March 4, 2018

Another Land-Use Debate: Feedlot-finished vs. Forage-finished

I have a hypothesis that I want to test out on this blog post: I want to find out for a fact if forage-finished beef does in fact require more land than grain-finished beef, or whether it's a load of hot air.

The common rhetoric that, "There's just not enough land to produce grass-fed beef for everyone," is a common mantra repeated by several groups, more strongly the anti-livestock animal extremists, as well as the conventional agriculture promoters. And personally, I'm tired of hearing this rhetoric again and again without having some ammunition myself to debunk such claims. This ends now.

Have you ever done a Google search to even find out if there has been such an analysis done by anyone? I have, and the results are disappointing, to say the least. There is only one article (and this phrase is repeated by other articles, nothing that is original) that gives a very ambiguous comparison, supposedly from some unpublished research paper that hasn't even been cited in the article itself, which claims that, "a grain-fed cow will require three acres of land, while a grass-fed cow requires nine acres."

I'm sorry, but that's just pathetic.

And what makes it worse, as a major caveat, is that the very article claims that the author of that unpublished paper is partnered with a pro-CAFO (which includes feedlot production) company. That will certainly create a huge influence on land-use analyses and resulting data obtained.

So I think it's time I pulled back my sleeves and dug out my calculator and my formulas I used in my other blog post I had a lot of fun creating, to take a really good, hard look at just how much land is actually required by both forage-finishing and grain-finishing cattle, and to test the hypothesis that it is true that "grain-fed" actually do require less land than "grass-fed." As I write this out, this will be both an adventure for myself, and for you to read though!

Key Points on Feeds, Forages and Cattle


Before I begin, there's several key things to understand.

  1. Grass will grow back after being grazed, provided it's done so when those plants have not yet reached full maturity (i.e., seeds out and ready to be dispersed). Grain crops do not grow back after being harvested for grain or feed; not to the same yield that was first obtained at first harvest. So unlike with pasture, cropland needs to be broken up and re-seeded again in order to get another crop.
  2. Both forage and crop yield and quality will be dependent on precipitation, temperature (i.e., the weather), and species used. Conditions unfavourable to any forage or crop species will make for unfavourable yields; the opposite is also true. I will not be accounting that in the calculations below, however.
  3. Forage and feed quality is not static. They are always prone to change based on various factors from stage of maturity at harvest, storage conditions, weather conditions, how they're managed, and soil quality. For the purpose of this exercise I'm using expected average quality of the typical feeds I've chosen for both types of feeding operations, particularly for the grain-finished side. 
  4. Forages mean both grasses and forbs (including legumes). I have a pun-intended beef with the term "grass-fed" despite it being so widely used because cows and cattle voluntarily eat far more than just grass. Pastures should not be exclusively grass, as that flies in the face of the opportunities, benefits, and need for biodiversity in any plant stand that can be used to graze livestock on. Hence my insistence on using the term "forage-finished" instead of "grass-finished" or even grass-fed. 
  5. To compare forage-finished with grain-finished more accurately, I'm eliminating the time period before weaning. I don't think it fair to include the amount of feed and therefore land for a cow-calf pair when the start of both forage- and grain-finished animals is very similar. There might be a date when I'll come back and take a second look at this post, and change my mind.  
  6. Animal type and breed is going to really determine age and weight of finish. There are a lot of different breeds out there and a lot of different ways to get them to the right slaughter weight/age. For the purpose of this blog I'm purposely using a smaller-type, British-type beef breed like Angus or Hereford that starts at a smaller weaning weight than the larger breeds like Simmental or Charolais. The latter breed-type could have the potential for larger land-use numbers because of their size and demands for higher-quality feeds. 
Now that that's out of the way, the best way to do this comparison is to start with a scenario of a typical grain-finished animal versus a forage-finished animal. Both virtual steers used in this post  are of similar breeding (British-type), as mentioned above. The significant differences between them are carried forward below.

The Typical (Canadian) Grain-finished Steer: 

I start with a weaned calf weighing 500 pounds. I work through some different "step-up" diets from when he enters the backgrounding phase. The first five months is feeding through winter, and the next four months (the last half of the backgrounding phase) is continuing feeding in a drylot/feedlot situation, or the option for when he goes on pasture. He then gets sent to the feedlot when he reaches 1050 pounds, and is fed up over four months until he reaches target weight of 1425 pounds. All that is assuming that he was weaned and brought into the backgrounding phase when he was 6 months old, was 15 months of age when he entered the feedlot, and was sent to slaughter by the time he was around 19 months old. 

