Who Let The Cows Out?

If you watch a movie like Food Inc., you get the impression that most cows spend their lives in huge, crowded feedlots.   That is part of the story, but not an accurate picture of the North American bovine industry.  It turns out that there is a US Census for cows (conducted every five years by the USDA, not the Census Bureau).  This “Census of Agriculture” counts the cows by farm for every county in the US.  It is a more accurate view of what our animal farming system actually entails.

What Does The Data Say about Cattle Ranching?

I used the handy data search tool that USDA-NASS provides and pulled down the data on “Farm Inventory of Cows and Calves.”  The first striking think is that cows are being raised in 3,077 different counties of the US (virtually all of the non-urban counties).  There are also a lot of cows! – 96 million on more than 960,000 different farms.  The next striking thing is that on average there are only ~100 cows per farm.  This means that a great many cows are living much of their life in a pasture rather than in a feedlot or CAFO (confined animal feeding operation).

The graph below is based on the average cows/farm at the county level and it shows that many cows are living on rather small farms.  One percent (1%) live on farms with less than 25 cows.  Twelve percent (12%) live on farms with 25 to 50 cows.  Seventeen percent (17%) live on farms with  50 to 100 cows.   Overall, 42% live on farms with less than 100 cows/farm. Eighty four (84%) live on farms with less than 500 cows.  Only 7.4% are on farms with more than 1000 cows.

The map below shows that most areas of the US have farms with relatively few cows while the giant cattle operations are only in certain Western states.

What Does This Have To Do With Sustainability?

Lots.  Many have pointed out that animal protein requires more land/fertilizer/energy/water than plant protein and have argued for less meat in our diets.  The counter-current trend is that as people in the developing world see some economic development, they logically want to eat more meat and dairy.  Meat and dairy, particularly that produced in Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), consumes a great deal of the grain crops that are grown in the developed world.  These crops represent a huge part of the US and South American grain going to big, net-importers like the EU, Japan and China.  But what this data shows is that at any given time, many US cows are on rangeland and pasture.  The US also grew 61 million acres of hay on 870,000 farms and much of that went to cattle.  US meat and dairy production are not all about the negative images presented by their critics.  Our meat and milk production isn’t all about grain feeding.

Cows Are Magic (but only because of bacteria)

One great thing about cows (and other ruminants like sheep, yaks…) is that they can eat cellulose, probably the most abundant terrestrial food source.  Humans can’t get any energy out of cellulose because we don’t have the extra stomachs and special bacteria which allow the cows to convert this huge food source into meat/milk.  It is this ability which has allowed herding societies to live off of grasslands for millennia.  The point is that a substantial part of the feed for US cows is still coming from the relatively more sustainable sources of cellulose.

Variations On The CAFO Model

Most of the cows in this census probably ended up being taken off of these smaller farms and “grain finished” in the last months of their lives.  In this situation, cows in large numbers are fed grain-based diets in Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).  This is done for efficiency of weight gain and for meat quality.  But not all CAFOs are the same.  For instance, some CAFOs or large dairies put the manure through an anaerobic digester to generate methane as a biofuel for electricity generation or other uses, thus greatly lowering the “carbon footprint” of that meat or milk.

New Finishing Alternatives Are Being Tested

Researchers at the University of Illinois have developed a different system where cows are fed corn earlier in their life while their consumption is lower and then finished on a variety of non-starch feed sources (grass, hay, DDGS, soy hulls…) and yet still achieve the same meat quality.  The total grain demand in that system is lower and that is particularly attractive with today’s high commodity prices.

A group at the USDA has been promoting a “Pasture-finishing” system where corn is made available in feeders out in the pasture so that the cows make their own choice of how much grass and how much grain to eat.  It turns out that the “finishing” process can be every bit as efficient and give good quality meat with much less total grain consumption.  They call this a “grain-on-grass” system and it can be more profitable for the farmer because of lower grain expense.  If it catches on, there will be even more cows “let out.”

