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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Research Project: MANAGING FARMS FOR ENVIRONMENTAL STEWARDSHIP AND PROFIT

Location: Pasture Systems & Watershed Management Research

Title: An environmental assessment of grass-finishing beef operations in Pennsylvania

Authors
item Dillon, Jasmine -
item Rotz, Clarence

Submitted to: Meeting Abstract
Publication Type: Abstract Only
Publication Acceptance Date: December 2, 2013
Publication Date: February 4, 2014
Citation: Dillon, J., Rotz, C.A. 2014. An environmental assessment of grass-finishing beef operations in Pennsylvania [abstract]. Proc. Annual Meeting of the Northeast Pasture Consortium, State College PA. p. 1.

Technical Abstract: Concern for the environmental sustainability of traditional beef production has increased consumer interest in alternatively produced beef products perceived to be more environmentally friendly. This includes those marketed under “grassfed beef” labels. However, little information exists on the environmental impact of either conventional or grassfed beef production. The objective of this work was to quantify the environmental footprints (carbon, reactive nitrogen, water, and energy) of a representative grassfed beef operation in Pennsylvania. A partial life cycle assessment was conducted using the Integrated Farm System Model (IFSM) to estimate greenhouse gas emissions, reactive nitrogen loss, and water and energy use. The estimates were determined through a 25 year simulation of a grassfed beef operation in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania that included cow-calf to finish phases. An Angus herd of 80 cows, 15 replacement cattle, 52 stockers, and 51 finishers was rotationally grazed on 250 acres of managed perennial grassland. Calf weaning weight, finish weight, and average mature cow weight were 524 lb, 1200 lb, and 1300 lb, respectively. Feeder calves to be marketed under a regulated “Grassfed Beef” label were managed according to published grassfed beef marketing regulations, in which cattle may consume only forage for the duration of their lifetime, with the exception of milk prior to weaning. Supplementation was provided to cattle, per published guidelines on supplementation restrictions, only during times of inclement weather or when forage quality was low. Average annual carbon, reactive nitrogen, and energy footprints were 14.4 ± 0.6 lb CO2e/lb BW, 0.12 ± 0.02 lb reactive N/lb BW, and 10.4 ± 1.0 MBtu/lb BW sold. Average annual water use was 1700 ± 169 gallon H2O/lb BW sold. Excluding rainfall, this average annual water use was small at 31 ± 3 gallon H2O/lb BW. Through simulation of traditional beef production in the Midwest, Rotz et al. (2013) found an average annual carbon footprint of 10.9 ± 0.6 lb of CO2e/lb BW, a reactive nitrogen footprint of 0.092 ± 0.02 lb N/lb BW, and an energy footprint of 11.4 ± 1.9 MBtu/lb BW. Due to greater use of irrigation, the annual water footprint was 2550 ± 670 gallon/lb BW sold, and the water footprint excluding precipitation was 330 ± 110 gallon/lb BW. The results of this simulation study suggest that management practices associated with grassfed beef production reduce water and energy use but may increase greenhouse gas emissions and reactive nitrogen loss relative to traditional beef production. Future research efforts will center on collection of data from grass feeding operations in the northeast to improve our representation of operations in the region. Generating data related to environmental impacts of grassfed beef will both improve producers’ access to information to aid in decision making, and improve our ability to make inferences and comparisons about the environmental impacts of differing beef production systems.

Last Modified: 9/22/2014
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