The Feedlot: A Bovine Bender

By December 9, 2016Agriculture News

Like a wound being healed, when landscapes are “reclaimed by nature” they are seen by some as returning to a purer state. Even the bucolic pastures and rolling hills we picture with grazing cattle are assumed to be worse than letting the “wild” be wild. We get caught up arguing that using land for grass-feeding is the lesser of two evils when, in fact, making responsible use of pasture is better than leaving it alone. This use is a net positive for the climate, land, animals, and farmers—not to mention your health!

All ranchers, both corn and grass-fed, do some level of rotational grazing. But Regenerative Livestock Management (RLM) strives to balance the scale of sustainability by finding the best middle ground between leaving land untouched and overgrazed. At its core, RLM is a “back to basics” move that mimics the natural movements of animals in the wild. In practice, RLM is a bit more scientific, grazing a high density herd on land for a short time—requiring ranchers to adjust herd size and grazing times depending on the dynamic local rainfall, soil, grasses, animal behavior, temperature, and more.


Why don’t we just let the animals graze a large paddock on their own like they do out West? Short-term, high intensity grazing may seem like it’s over complicating a natural process. However, good pastures have a diverse mix of grasses with different tastes, textures, and nutritional content. If you were given a buffet to pick from for a week, it’s safe to say that the dessert section would probably be decimated while the steamed spinach would be only lightly touched. This holds true for cows too. Left to their own devices they will gravitate towards their favorite grasses—munching them down to the roots and moving on. Curbing this urge is an important part of letting productive pastures flourish.

Similarly, in many forests, prairies, and even agricultural fields, controlled burning is used to rejuvenate soil minerals and stimulate growth of diverse plant species. Without fire, groups of species known as “climax communities” outcompete all other plants until the landscape becomes dominated by just a few types of species. Fire keeps these environments in check and lets new plants grow and enrich the ecosystem. Like fire, a large group of cows moved frequently across smaller pastures will eat grasses more or less evenly. When done well, this mows the pasture down to 2-3.5 inches where it can easily regrow. Keeping pastures dynamic ultimately produces more forage and carbon sequestration than pastures that are mechanically harvested, grazed long-term, or left alone. Over the course of five years, this was tested on 110,000 acres and found to double productivity per acre.


Compared to other classes of food, industrial meat is a two-step process: grow corn, feed it to cows. As a result, it takes far more energy input to produce meat than grain. Many advocates of vegetarian or vegan diets use this as a point against meat production and as evidence that we could feed more people by eliminating meat from our diets. Yet, cows, sheep, and other ruminants are naturally designed to turn indigestible grasslands into edible animal protein.

We have a vast resource of unusable grassland in the US—614 million acres unsuitable for any other type of agriculture. Yet, in 2015, we diverted up to a third of all feed grains (corn, grain, oats, etc) produced in the US to feed animals. Grass-fed cows are a win-win, using underutilized land while freeing up colossal amounts of grain for human consumption.


When we think of greenhouse gases, the primary metric of interest is CO2 emissions. Fortunately cattle production is not a large emitter of carbon—paling in comparison to the vehicles/equipment used for clear-cutting new agricultural farmland. In fact, by promoting plant growth and fertilizing land, cows actually do a notable job of lowering CO2 by promoting carbon sequestration in grasslands. The lifetime value of grazing beef on grass actually comes out to 7.8 kg of CO2 equivalent stored per kg of weight. For every kg the cow gains, 7.8 kg of carbon are removed from the atmosphere.

The elephant in the room is methane. Methane is much more potent than CO2—warming the atmosphere up to 34 times more than CO2. However, it is much shorter lived, leaving the atmosphere after a decade or so. When digesting food, cows burp and fart methane (…humans do too!). A popular critique of grass-feeding cows relies on the longer lifespan of these cattle. Without grain, antibiotics, hormones, and other substances to promote speedy growth, grass-fed cows graze for an average of 130 more days and yield 30% less weight. By living longer, critics say, they release more methane, simple as that.

This oversimplified argument misses what grass-feeding contributes to the environment and ignores the fact that huge methane emissions come from liquefied manure storage lagoons found at feedlots. The large concentration of animals in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) makes manure into an overabundant, never-ending waste problem. In grass-feeding, manure is stomped into the ground and used for what it was meant for, fertilizer. Manure thus becomes a tool for plant growth, healthy topsoil, and nitrogen-fixing soil bacteria—sequestering greenhouse gases instead of releasing them.


Unfortunately, when comparing grass and grain-feeding, all of these other factors tend to come before the health and quality of the animal. It may be a cliché, but when it comes to beef, “you are what you eat” does hold true. RLM pastures are a mosaic of different plants all offering their own nutrients uniquely suited to the digestive systems of cows. When cattle eat corn or other grains, their stomach microbes ferment the starch. This fermentation, especially in large quantities, leads to serious “acidosis” health problems from stomach bloat to even death. These symptoms are akin to forcing someone gluten free or celiac to eat nothing but gluten.

We’ve seen grain-feeding called a “luxury” for cows. If you’re a kid, running rampant through a candy store could be considered a “luxury”. If you’re a rock star, getting plastered on drugs and alcohol could be a “luxury”…At the end of this bovine bender you’re left with a fatty steak depleted of nutrients.

Raising cows on unnatural diets promises a slew of health problems. As a result, many of these animals are given sub-theraputic doses of antimicrobials to curb sickness. When this was measured in 2007, it was found that 12.6 million kg of antimicrobials were administered to livestock in the US each year. That’s 80% of all antibiotics used in the US—with 61% of those deemed “medically important” for human medical therapy by the FDA. This is a big deal when unnecessary use creates antibiotic resistant pathogens, rendering these drugs less effective when humans need them to fight off infections.


It makes sense that proponents of grain-feeding spend a lot of time thinking about what an animal takes. The grain-feeding system takes a toll on feed, water, antibiotics, hormones, and ultimate environmental quality without the return found in RLM grazing. The argument is that these established methods are more efficient, saving space and time, two less tangible but critical resources. Yet, doing something efficiently but unsustainably will deplete resources before we’ve learned to cherish them.

Grain-feeding and non-RLM pasture operations break a successful natural cycle. Feedlots have a land fertility, feed, and waste problem. Instead of the cows naturally fertilizing their feed in the pasture, the corn, soy and grain they consume in a feedlot setting requires vast amounts of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides to grow. This feed has to be trucked in from miles away. The feed is unnatural to the cows body, thus the animals need to be supported with antibiotics and hormones in confined spaces. Cramming the animals together leads to a decline in usable land and healthy soil, and an unwieldy amount of manure. Finally, this leaves an environmentally harmful wake behind that harms not only the land but also the atmosphere. Antibiotics, manure lagoons, and methane capture are efforts to mitigate problems that the industry created for itself.

RLM can make beef production not just net zero but a net positive to climate change by closing the cycle. When it comes to sequestration, claims that take a stab at a life-cycle analysis of beef found that if you used restorative pasture raising on the world’s grasslands you could sequester more carbon than has been emitted since the industrial revolution. So far RLM has been adopted by advocates in 40 million acres around the world. The amount of grass-fed beef sold retail has increased steadily since 2011, but still accounts for than 1% of total sales by weight.

Fortunately, we’re not alone in championing RLM, many leading advocates such as the Nature Conservancy, NRDC, and more insist on the importance of RLM. But more research needs to be done—especially when it comes to projecting and modeling life-cycle analyses. We are proud to practice these methods on our partner farms and advocate for what is a truly sustainable option!

Read more at Savory Institute, Nature Conservancy, NRDC, and more