|Sustainable Beef Production
Sustainable beef production has as its focus the long-term health of the
environment, while maintaining the economic viability of the farm and
addressing consumer concerns about the beef they eat.
Sustainable beef production optimizes the use of pasture while reducing the
dependence on grain and harvested forage. Forage-based production
utilizes a feed source not directly available to humans, often on land not
suitable for cropping. Cattle, as ruminant herbivores, may be thought of as
"solar-powered grass combines," having the ability to convert plant material
into high-quality beef for human consumption. Raising grain to feed
ruminants requires higher fertilizer and pesticide inputs and consequently, is
more energy-intensive and possibly more expensive than pasture. Land that
is too erodible for annual cropping can be maintained as permanent sod.
On land suitable for row crops, pasture is sometimes included in a crop
rotation plan. Pasture, when properly managed, interrupts the life cycles of
annual weeds and other crop pests and builds the soil by adding organic
matter. Manure disposal problems are reduced on pasture, since nutrients
are naturally spread on the soil and recycled as fertilizer.
Sustainable beef production is economically viable. With pasture-based
production, costs for chemical inputs (fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides)
are reduced. Since pastured livestock harvest the feed themselves, inputs of
machinery and energy are reduced because there is less need to harvest
mechanically. Less capital is needed, since pasture, animals, fences, water,
and management are the main inputs.
Sustainable beef production emphasizes alternative health practices to keep
animals healthy and costs low. Preventative methods are used to reduce
pest, parasite, and stress problems. A livestock component diversifies a
grain farm, while manure and forages can reduce input costs and soil
erosion in cropping systems.
Alternative marketing can increase the economic viability of the beef
operation. For example, by marketing a value-added beef product directly to
customers, profits go to the producer instead of a middleman. Swings in
market prices will not affect a producer who direct-markets as much as one
who markets beef conventionally. Value-added markets, such as organic,
natural, and grass-fed, are potentially attractive to customers, many of whom
are interested in meat products that have been raised in environmentally
sound ways and without the routine use of medications and growth
There is potential to improve the regional economy by processing the beef
that is produced locally instead of sending it out of state. Many consumers
will, therefore, support locally grown beef.
Sustainable beef production addresses social concerns about food safety
and environmental degradation. Many consumers want "lean, clean beef."
The "war" on fat is a major focus in the beef industry and has resulted in
leaner beef products. Many consumers fear that livestock feed additives
such as hormone implants and routine use of antibiotics could adversely
affect their health. Some even want certified organic beef raised with no
pesticides in feed and no synthetic parasiticides. Other consumers want to
buy products they believe have been raised in an environmentally sound
Sustainable beef production uses a whole-farm systems approach of land,
water, energy, labor, technology, and capital management to meet the goals
of the farm or ranch and develop diversity and resiliency. In an integrated
system, animals and plants are adapted to the site and operation goals,
records are kept to measure progress, and marketing fits with the skills and
interests of the ranch.
Sustainable Beef Production
By Anne Fanatico, Ron Morrow, & Ann Wells
NCAT Agriculture Specialists © NCAT 1999
ATTRA Publication #IP018/18