Note: I understand that there's lots of times where beef cattle have been finished and sent slaughter at a younger age, like around 12 to 14 months old. But because I'm working with a British-type breed, that backgrounding period is needed for growth. If he were a Continental-type animal (like a Simmental or Charolais), he wouldn't need that backgrounding period and could be sent to begin the feedlot-finishing process almost immediately after weaning. Reasons are Continental-type beef cattle have different metabolic requirement where they need more higher-quality feed for bodily maintenance, growth, and (for cows only) lactation than British-type. Continentals are less likely to put on a lot of fat if put on a high-energy diet than British types when growing, because they reach maturity at a later age. 

The Forage-finished Steer:

For the grass-fed/forage-finished steer, the weaning age and weight are significantly different. This steer is weaned at 8 months of age (born in late May, weaned by end of December), and weighing about 700 pounds. Target slaughter weight for this steer is going to be around 1100 pounds. Age at slaughter will be around 18 months of age. 

Note: Depending on the animal's frame size, finishing weights will differ for forage-finished animals. Typically you'd want smaller-framed animals than the larger-framed ones, as they take less land and less forage to feed and finish up, and you tend to get more meat from more smaller animals than fewer larger ones. Also, animals with larger frame sizes and more later-maturing breeding, such as Simmentals or even Brahman-type cattle, tend to take longer to reach a decent finishing age on forage than early-maturing animals, such as Angus, South Devon, Hereford, or Shorthorn. Where an Angus or Shorthorn may take 18 to 20 months to reach finish on forage, a Simmental, Charolais or Limousin may take 24 to 30 months, and Brahman-type may take 30+ months to be ready for slaughter. This link from Grass-fed Solutions explains more. 

What is being fed?? 

Before I launch into the feeds I've laid out for this post, I have to mention again the importance of understanding that forage/feed quality is never static and is always prone to change from season to season, year to year, farm to farm. I've chosen to go with average feed/forage quality values to prevent potential skewing the results from choosing instead from either extremes of best quality to poorest quality possible. 

For forage-finished animals, I have to assume that the land is being managed as best as is possible with management-intensive grazing that is holistic in approach and adapted to forage quantity and quality. This is a significant difference from the grain-finished steer, which when given the option to be on pasture, is instead put in the typical conventional, continuous-grazing form of pasture management that purposely forces more acreage per animal on the landscape. You'll find interesting to note that, because the grain-finished steer is fed grain while on pasture, the amount of pasture he has access to is going to be less because at least a quarter of his feed requirements are met by the inclusion of grain in his diet, compared with if he wasn't fed grain during this pasturing period. 

Diet of the Grain-Finished Steer

For the Canadian grain-finished steer, I've started him off with alfalfa-grass hay, barley grain, and eventually barley silage. Throughout the backgrounding phase, his hay is decreased and silage and grain increased. By the time he's in the feedlot, he's almost completely off the hay and fully onto grain and silage. The last 22 days he's been put on a finisher diet of mostly grain and silage. He is put on a "step-up" program of feeding, where changes in feed occurs every 50 to 60 days, up to that last 22-day final finishing period. This is based on the link Feedlots 101 - Alberta Cattle Feeders Association

I figured I'd do an American feedlot-finished steer simulation as well, to satisfy the inquiring minds of my American audience (you're welcome). I just substituted the barley grain and barley silage for corn grain and corn silage. Rations are the same as with the Canadian feedlotted animals, and according to this link: Rations for Beef Cattle: University of Wisconsin Extension. You'll be interested to note the differences in amount fed, as well as land use results from what I have calculated. 

Diet of the Forage-finished Steer

Coming up with the diet for a forage-finished steer was a bit more challenging. There are a lot of reasons why this would be made more challenging, and these range from different management practices to differences in climate as well as differences in forage species available for a forage-fed/finished animal to eat. 

I would also like folks to understand that grass-fed has (and still does) gotten a bad rap largely because of poor management practices that encourage a continuous grazing system on pasture--just like what I did with the grain-finished steer above--leading to degraded pastureland. 

