmental and health effects?
All agricultural production systems involve tradeoffs and create environmental impacts. And the industry recognizes a need to continuously work to reduce environmental impacts from corn production and in cattle feeding. However, research shows that, for a given volume of beef production, grain finishing requires fewer cattle, less land, less feed, less water and produces less greenhouse gas emissions than grass finishing. More on that later.
Biologically, how does corn speed up the cattle growth cycle?
Grain is high in starch, which is a good source of dietary energy. Forage, on the other hand is high in fiber and much lower in energy. Cattle, as ruminant animals, can digest cellulose or fiber, converting forage to beef. However, even on a high-quality forage diet, a steer will gain about two pounds per day, compared with about three to four pounds per day on a typical feedlot diet, due to the higher calories in the grain component.
In your experience, do you think a cow prefers consuming grass or corn?
They like both. Corn and corn byproducts often are used as feed supplements for cattle on pastures, and once those feeds are offered, cattle will readily eat them ahead of forage. Another common practice is to graze cattle on harvested corn fields. They will eat much of what the combines leave behind, including the leaves, stalks and corn cobs, but the first thing they usually eat is any available grain.
Can you describe the toxicity of the antibiotic Rumensin, which is given to cattle to begin their tolerance to corn? Also, how is it hurting human, cow and environmental health?
Rumensin (monensin) is classified as an ionophore, and is not related to any antibiotics used in human medicine. It improves feed efficiency in cattle on forage or grain-based diets by helping regulate the microbe populations in the rumen, and thus aid digestion. It also is used for prevention and control of coccidiosis, a parasitic disease in cattle and other animals. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has determined that monensin is safe for cattle, people and the environment.
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. 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.
Do you think in 10 to 15 years from now there will be more cows fed on pasture?
Not significantly more, but cattle might spend more time on pasture and less time on feedlot rations. The time cattle spend on pasture and in feedlots varies from year to year and region to region based on grain prices, cattle prices and forage availability. Corn prices likely will trend higher over time, which could result in cattle spending shorter times in feedlots.
Also, consumer demand in the U.S. for grass-finished beef likely continue growing, but the higher cost of production, and thus higher retail price, probably will limit the market share of grass-finished beef.
Why do you think other countries do not primarily feed cattle corn?
In countries where grain finishing is not practiced, there can be several reasons including local traditions, consumer preferences, and in many cases, lack of infrastructure for transporting grain or cattle significant distances. Some countries that have traditionally produced grass-finished beef, Brazil in particular, are increasingly building a feedlot sector and moving toward more grain finishing to improve efficiency and meet demand among their export customers.
In some beef-producing countries, incorporating some grain finishing along with other modern production technologies could improve efficiency. According to a report from Oklahoma State University, two recent analyses of global livestock systems indicate that North American beef production systems and those in other developed countries have carbon footprints per unit of beef production 10 to 50 times lower as compared to many nations in Africa and Asia. These improvements, according to the report, are “driven by higher-quality (more digestible) feeds, lower impacts of climate stress (heat) on animals, improved animal genetics, advancements in reproductive performance, and the reduced time required for an animal to reach its slaughter weight.” Grain finishing is just one factor in the difference, but it can, in some cases, help improve overall production efficiency.
What changes in the U.S. do you think will have to be made for majority of cattle to be raised on pasture?
If large numbers of consumers demonstrate a preference for grass-finished beef, and a willingness to pay enough to make production profitable, producers will adapt. However, for that to happen on a large scale, we would need to convert a large amount of land from other uses to grazing land to produce adequate forage for finishing the majority of cattle.
According to calculations from Dr. Jude Capper in a study published in the journal Animals, if the total U.S. beef produced in 2010 was produced by a grass-fed system, the increase in land required compared to conventional production would be equivalent to 75% the land area of Texas.
Without an expansion of available grazing land, a large shift toward grass-finished cattle would result in a dramatic reduction in overall U.S. beef production and significantly higher beef prices for consumers.
How do you think corn affects the price of cattle? Do you think this is having a greater impact on the health of Americans?
Because grain finishing improves production efficiency, it helps keep the price of beef competitive with other meats. This is positive for the health of Americans, who have access to affordable, nutrient-dense food.
For example, a March 8 price check with Omaha Steaks, a leading online retailer of premium meat products, shows a package of four nine-ounce grass-fed New York Strip steaks on sale for $89 (The regular price is $179.99.) Using the sale price, that is $22.25 per steak. For comparison a package of four nine-ounce conventional New York Strip steaks on the same site sells for $59.99, or $15 per steak.
The Omaha Steaks site also lists a package of four grass-fed, six-ounce hamburger patties for a sale price of $24.99. The regular price is $45.99. At the sale price, each grass-fed burger costs $6.25. For comparison, a package of eight five-ounce conventional burgers is sale priced at $19.99, or $2.50 per burger. The site lists the normal price for the same package of conventional burgers at $34.99, or $4.37 per burger, compared with $11.50 per burger for the grass-fed burgers at their usual full price of $45.99 for four six-ounce patties.
How can the typical American lessen the dependency on corn?
I do want to be clear that I am not opposed to grass finishing as a production system, nor are most people involved in the beef business. It is a system that can work for some producers and provides a choice for consumers. However, for the reasons listed, I do not think it is either feasible or necessary to shift all or most of our production to a grass-finishing system.
Our current production system capitalizes on the bovine’s ability to gain weight on forage for much of its life, and allows us to produce food on land that often is unsuitable for growing crops. Then we use grain to improve weight gains and efficiency during the final stage of the production cycle.
At the retail counter, a variety of beef options including natural, organic, locally produced or grass-finished helps address a variety of consumer preferences. Those alternative production systems also offer opportunities for some producers to differentiate their products and sell cattle into premium market chains. For the majority of consumers though, conventional grain-finished beef offers the best combination of price, quality and overall value.