Agricultural and Environmental Impacts of Producing Beef

Let's explore agricultural and environmental impacts of producing beef in Iowa, specifically regarding soil erosion, water quality, and climate change.

Soil Erosion and Water Quality 

The Iowa Water Quality Initiative, launched in 2013, focusing on helping Iowa farmers voluntarily reduce the amount of nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) leaving their farms and entering streams and rivers.  However, when there are high crop prices, farmers are tempted to capitalize by planting corn and soy where they otherwise might plant grass, the roots of which can have a stabilizing effect on soils and can help filter nutrients. There are increasing concerns about the effects of losing pasture to row crop. Especially, concerns about increasing soil erosion and pollution in our streams, rivers, and lakes. This tug of war between high crop prices and the desire for reduced nutrient delivery creates a paradox for those concerned about agricultural production and water quality, especially in southern Iowa with its rolling hills and erosive soils.

While a lot of people blame row crop production of corn and beans for Iowa's agricultural soil erosion and water quality issues, some research shows that continuous pasture grazing can also lead to the formation of gullies; and cattle trails can cause severe erosion and sediment runoff.

So, why do people say grass-fed beef is better for the environment?

Because, pasture management appropriate to the grazing operation can improve soil health, and mitigate soil erosion.

For example, intensive grazing moves cattle through paddocks every day or every couple of days. The paddocks are sized so that every plant in the grazing area is either eaten or walked on and trampled. Grass in each paddock then rests for 60-120 days or more. This rest period allows for long root growth and increased plant health and productivity – both as a feed source for the animal and as a soil re-generator. Longer roots provide more food for soil microbes, which increases the organic matter in the soil yielding higher water infiltration and retention. Increasing water infiltration in turn reduces soil erosion, because less water is flowing overland and washing away soil.

Intensive grazing has other benefits as well. It allows more cattle on the same or fewer acres as a pasture that is continuously grazed all year. It also provides better weed control, less fertilizer cost, extended grazing season, improved livestock health, and more plant diversity.

Climate Change

Beef was a topic of last year’s Paris climate summit and was the topic of a study published the year before looking at the sources of greenhouse gas emissions. According to the study by a  professor at Bard’s College, approximately 15% of greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock production – that’s similar to the percentage of the yearly emissions from all cars, trains, planes, and ships on the planet. The study looked at national U.S. data (not farm level research) and concluded that a fixed number of calories from beef production has a far greater impact on global warming than the same number of calories from pork, chicken, eggs, or milk. The conclusion? Replace beef with any other food or type of meat in order to lower your carbon footprint. A second conclusion, cattle raised on corn/grain are more efficient with their calorie in-take and produce less GHGs.

Overall, the studies relating our diet to global warming are a good way to get an overview of the relationship between our diets and the planet. However, there are several factors that introduce uncertainty into the study. The study looked at national data.  So, there were wide ranges and estimations in how much feed is required by each animal per pound of weight gain and the fraction of pasture needed in beef and dairy diets, all of which vary by geography and management practices. The studies indicate little data on farm-level efficiencies, which is where big impacts of grass-fed beef are being seen – the reduced pasture acres needed, the efficiency of feed, the reduction of off-farm inputs etc. The question then becomes are the impacts of diversified farms scalable? And what will our agricultural system look like if they are?

The bottom line about producing beef and its agricultural and environmental impacts?

There isn’t one. At least, not a simple one. 

We are, society is, noticing the connection between food production and the health of the environment.  We need to ensure that agricultural practices are not degrading soil and water quality, but safeguarding, protecting, and enhancing the natural environment so that we can continue to benefit from agricultural productivity. We can see examples of agriculture doing just that on the Greg and Katie Lipes' farm and Leslie and Mark's and Jay Franzen's, three of many grass-fed beef producers in Iowa who are producing meat as part of their diverse farm operations. In addition to mitigating negative environmental health concerns on their farms, they are restoring a healthy balance of diversity on the agricultural landscape, enhancing natural ecosystems,  and creating a healthy lifestyle for themselves, their families, and their communities.