So instead, I have chosen to have this steer in a well-managed system that encourages healthier soil with greater organic matter which feeds the plants and provides more nutrients to the plants, more biodiversity in the pasture stand, and therefore higher quality and quantity forages for grazing that you wouldn't find in a conventional operation. This well-managed system encapsulates high-stock density grazing (or mob grazing) with daily moves, with over double the stocking rate of continuously-grazed pastures. This way, in essence, I am purposely comparing the best way to feed and finish a grain-fed steer versus the best way to feed/graze and finish a forage-fed steer. And because there is such enormous variances in the types of forage to graze, I thought it best to come from two different climate type examples.

The first climate example is in a drier area (14 to 18 inches [350 to 450 mm] annual precipitation) in a more northern climate where the growing season is only from April to September (~5 months), and the rest of the year plants are in dormancy, often under the cover of snow. For this forage-finished steer, grazing is going to start mid May, and ends at the time when he goes to slaughter. However, since he is weaned by January, he's going to be on good quality legume-grass hay (or bale-grazed, using hay from that farm), until he's put on good quality legume-grass mixed pasture. 

The second example is in an area that receives ~40 to 50 inches of annual precipitation, in a much milder area than above. Grazing is able to be done year round, with stockpiled forages from November to early April, and grazing green growth the rest of the time. 

So, How Much are the Grain-Finished and Forage-Finished Steers Eating?

If anyone is trying something different from what I'm doing, what I need to caution you on is to never assume that a grain-fed nor a forage-fed steer eats the same amount from weaning to the point of slaughter. We are dealing with a growing animal that experiences changes in nutrient requirements and the amount need to be consumed on pretty well a monthly basis. In other words, what that steer is going to be eating just after weaning will not be the same amount a few months later. You'll see what I mean when you  read more below.

I saved myself a lot of extra math and arithmetic by doing this first section on grain-fed/finishing by using a beef ration balancing computer program called CowBytes. I selected the feeds I mentioned above, and based on the step-up program used for transitioning weaned calves to all the way through to the final finishing phase I was able to come up with some fairly accurate values for how much to expect a steer to eat on a daily basis based on various parameters I set the program to account for. That means you don't have to see a bunch of complicated formulas posted here, just the values I came up with. 

Barley (Canadian) Finished Steer Rations and Daily Feed Intake

For a post-weaned, 6 month old 500 pounds steer to have an average daily gain (ADG) of 2 lb per day upon being put into a backgrounding ration, he would be fed:
  • 9 pounds of alfalfa-grass hay, and 6 pounds of barley grain per day.
  • 450 pounds of hay and 300 pounds of grain over 50 days.
For a 600 pound steer to have an ADG of 2 pounds per day, he would be fed:
  • 9 pounds of hay, 6 pounds of grain, and put on 4 pounds of barley silage per day.
  • 450 pounds of hay, 300 pounds of grain, and 200 pounds of silage over 50 days.
For a 700 pound steer to have an ADG of 2 pounds per day, he would be fed:
  • 9 pounds of hay, 10 pounds of silage, and 6 pounds of grain per day.
  • 450 pounds of hay, 500 pounds of silage, and 300 pounds of grain for 50 days.
For an 800 pound steer to have an ADG of 2.2 pounds per day, he would be fed if he continued to be fed in a feedlot:
  • 5 pounds of hay, 11 pounds of silage, and 10 pounds of grain per day
  • 250 pounds of hay, 600 pounds of silage, and 500 pounds of grain over 50 days.
For an 800 pound steer to have an ADG of 2.2 pounds per day, he would be fed if he were put on pasture but supplemented with grain, he would be fed:
  • 5 pounds of grain while expected to graze and consume 62 pounds of grass per day.
  • 250 pounds of grain while expected to graze and consume 3100 pounds of grass over 50 days.
For a 910 pound steer to have an ADG of 2.3 pounds per day, he would be fed if he continued to be fed in a feedlot:
  • 4 pounds of hay, 15 pounds of silage, and 10 pounds of grain per day.
  • 240 pounds of hay, 600 pounds of silage, and 500 pounds of grain per day.
For a 910 pound steer to have an ADG of 2.3 pounds per day, he would be fed if he were put on pasture but supplemented with grain, he would be fed:
  • 5 pounds of grain while expected to graze and consume 77 pounds of grass per day.
  • 300 pounds of grain while expected to graze and consume 4620 pounds of grass over 60 days.
Upon entering the feedlot and the start of the finishing phase, a 1050 pound steer to have an ADG of 3 pounds per day, he would be fed:
  • 2 pounds of hay, 25 pounds of silage, and 13 pounds of grain per day.
  • 100 pounds of hay, 1250 pounds of silage, and 650 pounds of grain over 50 days.
For a 1200 pound steer to gain 3 pounds per day, his finisher ration would be fed:
  • 27 pounds of silage and 14 pounds of grain per day.
  • 1350 pounds of silage and 700 pounds of grain for 50 days.
For a 1350 pound steer to have a ADG of 3 pounds per day (until he reaches a finishing weight of 1425 pounds), would be fed until being shipped to slaughter:
  • 10 pounds of silage and 22 pounds of grain
  • 250 pounds of silage and 550 pounds of grain for 25 days.
The totals over this 12.5 month feeding period for this single steer are as follows:
  • Alfalfa-Grass Hay: 1940 pounds (0.97 tons or 0.88 tonnes)
  • Barley Silage: 5550 pounds (2.775 tons or 2.52 tonnes)
  • Barley Grain: 
    • a) 3850 pounds if continuously feedlotted (83.3 bushels), or 
    • b) 3300 pounds if pastured (71.88 bushels)
  • Pasture: 7720 pounds
Corn (American) Finished Steer Rations and Daily Feed Intake

