Ethical Beef, Part 2: The Efficiency of Cattle Grazing

Cattle grazing allows grassland that would not be used for growing crops to work its way into the food web.

Grazing Animals

Grasslands naturally harvest energy from the sun to allow plants to grow. The energy from those plants can be harvested by grazing cattle on farm lands.

Photo by Fotolia/Therina Groenewald

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Is eating meat ethically wrong or right? In Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production, environmental lawyer Nicolette Hahn Niman aggregates the research and personal insight to explain how eating meat is beneficial for humans and for the planet, stating that there is a need for meat to be produced the right way. This excerpt, which explains how cattle grazing positively impacts the environment, is from the section, “Final Analysis: Why Eat Animals?”

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The Efficiency of Cattle Grazing

Energy use for cattle fed from their own foraging is so negligible that beef produced in this way is actually less energy-intensive than grain production. The Pimentels point out in Food, Energy, and Society

that whereas crop cultivation adds significantly to the energy use of grain-fed livestock systems, raising cattle on grass takes little energy. “[I]n contrast [with grain-fed], cattle grazed on pastures use considerably less energy than grain-fed cattle.” The textbook quantifies energy inputs for grass-fed beef compared with grain-fed as follows: “Current yield of beef protein from productive pastures is about 66 kilograms per hectare, while the energy input per kilogram of animal protein produced is 3,500 kilocalories. Therefore, animal protein production on good pastures is less expensive in terms of fossil energy inputs than grain protein production.”

The other part of the fuzzy math problem is about land where cattle and other livestock are currently grazing. The “stop eating meat to reduce world hunger” notion assumes that if livestock disappeared, a significant portion of the land where they graze could (and would) be used to raise food for humans instead. This is wrong on several levels. First, just as there’s no reason to believe grain production would continue without livestock generating a demand for it, there’s no reason to believe land currently used for grazing would be used to grow food for the world’s poor. Whoever owns or controls the land would find other, more profitable uses. In the alternative (such as federal lands grazed by U.S. cattle), the land would simply cease to be used for any food production. Thus, removing livestock would not free up land for plant-based food production, as people making this argument often assume.

Second, and this point is critical, the vast majority of the world’s grazing takes place on land that cannot be used to grow crops. As David Montgomery succinctly states: “Sheep and cattle turn parts of plants we can’t eat into milk and meat.” Food, Energy, and Society notes the prevalence around the world of livestock raised on “free energy sources.” These include forage growing along paths and other “interstitial spaces” that would not be used for crops or other purposes, and straw left after harvest of rice or similar grain crops, which can be fed to animals.

The textbook Soil and Water Conservation defines rangelands as “soil on which the native vegetation is predominantly grasses, grass-like plants, forbs or shrubs suitable for grazing or browsing.” It notes that “[n]early half of the land on Earth can be classed as rangeland,” and says, “Most of it is either unsuitable or of low quality for use as tilled cropland because it includes steep areas, shallow and/or stony soils, or dry and/or cold climates.”

Likewise, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service provides the following explanation of the unique role of grasslands and ruminants like cattle in the global food system:

[Grassland] ecosystems are naturally able to capture sunlight and convert it into food energy for plants. . . . [M]ost of the land in the U.S., and indeed in most countries of the world, is not tillable and is considered rangeland, forest, or desert. These ecosystems can be very productive from a plant biomass perspective, but since they are generally non-farmable, the plants they produce (grasses, forbs, shrubs, trees) are not readily usable (from a digestive standpoint) by humans.

However, grassland ecosystems (both rangeland and temperate grasslands) produce plant materials that are highly digestible to ruminant animals. . . . Grazing of native and introduced forages on grasslands and rangeland thus is a very efficient way of converting otherwise non-digestible energy into forms available for human use: milk, meat, wool and other fibers, and hide.

This point is so important it’s worth stressing again: This miraculous transformation of sunlight into human food via grazing animals is mostly occurring in areas that cannot be used to grow crops. This crucial fact is nearly always ignored by (or perhaps unknown to) beef’s critics. Colin Tudge uses his book Feeding People Is Easy to raise awareness:

In many parts of the world, at least in some seasons, it is very difficult to raise crops at all. Arable is all but impossible when the land is too high, steep, cold, or wet or if it rains too much in the season when the grain should be ripening . . . [A]nimals of one kind or another muddle through anywhere—living as camels and goats may do on the most meager of leaves that poke through between the thorns of desert trees, or as reindeer do on lichen, or as long-wooled sheep and shaggy cattle do in British hills on the coarse grasses that grow between the heather; and in times of drought or the depths of winter there may be nothing to eat at all except for beasts that fattened in better times.

