Is beef production as inefficient as some lead us to believe?

A recent article in The Economist takes a look at livestock and meat production from an environmental point of view. One of the conclusions that the article makes is that cattle need to be managed more intensively and feed should be switched to grains rather than grass to improve efficiency:

Among the lessons of the research is that white meat wins out over red for environmental reasons as well as health ones. It takes 2kg of feed to produce 1kg of chicken; 3kg for 1kg of pork. The ratio for lamb is between four and six to one; for beef, between five and 20 to one.

Even without switching between types of protein, there is scope for big productivity gains in South and South-East Asia, Africa and the Middle East, where 45-80% of pig and chicken farms are smallholdings. In America and Europe 70-98% are run at industrial scale. A cow in America or Europe eats 75-300kg of hay and other dry matter per kilo of protein; in Africa, which has the largest number of traditional pastoralists, she needs 500kg or more. On the dry rangelands of Ethiopia and South Sudan, the figure is up to 2,000kg.

Switching from pastoralism to feeding cattle with grain would dramatically improve efficiency.

This switchover would also reduce the damaging build-up of nitrogen and phosphorus in soil, since intensive methods turn the nutrient in feed into meat more efficiently. And it would slash greenhouse-gas emissions. Cattle on dry rangelands produce 100 times as much per unit of meat as cattle in America or Europe. Three-quarters of the total comes from cattle, for 59m tonnes of beef a year. Poultry and pigs produce 10%—for four times as much meat.

Industrial-scale livestock farming can encourage the spread of diseases that humans share with animals. And animals may suffer in factory farms (though they bear a big burden of endemic diseases in pastoral systems). Such downsides are cited by environmentalists who would prefer less factory farming and more traditional pastoralism. But efficient livestock farming makes better use of scarce basic resources—and is far better for the planet.

But are resources really being used inefficiently? Yes, grain will grow cattle more quickly and efficiently on a pound-for-pound basis than grass, but it is not always the most efficient resource allocation, particularly for young calves and breeding females. Often times, a combination of grass and grain diets at different stages of production is the most efficient means of beef production. For example, in the U.S. cattle are typically on a grass diet for the first several months before being transitioned to a grain-based diet.

Cattle are unique in that they are ruminants. They have the ability to turn tough, dry, fibrous grasses into a usable feed source; something that poultry or hogs cannot do. This allows cattle producers to utilize grassland to produce food for human consumption. Much of the grazing land is unsuitable for grain production. For example, it is difficult, if not impossible to grow corn in parts of the Nebraska Sandhills or the West Texas Plains, but grass grows just fine. There are many other grassland areas across the U.S. and globally that are too wet, too dry, too rocky, or too steep to produce crops, but cattle are able to thrive. In those cases, grazing cattle, when managed properly, really is the most efficient (and environmentally friendly) resource allocation. As more drought resistant grain varieties are developed, efficiency may be improved by growing and feeding additional grain to livestock, but until then grazing will remain the most efficient use of those areas.