For a post-weaned, 6 month old 500 pounds steer to have an average daily gain (ADG) of 2 lb per day upon being put into a backgrounding ration, he would be fed:
  • 9 pounds of alfalfa-grass hay, and 5 pounds of corn grain per day.
  • 450 pounds of hay and 250 pounds of grain over 50 days.
For a 600 pound steer to have an ADG of 2 pounds per day, he would be fed:
  • 9 pounds of hay, 5 pounds of grain, and put on 6 pounds of corn silage per day.
  • 450 pounds of hay, 250 pounds of grain, and 300 pounds of silage over 50 days.
For a 700 pound steer to have an ADG of 2 pounds per day, he would be fed:
  • 9 pounds of hay, 12 pounds of silage, and 5 pounds of grain per day.
  • 450 pounds of hay, 600 pounds of silage, and 250 pounds of grain for 50 days.
For an 800 pound steer to have an ADG of 2.2 pounds per day, he would be fed if he continued to be fed in a feedlot:
  • 8 pounds of hay, 12 pounds of silage, and 7 pounds of grain per day
  • 400 pounds of hay, 600 pounds of silage, and 350 pounds of grain over 50 days.
For an 800 pound steer to have an ADG of 2.2 pounds per day, he would be fed if he were put on pasture but supplemented with grain, he would be fed:
  • 5 pounds of grain while expected to graze and consume 62 pounds of grass per day.
  • 250 pounds of grain while expected to graze and consume 3100 pounds of grass over 50 days.
For a 910 pound steer to have an ADG of 2.3 pounds per day, he would be fed if he continued to be fed in a feedlot:
  • 6 pounds of hay, 12 pounds of silage, and 9 pounds of grain per day.
  • 240 pounds of hay, 600 pounds of silage, and 500 pounds of grain per day.
For a 910 pound steer to have an ADG of 2.3 pounds per day, he would be fed if he were put on pasture but supplemented with grain, he would be fed:
  • 5 pounds of grain while expected to graze and consume 75 pounds of grass per day.
  • 300 pounds of grain while expected to graze and consume 4500 pounds of grass over 60 days.
Upon entering the feedlot and the start of the finishing phase, a 1050 pound steer to have an ADG of 3 pounds per day, he would be fed:
  • 2 pounds of hay, 23 pounds of silage, and 12 pounds of grain per day.
  • 100 pounds of hay, 1150 pounds of silage, and 600 pounds of grain over 50 days.
For a 1200 pound steer to gain 3 pounds per day, his finisher ration would be fed:
  • 27 pounds of silage and 14 pounds of grain per day.
  • 1350 pounds of silage and 700 pounds of grain for 50 days.
For a 1350 pound steer to have a ADG of 3 pounds per day (until he reaches a finishing weight of 1450 pounds), would be fed until being shipped to slaughter:
  • 10 pounds of silage and 20 pounds of grain
  • 250 pounds of silage and 500 pounds of grain for 25 days.
The totals over this 12.5 month feeding period for this single steer are as follows:
  • Alfalfa-Grass Hay: 2210 pounds (1.105 tons or 1.002 tonnes)
  • Corn Silage: 4970 pounds (2.485 tons or 2.254 tonnes)
  • Corn Grain: 
    • a) 3440 pounds if continuously feedlotted (61.43 bushels), or 
    • b) 3100 pounds if pastured (55.36 bushels)
  • Pasture: 7600 pounds (as-fed) 
    • Dry matter content is (7600 lb x 20% dry matter =) 1520 pounds DM
It wouldn't be fair if I posted the land-use results now.