A recent grasslands university textbook reinforces Tudge’s observations with respect to rangelands, stating that “[b]ecause they typically experience low and unpredictable rainfall and often have associated low soil fertility, rangelands generally cannot sustain crop agriculture without irrigation.” Making use of these lands is and has always been the very special place for the world’s herbivores, the text then notes. They convert “low quality fibrous plants into products such as meat, milk, and blood that humans can readily digest.” For this very reason, it continues, “harvesting products from herbivores has been a defining element in the relationship between humans and rangelands worldwide for millennia.”

One of many world examples of people using livestock as rangeland converters are the Dodos of northeast Uganda. They feed their cattle no grain, only pasture forage unsuitable for human consumption, and raise them without fossil fuels. The Dodo tribe illustrates the crucial and versatile role livestock can play for humans. Food, Energy, and Society summarizes the benefits: “First, the livestock effectively convert forage growing in the marginal habitat into food suitable for humans. Second, herds serve as stored food resources. Third, the cattle can be traded for sorghum grain [for human consumption] during years of inadequate rainfall and poor crop yields.” These are precisely the properties that make livestock irreplaceable to people throughout the world.

In the United States, since long before the arrival of humans, a large portion of ground, especially in the West, has been unsuitable for crop cultivation. Some of this land is arid or semi-arid; rains may be insufficient or fall only at the wrong time of year for crop cultivation, or its topography is too hilly, or too rocky. Having resided for the past 12 years in Northern Coastal California on land where crops cannot be grown, I grasp such limitations much better than I once did. I understand implicitly how windiness, dry, cool summers, and steep, rough terrain are all conditions that are fine, even ideal, for grass and livestock, but render crop growing impossible.

“The [U.S.] pastureland and rangeland are marginal in terms of productivity because there is too little rainfall for crop production,” note the Pimentels. These areas are where the vast majority of America’s cattle are located. According to the U.S. Beef Board, 85 percent of the land grazed by cattle in the United States is land that cannot be farmed. This precise number, since it comes from the beef industry itself, obviously should be taken with a grain of salt. But it suggests that cattle grazing in the United States is largely occurring on non-farmable rangelands. According to a highly credible and impartial source, a recent university textbook, in California, 57 million acres, almost 60 percent of the land, is characterized as rangeland, about 34 million acres of which is actually grazed.

Yet in California, as elsewhere in the United States, rangelands continue to be chipped away by more intensive land uses. Foothill rangelands, especially, are being converted to wine-grape growing, housing, and urban developments. The grasslands textbook states: “[T]hroughout most of California, range has given way to other, generally higher value but also more intensive, land uses.”

However, the same textbook holds out hope for a growing recognition of rangelands’ societal and ecological value:

As range ecosystem services other than livestock production become increasingly valued by society, the additional benefits that we derive directly from primary production and the soil system have gained greater recognition: provision of irrigation and drinking water, recreational opportunities, wildlife habitat, open space/viewshed, rural lifestyle, biodiversity, and carbon storage. It might even be argued that the most important role that primary consumers play in 21st century California is not providing the traditional livestock products of meat, milk, and fiber, but rather acting as a bulwark against the conversion of range into housing developments, vineyards, and other more intensive land-uses that do not provide the multiple ecosystem services bestowed by range ecosystems.

The presence of grazing animals on such non-farmable lands enriches the world’s food supply regardless of the efficiency with which the animal converts the feed to flesh and milk. The oft-quoted statistics about the “inefficiency” of cattle converting feed to flesh are irrelevant. “However efficient the conversion ratio of any given animal may be,” Simon Fairlie points out, “if it is grazing entirely on land which could not otherwise be used for arable production or some other highly productive activity, then it cannot be said to be detracting from the sum quantity of nutrients available to the people of the world, but adding to them.” Moreover, he points out, where animals graze on land unsuitable for crop cultivation, they are “relieving pressure on arable land, and helping to retrieve otherwise inaccessible nutrients and bring them within the food chain.” To this I would add livestock grazed on cover crops or fed farm by-products, as is the case for a large number of the world’s farm animals. These methods, too, create food for humans using only feed sources that are not directly usable as human nourishment.

I hope this discussion puts at ease the mind of any reader who has hesitated to eat beef based on concerns about world hunger. In the majority of the world, cattle are fed little or no grain and are raised mostly on non-farmable lands. For Americans and other people in the developed world, where grain is used as part of cattle feed, we have the choice to seek out and buy beef and dairy products from animals raised on forages rather than grains and soy. As described in earlier parts of my book, there are human health and animal health and welfare reasons to do so, and by choosing grass-based foods we help maintain our nation’s grasslands, which are the most environmentally beneficial of all lands used for agriculture.

Want to learn more about raising livestock and eating meat? See these articles:

Ethical Beef, Part 1: The Benefits of Eating Meat
Ethical Beef, Part 3: The Environmental and Moral Concerns of Eating Meat
Ethical Beef, Part 4: The Pleasure of Raising Livestock
Ethical Beef, Part 5: Agriculture Benefits from Grazing Animal Herds


This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production, by Nicolette Hahn Niman and published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014. Buy this book from our store: Defending Beef.