The Efficiency of Beef

Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions about beef is its efficiency. Too often chicken or pork is touted as being more efficient with regards to pounds of grain to pounds of gain. While this ratio is correct, it is woefully myopic to use it as a direct comparison of the efficiency and “greenness” of proteins. At best some efficiency calculations operate under the erroneous assumption that cattle spend their entire life on grain, a product of the lack of familiarity with beef production. At worst it is a deliberate manipulation of statistics to cast beef as inefficient and unsustainable. You may be surprised that beef is just as efficient, if not more, than chicken and pork!

Cattle eat grass..go figure! Why calculate grain efficiencies assuming they don't?

Cattle eat grass..go figure! Why calculate grain efficiencies assuming they don’t?

Cattle don’t spend their whole life on grain!

While this may seem like an obvious statement considering cattle grazing in a field is a common sight across the country, many comparisons of protein efficiency do not correctly account for the time cattle spend on grass or simply ignore it. In fact cattle spend the majority of their lives on grass. By the time the average steer enters a feedlot it already weighs 750 pounds, over half of its market weight of 1300 pounds. Quite simply put, many studies include these 750 pounds in their number crunching or compare pounds of grain to pounds of gain ratios at surface value and are nothing short of incorrect.

Correctly accounting for grass consumption, beef utilizes less grain than chicken and pork!

Correctly accounting for grass consumption, beef utilizes less grain than chicken and pork! (Courtesy of the Noble Foundation)

As you can see, the grain:meat ratio for beef is equivalent to chicken and superior to pork, both of which spend their entire lives on grain-based diets and consuming far more pounds grain than the beef industry. Cattle consume less grain than other key proteins and possess the added benefit of utilizing billions of pounds of otherwise useless forage.

However beef cattle, as ruminants, are able to utilize by-products from other industries, substituting some grain in rations.  Common by-products fed to cattle include distillers’ grains (a product of the alcohol industry), beet pulp (from the sugar industry), and soybean meal (from the soybean oil industry) to name a few. I have even visited farms where chips and popcorn from a nearby plant replace corn as an energy source. With these by-products contributing a growing portion of feedlot rations, the true grain:meat ratio of beef is more than likely less than the reported 2.5 and will continue to decline as these by-products are more widely used.

Cattle don't just eat grain! By-products like these cottonseeds can be utilized by ruminant cattle to make deliciously edible beef!

Cattle don’t just eat grain! By-products like these cottonseeds can be utilized by ruminant cattle to make deliciously edible beef!

So is beef the pinnacle of grain inefficiency so often cited in sustainability studies? To be frank: absolutely not. Manipulating statistics at best out of unawareness of the beef lifecycle and at worst out of malign intent to serve an agenda, these studies incorrectly account for beef’s grain:meat ratio in terms of grain:gain efficiency. In reality ruminant cattle utilize inedible forage as well as otherwise wasted by-products to produce a nutritious and edible product at an efficiency ratio superior to monogastric animals.

So eat red meat confidently knowing that it is efficient and green!

Will Pohlman

 

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