Let's see now about how much a forage-fed/finished steer would eat from weaning to slaughter.

Northern (Canadian Prairie Provinces) Forage-Finishing Steer Consumption Levels

For a post-weaned 700 pound calf that is bale-grazed on good legume-grass hay, with an expected ADG of ~1 pound per day (slow growth in the winter is advantageous because it allows the calf to still grow good bone and muscle, and not develop too much fat), would be fed:
  • 17 pounds of hay per day.
  • 1700 pounds of hay for 100 days.
Because the now-800 pound steer (with the same target ADG of 1 pound per day) isn't going to go on pasture for another 68 days (since this last feeding period took us to a third of the way through March), the steer is continued on with bale grazing. The amount he would be fed during this time is:
  • 19 pounds of hay per day.
  • 1292 pounds of hay for 68 days.
The ~870 pound steer, now with an expected ADG of 2 pounds per day, is moved from bale grazing into a grass-legume pasture. He should be consuming:
  • 96 pounds of forage as-fed (19.2 pounds dry matter) per day.
  • 6240 pounds of forage as-fed (1248 pounds dry matter) over 65 days
For a 1000 pound steer, with an expected average daily gain of ~2 pounds per day, is moved onto high quality annual polyculture pasture of legumes, grasses, and some brassicas, about the same quality as the high-quality perennial legume-grass pasture he was on previously. He should be consuming:
  • 92 pounds of forage as-fed (18.4 pounds dry matter) per day.
  • 4600 pounds of forage as-fed (920 pounds dry matter) for 50 days.
By the time this pasture is done grazed, which would be around mid-September, the steer will have reached the target weight of 1100 pounds and be ready for slaughter. 

The totals of amount consumed overall are as follows:
  • Alfalfa-grass hay (bale-grazed): 2992 pounds (1.5 tons or 1.35 tonnes)
  • Legume-grass Pasture: 6240 pounds as-fed (1248 pounds DM) 
  • Annual Polyculture Pasture: 4600 pounds as-fed (920 pounds DM)

South-Eastern USA Forage-Finishing Steer Consumption Levels

For a post-weaned 700 pound steer calf, with an expected ADG of 1 pound per day, the amount consumed is:

  • 18 pounds per day of stockpiled grass pasture
  • 1800 pounds of stockpiled grass pasture for 100 days
For an 800 pound steer now being put onto good-quality pasture by the end of the first week of April, and with an ADG of 2 pounds per day, the steer is going to be consuming:
  • 90 pounds of forage on pasture as-fed (or 18 pounds dry matter) per day.
  • 4500 pounds of forage on pasture as-fed (or 900 pounds dry matter) for 50 days.
For a 900 pound steer moved onto high quality grass-legume pasture, he is expected to consume:
  • 95 pounds of forage on pasture as-fed (or 19 pounds dry matter) per day
  • 4750 pounds of forage on pasture as-fed (or 950 pounds dry matter) for 50 days
For a 1000 pound steer still on high-quality grass-legume pasture, he's expected to consume:
  • 100 pounds of forage on pasture as-fed (or 20 pounds dry matter) per day
  • 5000 pounds of forage on pasture as-fed (or 1000 pounds dry matter) for 50 days
By the time the steer is at 1100 pounds, he should be ready for slaughter, which would be around mid-September. 

