Grass-fed vs. grain-fed beef systems: performance, economic, and environmental trade-offs

J Anim Sci. 2022 Feb 1;100(2):skab374. doi: 10.1093/jas/skab374.


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.

Keywords: beef sustainability; beef systems; carcass quality; grass-fed beef; greenhouse gases; life cycle assessment.

Plain language summary

Between the influence of the “food elite” on social media and increasing public concerns over climate change, consumer demand for grass-fed beef has increased considerably. Although many consumers perceive grass-fed beef as more environmentally friendly than grain-fed beef, there is a dearth of research available to address these consumer claims. In order to answer both consumer and producer concerns, we performed an experiment that evaluated the environmental footprint (i.e., water, land, greenhouse gasses, and energy), beef quality, and economic outcome of four beef cattle production systems on the West coast. The four systems included conventional beef finished on grain for 128 d, steers grass-fed for 20 mo, steers grass-fed for 20-mo with a 45-d grain finish, and steers grass-fed for 25 mo. We found that varying grass-fed and grain-fed production systems resulted in different environmental effects. The conventional system produced the lowest greenhouse gas footprint but required the highest energy input. The grass-fed for 20 mo used the least amount of water but produced the greatest greenhouse gas. In conclusion, this study illustrated the complexities underpinning beef sustainability; no system resulted in absolute economic, meat quality, and environmental superiority.

MeSH terms

  • Animal Feed* / analysis
  • Animals
  • Body Composition
  • Cattle
  • Diet / veterinary
  • Edible Grain
  • Meat* / analysis