Livestock in Sustainable Farming Systems

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The challenges for livestock producers are fairly straightforward and similar in most respects to those of crop producers. Can livestock and poultry be produced by methods that conserve natural resources, protect the natural environment, provide adequate supplies of safe and healthful foods by socially acceptable means at reasonable costs, and still provide an acceptable level of economic return for livestock producers?

Large confinement beef, poultry, and dairy operations tend to be the focus of such concerns. Water and air pollution from livestock wastes, residues of antibiotics and growth additives in meats and milk, humane treatment of animals raised in confinement, and impacts of large, corporate operations on opportunities of smaller livestock producers are all questions raised by those concerned about the sustainability of conventional livestock systems.

Large commercial livestock feeding operations are the source of most questions regarding energy use in meat and milk production. Grain-fed beef, for example, yields only a small fraction of the energy embodied in the feedstuffs consumed by cattle in the production process. Poultry and pork production are more energy efficient than beef production, but all are far less efficient than direct human consumption of grains.

However, those in the livestock industry should insist that questions of energy efficiency in meat production be addressed in the same social context as the disproportionate use of energy in the more developed countries of the world in general. Affluent societies do consume more grain-fed meats, but affluent people use more energy of all types. The inequities in energy use reflect the reality of current world economic systems, not the ethics of cattle feeding or any other particular method of energy conversion.

Most environmental questions for livestock producers also relate to large-scale confinement animal feeding operations or CAFOs. Nutrient runoff from feedlots is an obvious potential source of water pollution. But mismanagement of manure removed from cattle feedlots or confinement hog and poultry facilities can be just as important. Farmers may apply manure at such times or by methods that result in most of the nutrients being volatilized, eroded, or leached rather than used by growing plants. Or they may apply manure effectively, but still apply the same amount of fertilizer they would have used without manure, resulting in pollution from excess nutrient application.

Confinement livestock and poultry operations are also the primary users of sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics. Such practices may result in pathogenic resistance, thus reducing the effectiveness of these antibiotics for therapeutic uses in humans. Growth hormones have also been used extensively in livestock feeding operations. The association of DES with cancer has resulted in heightened public concern regarding the use of growth hormones in general. The concern for use of growth hormones is combined with public distrust of biotechnology in the current public controversy concerning the use of a genetically engineered bovine growth hormone, rGBH, in milk.

Social questions regarding animal welfare are also most frequently associated with confinement livestock operations. To date, producers of veal and caged layer chickens have received most of the animal welfare publicity. However, the basic issues are the same for all animals produced in confinement. To what extent can the activity of animals be restricted for purposes of production or economic efficiency without violating our social values concerning humane treatment of animals?

Forage-based beef production has some potentially strong positive ecological attributes of sustainability.

Confinement livestock operations can put more beef, pork, and chicken on the market at a lower dollar and cent cost than can freerange operations or farmer feeders. Thus, confinement operations have been considered more economically sustainable than alternative systems of livestock production. But questions are now being raised regarding ecologic and social costs of confinement production. The answers to these questions could shift the competitive balance in favor of less grain feeding, smaller farm-based operations, or even more grass- and forage-finished livestock.

One example of how small farmers could profit from this shift may be found in the Missouri beef industry. Many of Missouri’s rolling farmlands are exceptionally well suited for forage-based beef production. Much of this land already supports herds of beef and dairy cattle. However, many of Missouri’s marginal crop lands could be utilized more sustainably in forage production if cattle could compete with crops in terms of productivity and profitability.

Forage-based beef production has some potentially strong positive ecological attributes of sustainability. Many forage crops are close-growing perennials which protect the soil from erosion and facilitate water infiltration. Forages also require less nonrenewable energy to establish and harvest than do most row crops. And in many cases, forages are less reliant on the commercial fertilizers and pesticides that represent environmental risks.

Forages may also be the most efficient sustainable converters of solar energy on many soil types. In fact, the greatest inherent comparative advantage of cattle may be as intermediate energy converters. Some soils and climates will not grow crops that can be utilized directly by humans. Cattle, or other ruminants, may represent the most practical means of converting such energy to a form useful to humans.

Cattle on pastures are less likely to develop diseases than are cattle in feed lots and thus, are less likely to require use of antibiotics or other drugs than feedlot cattle. Parasites, however, may be a greater problem for range cattle. Growth hormones are sometimes used in cattle on pasture but less commonly than in feedlot cattle. Raising cattle on pastures is also commonly conceded as being more humane than is confinement cattle feeding.

In general, forage-based beef production tends to be more ecologically sound and socially responsible than is grain-based cattle feeding. However, forage-finished beef may well be more costly to produce and less acceptable to American consumers than is grain-fed beef. But intensively managed grazing systems offer promise of lower costs and greater production efficiency, resulting in both more pounds of beef per acre and higher quality meat products. Such systems require a much higher level of management and a somewhat higher labor input than do conventional grazing systems. However, the true cost of the human input depends on the nature of competition for management and labor within whole-farm systems. Time demands for managed grazing tend to be more evenly spread over time than do demands of most cropping systems.

Consumer acceptance of grass- and forage-finished beef remains a major challenge. Consumer surveys and test markets have indicated that consumers prefer the appearance, tenderness, and taste of marbled beef produced with grain. Grain-fed beef tends to be higher in saturated fats than is the leaner forage-finished beef, even though attempts to produce and mass-market beef leaner than the USDA Choice grade thus far have met with limited success. Forage-finished beef could be produced without growth hormones and without sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics, which could be positive attributes with health conscious consumers if production and marketing standards were developed to insure such practices. In addition, many processors are currently experimenting with merchandising livestock products through claims that they are produced by environmentally sound and socially responsible means.

Livestock have an important role to play in the development of a sustainable agriculture. Most of the questions of sustainability of livestock production are associated with large-scale, confinement animal feeding operations and most of the opportunities exist for grass- and forage-based livestock operations. Perhaps most important, the challenges of sustainability for grass and forage-based livestock production can be met through more careful and thoughtful management of the animals, grass and forage plants, and the land.

About the Author:

Dr. John Ikerd, Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics, retired from the University of Missouri in 2000. He was raised on a small dairy farm, worked in private industry, and held several other academic positions, prior to returning to the University of Missouri. In the 80’s, John had a “conversion” of sorts after seeing the failures of the policies he had been advocating to farmers. He then reoriented his work toward agricultural and economic sustainability a means of supporting small family farms and rural communities. Since retiring, John has maintained an active speaking schedule and has authored numerous books and papers, many of which can be found at his university website. John is recognized as a longtime leading voice in the sustainable agriculture movement.

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