Environmental Footprints of Beef Produced At the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center

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Why Study the Environmental Footprint of Beef?

As a major contributor in food production, beef production provides a major service to our economy that must be maintained. Production of cattle and the associated feed crops required also impact our environment, and this impact is not well understood. Several studies have determined the carbon footprint of beef, but there are other environmental impacts that must be considered such as fossil energy use, water use, and reactive nitrogen loss to the environment. Because of the large amount of data available to support model evaluation, production systems of the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center were simulated with the Integrated Farm System Model for the purpose of evaluating the environmental impact of the beef cattle produced.

What Did We Do?

The environmental footprints of beef produced at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) in Clay Center, Nebraska were determined with the objective of quantifying improvements achieved over the past 40 years. Relevant information for MARC operations was used to establish parameters representing their production system with the Integrated Farm System Model. The MARC farm, cow calf and feedlot operations were each simulated over recent historical weather to evaluate performance, environmental impact and economics. The current farm operation included 2,078 acres of alfalfa and 2,865 acres of corn to produce feed predominately for the beef herd of 5,500 cows, 1200 replacement heifers and 3,724 cattle finished per year. Spring and fall cow calf herds were fed on 24,000 acres of pastureland supplemented through the winter with hay and silage produced by the farm operation. Feedlot cattle were backgrounded 3 mo on hay and silage and finished over 7 mo on a diet high in corn grain and wet distiller’s grain.

What Have We Learned?

Model simulated predictions for weather year 2011 were within 1% of actual records for feed production and use, energy use, and production costs. A 25-year simulation of their current production system gave a carbon footprint of 10.9 lb of CO2 equivalent units per lb body weight (BW) sold, and the energy required to produce that beef was 11,400 Btu/lb BW. The total water required was 2,560 gallon/lb BW sold, and the water footprint excluding that obtained through precipitation was 335 gallon/lb BW. Reactive N loss was 0.09 lb/lb BW, and the simulated total cost of producing their beef was $0.96/lb BW sold. Simulation of the production practices of 2005 indicate that the use of distiller’s grain in animal diets has had a small impact on environmental footprints except that reactive N loss has increased 10%. Compared to 1970, the carbon footprint of beef produced has decreased 6% with no change in the energy footprint, a 3% reduction in the reactive N footprint, and a 6% reduction in the real cost of production. The water footprint, excluding precipitation, has increased 42% due to greater use of irrigated corn production.

Future Plans

Now that the modeling approach has been shown to appropriately represent beef production systems, further simulation analyses are planned to evaluate beef production systems on a regional and national scale.


C. Alan Rotz, Agricultural Engineer, Pasture Systems and Watershed Management Research Unit, USDA/ARS al.rotz@ars.usda.gov

B.J. Isenberg, Research Assistant, The Pennsylvania State University

K.R. Stackhouse-Lawson, Director of Sustainability Research, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association

E.J. Pollak, Director, Roman L. Hruska U.S. Meat Animal Research Center, USDA / ARS

Additional Information

C. Alan Rotz, al.rotz@ars.usda.gov


Funded in part by The Beef Checkoff and the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service


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