What's Wrong with Grass-Fed Beef?

What is the alternative to feedlot beef?

Portrait Of Cows Grazing
Andre Wilms / EyeEm / Getty Images

Although the production of feedlot beef is widely recognized as environmentally irresponsible, few people question the environmental impact of grass-fed beef. What many fail to recognize is that feedlots and other factory farming practices began because there was no other efficient way to produce large quantities of meat, eggs, and milk. Grass-fed beef may seem better because we are not wasting farmland to grow corn for the cattle to eat, but raising grass-fed cattle is not environmentally sustainable.

Land Use

Proponents of grass-fed beef argue that raising cows in pastures is more sustainable than raising cows in feedlots, but a cow in a pasture requires more land on which to live and does not grow as quickly as a grain-fed cow in a feedlot. The only way we can have cows grazing on vast pastures is if the majority of Americans do not eat grass-fed beef. If the practice cannot be scaled up and applied to hundreds of millions of people, it is not a sustainable solution to feedlot beef.

The U.S. alone has 94.5 million cattle. One farmer estimates that it takes 2.5 to 35 acres of pasture, depending on the quality of the pasture, to raise a grass-fed cow. Using the more conservative figure of 2.5 acres of pasture, this means we need approximately 250 million acres to create grazing pastures for every cow in the U.S. That's over 390,000 square miles, which is more than 10% of all the land in the U.S.

While we might romantically imagine cattle being set out to graze previously unused grasslands, the fact is that the Amazon rainforest is being deforested to create grazing pastures for free-range, grass-fed organic beef.

Allowing animals to scatter over a wide area also increases the number of resources required to manage the herd. Rounding up the animals, transporting the animals and protecting the animals from predators require more resources than managing cows in a feedlot. Also, allowing the cattle into more wild areas means that more predators - coyotes, bears, wolves and cougars - will be killed in an effort to protect ranching interests.

“Marginal” Land

Some proponents of grass-fed beef argue that cattle could be raised on “marginal” lands – lands that cannot be used for growing crops but can be used for growing grasses – so that the cows are not taking land away from human food production. Again, this is an infeasible solution. If the land is marginal, it will not be the high-quality pasture that can support a cow on a mere 2.5 acres. We are likely looking at the high end of the acreage estimate and would require 35 acres per cow, requiring approximately 3.5 billion acres of marginal land in which to raise 94.5 million grass-fed cows. This is 5.5 million square miles, more than the entire area of the United States.

50% more Greenhouse Gases

Nathan Pelletier of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia estimates that pasture-raised beef results in 50% more greenhouse gasses than feedlot beef. Because the cows fatten up more slowly on grass, they eat more grass, emit more methane and nitrous-oxide than they would if they were eating grain in a feedlot. Also, most of those vast pastures are enhanced with fertilizers.

Public Lands and Displacement of Wildlife

Even where plentiful grasslands already exist, the cows will displace other animals and cause wildlife deaths. Predators are killed to protect grazing livestock. Wild horses are rounded up and sometimes killed because they compete with livestock for grass on public lands. The fences put up by cattle ranchers on public lands restrict the movement of wildlife, making it difficult for them to find food and water. Where cattle congregate at riverbanks, their waste pollutes the water and threatens the fish.

While ranchers pay for the right to graze their cattle on public lands, the amounts paid do not cover all of the costs. All American taxpayers subsidize cattle being raised on public lands, as well as factory farmed animal products.

We don’t need more cows grazing on public lands; we need fewer cows.

Grass-Fed is Still Crop-Fed

Grass-fed cattle must eat crops when grass is unavailable in the winter or during droughts. The crops will consist of hay and grasses, but will still take land away from the production of crops that could be fed to people directly.

What is the Solution to Feedlot Beef?

Feeding plants to animals to produce meat is not only a violation of the animals’ rights to be free, but also very inefficient and environmentally harmful. Whether the cows eat corn in a feedlot or grass in a pasture, the production of beef is environmentally destructive. The solution is to not eat beef, or any animal products, and to go vegan.