The total amounts of forage consumed over this period (250 days) are as follows:
  • Stockpiled grass pasture: 1800 pounds 
  • Early grass pasture: 4500 pounds (900 pounds DM)
  • Grass-legume pasture: 9750 pounds (1950 pounds DM)

The Land Use Comparisons of Feedlot Finished versus Pasture-Finished 

For this next section with regards to calculating the land-use values for raising grain-fed cattle, I purposely used the averages for the amount of hay, silage, and grain produced to feed feedlotted cattle both in Canada (primarily Alberta), and the United States, to get an albeit more accurate representation of the amount of land that is going to be used. The sourced data is linked below for both countries.

For the pasture option, I also purposely created it so that it represents what is done conventionally, which I mentioned above as being continuous grazing. 

However, for calculating land-use values for the forage-finished/grass-fed cattle section, I was also being deliberate with choosing to go with the best quality pasture to be expected under a well-managed, mob-stocked, multi-paddock grazing system. Also of importance is what I just mentioned: That the steer is not continuously grazed, but managed under a management-intensive, mob-stocked multi-paddock grazing system (or however you want to name it, because the name doesn't matter, only the management does), as I feel that is the best representative of producing forage-finished grass-fed beef.   

Make sure you're sitting down when you read this next part. Because I was just as shocked as you when I plugged in the numbers. 

Grain-fed Land Use Values: Canadian Barley-finished Feedlot Steer

Average yields of the feeds used to formulate this steer's ration:
  • Hay (Alberta average 2017 results via Stats Canada table HERE:): 1.9 tons/acre (1.72 tonnes/acre)
  • Barley Silage (Alberta average 2016 results found HERE): 6.99 tons/acre (6.34 tonnes/acre)
  • Barley Grain (Canada average 2017 results found HERE): 64.00 bushels per acre
  • Barley Grain (Alberta average 2017 results found HERE): 71.80 bushels per acre
  • Pasture (Alberta averages no annual data found): 1.25 AUM per acre
Taking the total amounts of hay, silage, grain, and pasture used, the amount of land used for each type of feed is as follows:
  • Hay: 1940 pounds = 0.97 tons ÷ 1.9 tons/acre = 0.51 acres
  • Barley Silage: 5550 pounds = 2.76 tons ÷ 6.99 tons/acre = 0.39 acres
  • Barley Grain: 
    • (feedlotted) 3850 pounds = 80.2 bu ÷ 64.0 bu/acre (Canada) = 1.25 acres
    • (feedlotted) 3850 pounds = 80.2 bu ÷ 71.8 bu/acre (Alberta) = 1.12 acres
    • (pastured) 3300 pounds = 68.75 bu ÷ 64.0 bu/acre (Canada) = 1.07 acres
    • (pastured) 3300 pounds = 68.75 bu ÷ 71.8 bu/acre (Alberta) = 0.96 acres
  • Pasture: @ 1.25 AUM/acre, producing 2,000 lb/acre with a 50% utilization rate, and an average 855 lb steer expected to consume the same amount as a 535 lb steer (because of the inclusion of 5 lb/day of grain), over 110 days, land used is: 1.54 acres 
The Grand Total of land used for the Canadian Barley-fed/finished Feedlot Steer is: 
  • Feedlotted Only: 2.15 to 2.02 acres
  • Pasture Included: 3.51 to 3.4 acres
Grain-fed Land Use Values: American Corn-finished Feedlot Steer

Average yields of the feeds used to formulate this steer's ration (all data came from THIS LINK):
  • Hay: (USA average for 2017): 2.44 tons per acre
  • Corn Silage (USA average for 2017): 19.9 tons per acre
  • Corn Grain (USA average for 2017): 176.6 bushels per acre
  • Pasture: (no data overall): 1.25 AUM/acre
Taking the total amounts of hay, silage, grain, and pasture used, the amount of land used for each type of feed is as follows:
  • Hay: 2210 pounds = 1.11 tons ÷ 2.44 tons/acre = 0.45 acres
  • Corn Silage: 4970 pounds = 2.66 tons ÷ 19.9 tons/acre = 0.13 acres
  • Corn Grain: 
    • (feedlotted) 3440 pounds = 61.43 bushels ÷ 176.60 bu/acre = 0.35 acres
    • (pastured) 3100 pounds = 55.36 bushels ÷ 176.6 bu/acre = 0.31 acres
  • Pasture: @ 1.25 AUM/acre, producing 2,000 lb/acre with a 50% utilization rate, and an average 855 lb steer expected to consume the same amount as a 470 lb steer (because of the inclusion of 5 lb/day of grain, making up about half of the steer's energy intake), over 110 days, land used is: 1.36 acres
The Grand Total of land used for the American Corn-fed/finished Feedlot Steer is:
  • Feedlot Only: 0.93 acres
  • Pasture Included: 2.25 acres
Forage-fed Land Use Values: Northern (Canadian Prairie Provinces) Grass-fed Steer

