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Do We Have to Have Feedlots to Raise Enough Beef?

By   /  November 7, 2016  /  7 Comments

It’s an interesting question. Jim has some thoughts. What do you think? How would your life change?

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Question: How many times does something have to be said before it becomes true?
Answer: If it is false, it will never become true.

gerrishwehavetohavefeedlots

How many times have you been told we have to have feedlots because we just don’t have enough land to finish all of those cattle on pasture? Have you ever actually sat down and tried to figure out how much land it would take to pasture finish all the beef we need in the US?

There were approximately 29 million head of cattle finished in US feedlots in 2014. It took about 15.5 million acres of cropland to generate the feed consumed by those animals.

Let’s take those 15.5 million acres, seed it down to perennial grass-legume pasture mix, and manage it effectively. Those same acres should be able to finish about 25 million head of cattle as pasture. That is over 85% of our feedlot output just using the same land for pasture instead of crops!

gerrishfinishongrass

But wait, we are at record low levels of cattle so we should probably plan for the number of head we were finishing 10 years ago. That was about 35 million head. So let’s take the 22.7 million acres of non-wetland or woodland CRP and put it back to a productive use. At a modest yield expectation of just 1.5 tons/acre, those CRP acres provide capacity for another 11 million head.

Apparently the reason we don’t finish all of the cattle in the US on pasture really isn’t lack of available land. What do you think the real reasons are?

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About the author

Jim Gerrish is the author of "Management-Intensive Grazing: The Grassroots of Grass Farming" and "Kick the Hay Habit: A Practical Guide to Year-around Grazing" and is a popular speaker at conferences around the world. His company, American GrazingLands Services LLC is dedicated to improving the health and sustainable productivity of grazing lands around the world through the use of Management-intensive Grazing practices. They work with small farms, large ranches, government agencies and NGO's to promote economically and environmentally sustainable grazing operations and believe healthy farms and ranches are the basis of healthy communities and healthy consumers. Visit their website to find out more about their consulting services and grazing management tools, including electric fencing, stock water systems, forage seed, and other management tools.

7 Comments

  1. Harold Schrock says:

    It’s certainly not the production potential that is the problem. I see two issues standing in the way of eliminating feedlots. The first is lack of skilled graziers. This of course is simply a matter of interest and education.

    The second would be the difficulty of maintaining a consistent supply for the packers without finishing on stored feed. What do you think Jim? Do you see increased automation in packing plants making it more economically feasible to work with a fluctuating supply volume?

    • Jim Gerrish says:

      Hi Harold,

      When I wrote my columns on this topic in Stockman-GrassFarmer a couple of years ago, my number one reason we couldn’t produce all our beef on pasture was the lack of skilled graziers and the general unwillingness of cattle producers to do anything out of the norm. As the late Allan Nation often said, ‘Most people would rather fail conventionally than be successful unconventionally.’

      Year-around supply of fresh product is another major hurdle as you have stated. There would have to be a coordinated nationwide cooperative effort to provide fresh product on a year-around basis. That does not seem very likely in the near future.

      Your observation regarding increased automation at packing plants making variable supply more tolerable to the packers is certainly an intriguing idea. Whether or not it would be a significant consideration is above my pay grade.

      Thanks for your comments,

      Jim

  2. Jamie Coffman says:

    Look at the situation with our pollinators. Millions of acres of GMO corn and beans, with their requisite tonnage of petroleum derived ferts and ‘cides, dedicated to maintaining the fatally flawed CAFO model. All of this conspires to present our honeybees with the health impairing reality of a near mono-crop diet, and one completely contaminated with sketchy to horrible chemicals. From seed treatments to drying agents at harvest, the industrial grain model is fraught with dangerous residue, air and soil contamination, persistent water pollution, and systemic accumulations in the harvested product itself. How can any reasonable person seriously assess the pros and cons of this and not experience a moment of clarity? Considering the idea of concurrent sharing or rotations with other species and the math becomes overwhelming.

    As for why farmers are still steered into this absurd dead end – there is a gargantuan industrial squid that controls everything from the research funding and staffing of our land grant university system, to the actual day to day operations and administration of everything from the FDA and USDAh, to the EPA and Congress. 50 billion in profits buys all the gov’t one could possibly ever desire. Now that we have the companies that make the stuff that poisons and sickens us, also making and selling the pharmacology used to keep us barely alive after we get sick, well it couldn’t be any more cozy for them. They just work to maintain control, encourage further consolidation, and legislatively limit market access. Gov’t is happier with just a few farmers to regulate and control. Besides, that way there’s also a lot less farmers voting.

  3. Julie Gahn says:

    Thanks for this post! My guess is that we have the system we have because we got focused on maximizing the efficiency of one approach, and now we need to step back and take a look from the 10,000 ft level and ask, “Is this the best way to produce the food we need?”

    Let’s go a step further and analyze how many calories and essential nutrients those acres can produce if we also add other appropriate species to the grazing system such as sheep, goats, pigs and integrate nut and fruit trees/bushes.

    • Jim Gerrish says:

      Hi Julie,

      Regarding your first comment, America moved to the CAFO production model because in the 1960-1980 time period it made economic sense. Very few changes in agriculture like this happen because someone was stupid. Naive, perhaps. Stupid, no. No one was thinking about all the unintended consequences that might come along.

      Your second comment is exactly on target. We definitely need to assess more than one measure of efficiency or output from the land. Multiple land use with layered enterprises has been shown in several studies that have already been done to generate more edible energy & protein compared to monoculture farming.

      Thanks for the comments.

      Jim

  4. Rocky Schwagler says:

    There is also another source of land. Producers in our area are seeding irrigated land to cover crops and grazing then after an early cash crop like wheat. While the acreage is not huge the production has been running around five AUMs per acre.

    • Jim Gerrish says:

      Hi Rocky,

      Your comment just reinforces the basic premise that we have all kinds of untapped resource opportunities to eliminate any need for the feedlot system with beef cattle.

      One of the serious challenges to finish all our beef from pasture is providing a year-around supply of fresh product. Annual pastures and cover-crops are key components for creating that year-around fresh supply.

      Good thoughts.

      Thanks,

      Jim

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