Myth: Larger Modern Cattle Operations Today Have a Greater Negative Environmental Impact Than Small, Local Operations


Many studies show quite the opposite. Agriculture operations of any size can be managed in environmentally sound ways. But modern operations can benefit from sophisticated environmental controls.

A 2010 Washington State University 1 study examined modern beef production and found that since 1977 advances in production practices resulted in 13 percent more beef with 13 percent fewer animals. The study found that modern beef production uses 30 percent less land and 20 percent less feed.

These findings make some sense considering that when more cattle are together in a controlled environment, feed is provided and manure is managed through sophisticated systems, which reduce environmental impact.

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Interestingly, new research 2 from the University of California Davis underscored how modern practices can help the environment. Researchers there studied two groups of cattle in a feedlot setting. One group utilized modern technology while the other did not. The first group generated 31 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than those without implants or additives.

In addition, Washington State research also shows that pound-for-pound, beef produced with grain produces significantly less greenhouse gas emissions than grass-fed beef. A grain diet is more easily digestible than the cellulose fibers of grass, producing less methane.

According to the research, it takes 226 more days for grass-finished cattle to reach market weight than grain-finished cattle, meaning that each pound of grain-finished beef requires:

  1. Environmental Sustainability of Beef Production Has Improved Considerably over Last 30 Years, WSU Expert Says, Washington State University, August 1, 2011.
  2. Feedlot efficiency implications on greenhouse gas emissions and sustainability , Journal of Animal Science, August 1, 2011.