I used the same average yield for hay as in the Canadian feedlot example above, which is 1.9 tons/acre

As far as pasture is concerned, I'm going ahead and saying that it's a very highly productive pasture, above that for hay (as hay is an average value). While the value I came up with for pasture productivity under management-intensive mob-stocked multi-paddock grazing seems pretty high, let's not forget that for one, these values are always prone to change, but too I'm trying to aim for a scenario that is under great management, and is thriving because of it. 

In this case, the pasture is producing just above that of the average hay yield, at 126 cow-days per acre (or 4500 lb/acre with a 65% utilization rate). To put things into perspective, a hay yield of 1.9 tons per acre is 3800 lb/acre, which, if grazed at the same utilization rate, gives us 98.8 cow-days per acre. To also put things into perspective, it isn't uncommon for a lot of areas in the Prairie Provinces where hay yields are a bit higher than 1.9 tons/acre! 

Finally, this steer is being finished on a high-quality annual polyculture pasture, which gives a nice high yield of 240 cow-days per acre (or 8000 lb/acre at 75% utilization rate)

For the actual amount of land used, the values I came up with are as follows:
  • Hay: 2992 pounds = 1.496 tons ÷ 1.9 tons/acre = 0.751 acres
  • Grass-Legume Pasture = 126 cow-days per acre for 65 days = 0.49 acres
  • Annual Polyculture Pasture = 240 cow-days per acre for 50 days = 0.21 acres
The Grand Total then for the amount of land used to raise this steer in this area up to slaughter is:

1.451 acres

Forage-fed Land Use Values: South-Eastern USA Grass-fed Steer

For this steer, because there's a bit more moisture than with the northern example above, there's going to be expected even higher productivity over all with the same management principles around mob-stocked multi-paddock grazing.

The stockpiled pasture should yield about 200 cow-days per acre (or 6670 lb/acre with 75% utilization).

The early grass pasture can be expected to yield a little less, at around 150 cow-days per acre (8340 lb/acre at 45% utilization rate)

The legume-grass pasture in this environment is expected to perform at 275 cow-days per acre (10,580 lb/acre at 65% utilization rate).

The land use values I came up with are as follows:

  • Stockpiled Pasture: 200 cow-days/acre for 100 days = 0.35 acres
  • Spring Grass Pasture: 120 cow-days/acre for 50 days = 0.34 acres
  • Grass-Legume Pasture: 275 cow-days/acre for (50 days for 900 lb steer + 50 days for 1000 lb steer) = 0.17 acres + 0.19 acres = 0.36 acres
The Grand Total for the amount of land used to raise this steer in this area up to slaughter is: 

1.05 acres

Conclusions

While the results that I calculated definitely are surprising and most certainly dispells the myth that you need much more land to raise grass-fed cattle than grain-fed, I implore on EVERYONE who read this to remember that the numbers that I came up with are not static

Every single one of those values that I used are prone to change. There is always going to be the fact that more or less of the amount of feed and pasture, and the amount of land required to grow this feed and pasture will change for greater or for less than what the values that I came up with. That will all depend on annual environmental influences (such as precipitation), the vegetation being grazed, and the management. 

The biggest caution I have is with the pasture values for the forage-finished steer. I may have angered some people or caused them to immediately question how and where I came up with these numbers and so on and so forth, but again these are based on the very, rather approximate values that I have found among those graziers who have significantly changed the way they have managed their land from the conventional way to the way that is much more holistic and accounting for the plants and the soil, not just their animals. 

I tell you though, I am just as shocked and excited as you to see these numbers. These give me hope and reason to believe that there's a lot more benefit to forage-fed cattle (and therefore forage-finished beef) than we realize now. Like the simple fact that grass often will regrow to be ready to graze again anywhere from 1 to 4 months later, meaning the same land can be used again for grazing, unlike with annual crops when having to harvest for grain and/or silage. 

I guess it's safe to say here that forage-fed beef and cattle really are better for the Earth! 
Post a Comment