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Grass-fed vs. grain-fed beef systems: performance, economic, and environmental trade-offs
Journal of Animal Science  (IF3.159),  Pub Date : 2021-12-22, DOI: 10.1093/jas/skab374
Klopatek S, Marvinney E, Duarte T, et al.

Between increasing public concerns over climate change and heightened interest of niche market beef on social media, the demand for grass-fed beef has increased considerably. However, the demand increase for grass-fed beef has raised many producers’ and consumers’ concerns regarding product quality, economic viability, and environmental impacts that have thus far gone unanswered. Therefore, using a holistic approach, we investigated the performance, carcass quality, financial outcomes, and environmental impacts of four grass-fed and grain-fed beef systems currently being performed by ranchers in California. The treatments included 1) steers stocked on pasture and feedyard finished for 128 d (CON); 2) steers grass-fed for 20 mo (GF20); 3) steers grass-fed for 20 mo with a 45-d grain finish (GR45); and 4) steers grass-fed for 25 mo (GF25). The data were analyzed using a mixed model procedure in R with differences between treatments determined by Tukey HSD. Using carcass and performance data from these systems, a weaning-to-harvest life cycle assessment was developed in the Scalable, Process-based, Agronomically Responsive Cropping Systems model framework, to determine global warming potential (GWP), consumable water use, energy, smog, and land occupation footprints. Final body weight varied significantly between treatments (P < 0.001) with the CON cattle finishing at 632 kg, followed by GF25 at 570 kg, GR45 at 551 kg, and GF20 478 kg. Dressing percentage differed significantly between all treatments (P < 0.001). The DP was 61.8% for CON followed by GR45 at 57.5%, GF25 at 53.4%, and GF20 had the lowest DP of 50.3%. Marbling scores were significantly greater for CON compared to all other treatments (P < 0.001) with CON marbling score averaging 421 (low-choice ≥ 400). Breakeven costs with harvesting and marketing for the CON, GF20, GR45, and GF25 were $6.01, $8.98, $8.02, and $8.33 per kg hot carcass weight (HCW), respectively. The GWP for the CON, GF20, GR45, and GF25 were 4.79, 6.74, 6.65, and 8.31 CO2e/kg HCW, respectively. Water consumptive use for CON, GF20, GR45, and GF25 were 933, 465, 678, and 1,250 L/kg HCW, respectively. Energy use for CON, GF20, GR45, and GF25 were 18.7, 7.65, 13.8, and 8.85 MJ/kg HCW, respectively. Our results indicated that grass-fed beef systems differ in both animal performance and carcass quality resulting in environmental and economic sustainability trade-offs with no system having absolute superiority.