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Interpretive Summary: How advances in animal efficiency and management have affected beef cattle’s water intensity in the United States: 1991 compared to 2019

By: Sarah C Klopatek, James W Oltjen

In 1993, Beckett and Oltjen published an innovative model that evaluated beef cattle’s blue water (ground water and surface water) use in the United States. The model stated that to produce one lb. of boneless beef, 440 gallons of blue water were required. Although this model shifted the prevailing acumen regarding beef cattle’s water use and became the fifth most cited Journal of Animal Science article in popular press, with today’s vast changes in cattle genetics, animal management, and irrigation practices, the value generated in this model has become obsolete. By updating Beckett and Oltjen (1993) with today’s agricultural inputs, the present model was the first to use an “apples to apples” strategy to compare beef cattle’s blue water use over time. Utilizing USDA irrigation and cattle inventory datasets along with expertise from university extension, the current model determined that over a 28-yr period beef cattle’s water intensity per one lb. of boneless beef was 275 gallons, a decrease of 38%. In addition, total water use for the U.S. beef production system decreased by 29%. The principal reasons for these decreases were due to the decrease in water used to irrigate crops and pasture, increased meat per carcass, and improved efficiencies in cattle management and nutrition. Despite these decreases in water use and intensity, water will continue to be a concern for beef cattle production, particularly in the west where surface and ground water are rapidly depleting. The beef industry has made great strides in water reduction but will need to continue to decrease blue water use, for if there is no water, beef cannot be produced.

Read the full article in the Journal of Animal Science.