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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Research Project: Environmental Assessment of U.S. Beef Production Systems

Location: Pasture Systems & Watershed Management Research

2013 Annual Report


1a.Objectives (from AD-416):
To determine farm gate environmental footprints of beef production systems in the U.S. and the changes that have occurred over the past 40 years. Specific objectives are to: • Compare conventional, grass-fed and natural beef production strategies at a given location using the same weather, soil and related production constraints. • Simulate two large feedlot systems in Kansas and Texas with production capacities of up to 100,000 head to evaluate the influence of feedlot size on environmental impact. • Simulate, evaluate, and compare the environmental footprints and production costs of beef produced in a given region of the U.S. using industry typical production practices of the early 1970’s, 2005, and 2012.


1b.Approach (from AD-416):
Grass-fed and natural beef producing farms will be visited to gather information on production practices and animal performance. This information, along with similar data from conventional production systems, will be used to establish model parameters and verify simulation results for each production strategy. These production systems will be simulated with the Integrated Farm System Model (IFSM) using the same weather, soil, and other common production constraints to determine the cradle to farm gate life cycle carbon, energy, water and reactive nitrogen footprints of the beef produced.

To evaluate the effect of the scale of operation, feed yards in Kansas and Texas will be represented and simulated with IFSM using parameters established through site visits and follow up correspondence. By simulating these feed yards, gate-to-gate life cycle carbon, energy, water and reactive nitrogen footprints will be determined. These footprints represent the important environmental impacts associated with the beef produced between the entrance and exit of the feed yards. The environmental footprints of these rather large feed yards (capacities of 30,000 and 100,000 cattle) will be compared to those previously determined for the feedlot operation of the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (3,500 cattle) to determine any differences due to size of operation. The same weather, soil and feed production practices will be used in a simulation of each operation to assure that differences found are due to the production practices used at each feedlot finishing operation.

For a more complete assessment of U.S. beef production, a comprehensive analysis will be done for a major beef producing region. In collaboration with a university and/or beef producer organization, a survey of the industry in this region will be conducted to determine the characteristics of common production practices. This information will be used to set parameters in IFSM for simulating representative cow-calf, stocker and finish operations of the region. Simulation of the representative operations will provide the cradle to farm gate partial life cycle carbon, energy, water and reactive nitrogen footprints for the beef produced. This analysis will also include an economic assessment of the beef production costs. Historical simulations will be done that represent each beef producing operation for the region in 1970 and 2005 to determine the environmental and economic changes that have occurred through time. This information will be provided to collaborators at BASF Corporation for their use in developing a full life cycle assessment of beef production, processing, and use for the region.


3.Progress Report:

A grazing-based beef operation in Central Pennsylvania was simulated and the environmental impacts were compared to those of a more conventional beef production system using grain finishing in confinement. The grazing-based system was found to provide a small reduction in ammonia emissions and an 80% reduction in volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions compared to the conventional system. The carbon footprint (greenhouse gas emission per unit of body weight produced) was about 30% greater and the water footprint (total water use per unit of body weight) was over 100% greater than that of the conventional grain-finishing production system. The reactive nitrogen footprint (total reactive nitrogen emission per unit of body weight produced) was reduced 40% and the energy footprint (fossil energy use per unit of body weight) was reduced 10% using the grazing-based system.

A feed yard in Kansas producing 59,000 finished cattle per year was simulated and compared to a feedlot at the Meat Animal Research Center in Nebraska that finishes 3,700 cattle per year. The carbon footprint of the larger operation was about 15% less than that of the smaller operation, and the energy, water, and reactive nitrogen footprints were similar for the two operations. This preliminary analysis implies that the size of the operation has little effect on the environmental sustainability of cattle finishing.

A region (Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas) was established for conducting a regional assessment of the sustainability of beef production. Initial steps were taken on collecting information on the number and size of cow calf, stocker and feed yard operations of this region. Data is being gathered to establish simulations of representative operations to determine environmental impacts and production costs for producing cattle in this region.


Last Modified: 8/27/2014
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