cattle grazing on grass

Is Grass-Fed Beef Better for the Environment?

Is Grass-Fed Beef Better for the Environment?


You may have heard that grass-fed beef is better for you, the animal, and the planet, but do you know why?

The answer is a bit complicated, so in this article we’ll break down the overall sustainability of grass-fed farming, and how it fares in comparison to conventional feedlot farming.

You’ll learn:

  •         The environmental hazards of concentrated feedlot operations
  •         How grass-fed farming impacts the land
  •         Grass-fed farming best practices
  •         The debate over carbon emissions: Does grass-fed farming increase or decrease emissions?

That last bit is a little controversial, with researchers coming up with differing conclusions. We’ll weed through the research to offer the strongest understanding we have today. Read on for that, and a lot more about grass-fed farming and the environment.

Conventional Farming and Environmental Hazards

Raising livestock produces a lot of manure, which over the course of time has been an important source of agricultural nutrients. It can benefit plant production and the grassland ecosystem.

Unfortunately, the concentrations of manure found on conventional feedlots can be dangerous to our health. When there’s more manure than the land can assimilate, the ammonia content quickly returns to the atmosphere. This can irritate our skin, eyes, and respiratory tracts.

The environmental impacts of grass-fed farming aren’t limited to the air. Nutrients from feedlot farming can leach into aquatic ecosystems in excess. This creates eutrophic conditions, where algae is produced too quickly. This can result in an algal bloom, killing off aquatic animals on a large scale.

So, conventional feedlot farming can damage the air, the water, and also the land. If we dig a little deeper into the cropping systems that produce conventional grain-based feed for cows, we’ll see chemical-intensive treatments. These can cause chemical runoff, soil degradation, and loss of agricultural biodiversity.

Ultimately, grass-fed farming practices don’t involve these health hazard-creating conditions. But is it really the more sustainable choice? Let’s read on.

Does Grass-Fed Grazing Damage the Land?

Does grass-fed farming degrade the land the cows call home? The short answer: It can, but it doesn’t have to with some planning.

Poorly managed feeding practices, even with grass-fed farming, can reduce the number of plant communities, compact the soil, and lose out on important biodiversity. There are ways to avoid this pitfall, primarily through rotational grazing.

There are some major environmental benefits to rotational grazing because it:

  • Mimics wild animals in nature with smaller paddocks and more fencing
  • Groups animals together in paddocks, moving them to new ones every so often
  • Allows for pasture recovery time, without any animals present

This approach is holistic, and it accounts for weather changes, forage conditions, markets, and management objectives. It’s been shown to increase forage production, increase soil organic matter, soil fertility, and soil’s water-holding capacity.

Rotational grazing isn’t just food for the environment, it can be good for the farmer, too. Improved forage quality and quantity allows for more animals to be raised on the same acreage. Plus, it reduces the chance for environmental hazards from manure, because grasses act as natural barriers to erosion, and manure is more evenly distributed.

Does Grass-Fed Farming Release More Carbon Emissions?

Livestock farming has been found to be a major source of carbon emissions, impacting the health of the planet and driving climate change.

Some early research has suggested that grass-fed farming releases more methane, and therefore carbon emissions because the animals are raised for a longer period of time before slaughter. This might be an oversimplification, though, because most analyses do not take into account the impact of grazing and cropping systems on soil carbon.

Rotational grazing may be able to help sequester carbon in the soil. One study even found rotational grazing to reduce the lifetime greenhouse gas impact of grass-fed beef by a whole 24 percent.

A recent study that accounts for the impact of rotational grazing on the soil suggests that well-managed grass-fed farming may be the more sustainable choice, in terms of greenhouse gas production.

Bottom Line:

Is grass-fed beef better for the environment? With proper pasture management, we’d say yes. It avoids the dangers of excess ammonia in the air, preserves the soil with rotational grazing, and avoids major aquatic die-off and chemical run-off from grain production.

When you account for the holistic farming picture, it might also produce less carbon emissions. But grass-fed beef isn’t just good for the environment, it’s also good for you and the animal. Did we mention it’s delicious? That’s why we’ll choose grass-fed and grass-finished every time.

Courtney Hamilton is a writer and editor with over seven years' experience in journalism, blogging, communications, and other media. She has written for publications like PaleoHacks, PaleoPlan, The Center for American Progress, OC Weekly, and more. 
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