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.


| November 2014



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

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.”





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