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Interpretive Summary: Grass-fed vs. grain-fed beef systems: Performance, economic, and environmental trade-offs

By: S. C. Klopatek, E. Marvinney, T. Duarte, A. Kendall, X. Yang, J. W. Oltjen

Between the influence of the “food elite” on social media and increasing public concerns over climate change, consumer demand for grass-fed beef has increased considerably. Although many consumers perceive grass-fed beef as more environmentally friendly than grain-fed beef, there is a dearth of research available to address these consumer claims. In order to answer both consumer and producer concerns, we performed an experiment that evaluated the environmental footprint (i.e., water, land, greenhouse gasses, and energy), beef quality, and economic outcome of four beef cattle production systems on the West coast. The four systems included conventional beef finished on grain for 128 d, steers grass-fed for 20 mo, steers grass-fed for 20-mo with a 45-d grain finish, and steers grass-fed for 25 mo. We found that varying grass-fed and grain-fed production systems resulted in different environmental effects. The conventional system produced the lowest greenhouse gas footprint but required the highest energy input. The grass-fed for 20 mo used the least amount of water but produced the greatest greenhouse gas. In conclusion, this study illustrated the complexities underpinning beef sustainability; no system resulted in absolute economic, meat quality, and environmental superiority. 

This article can be found in the Journal of Animal Science.