I would like to see labeling of meat produced in some of these lower grain systems because it could be a moderate cost alternative to purist alternatives like “range-fed.”

You are invited to comment here or to email me at [email protected].  You can see my other posts at Applied Mythology.

Cows image from jrubinc

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  1. Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

    Steve– Interesting! Came up with a number of thoughts and questions while reading this:

    1. Do these numbers represent any kind of change over the years? More specifically, I’m wondering if there’s any evidence that questions raised about the food system have led to increased pasture-raising of cattle.

    2. I’ve read in a number of places that cows aren’t “designed” to eat grain… so I’m wondering how necessary the “finishing” processes are. Is this just a matter of achieving meat quality that meets consumer taste expectations?

    3. Do these numbers tell us (or suggest) anything about antibiotic and hormone use? I’m guessing they might be lower than we think, but don’t want to jump to conclusions.

  2. Steve Savage

    Jeff, good questions. It would be possible to pull the same numbers for 2002, 1997, 1992… to see if there are any trends. I just haven’t done that. The cow “design” discussion is not too useful. Cows were domesticated thousands of years ago and have since been bred for various purposes (draft, meat, milk…). They will eat a remarkable range of things. In California we feed them almond hulls and rice hulls – certainly not anything they were designed to eat. The finishing is mostly about the rate of weight gain and also about meat quality. The new research suggests that there are ways to achieve both of those goals using less total grain.

    No, these numbers don’t speak to antibiotics or hormones

  3. Vinodh Valluri

    Thank you for this informative article. You rightly note that “..animal protein requires more land/fertilizer/energy/water than plant protein and have argued for less meat in our diets..” Several facts clearly support the necessity for a meatless diet, including the now scientifically established fact that meat production uses unjustifiably huge quantities of resources. Ongoing research that you mention as helpful to reduce usage of total grains is meaningless in a sense; since the understated argument is that grain channeled into meat production is a low-efficiency use of resources.

    Of course, it is difficult to rationally convince a mass of people who have grown up at McDonalds, and Jacksintheboxes; but if scientific results should guide the society, offering realizations of a sustainable lifestyle, why is it hard for an educated, scientifically adept person to desist from the harmful practice of consuming meat?

    Maybe it is time for us to consider just how much of the sustainability problem could be solved by consciously choosing, upon scientific analysis, a diet of lower carbon intensity? One does not necessarily have to go vegan overnight. You provide the solution to the ‘protein issue’ in this article as well. Cows are magic. They can turn dry grass into milk. The Vedic scriptures of India have observed this several millenia before modern science even ‘took birth’. That is the reason why the average Indian is a lacto-vegetarian, and probably why India has a remarkably low carbon footprint even with five times the population of the USA, or maybe more. I sincerely hope that you will consider advocating a lacto-vegetarian diet as means for almost carnivorous people to lower their carbon footprint, and give the Earth a break.. Thank you.

  4. Steve Savage

    It is a lot more realistic to suggest reductions in meat consumption than to think that everyone will become a vegetarian of one type or another. People have been eating meat as part of their diet for a very long time and it is a good source of protein, iron and vitamins. As for the carbon footprint difference between India and the US, it is not mostly about food.

  5. John Ellis

    Hi Steve,
    Great observations. One of the things I always think about when the bovine population issue comes up, is the number of Bison on the continent during the pre-colonial era. There were millions of these creatures roaming the countryside and their “impact” was vital to the prairie ecosystem. Of course that system only exists in a small portion of Montana at present, but it was self sustainable, and supported a variety of carnivores including cultures that lived on these important creatures. It would be an interesting study to make the comparison between the then and now.

    A number of years ago I had the opportunity to modify a small cow calf system into a dairy steer operation. They maintain a herd of about thirty steers on about sixty acres, forty of which is cut for hay to feed during the winter months, they do not need to supplement with any outside feed. They use no irrigation on the hay since water is at a premium due to the scarcity on the island where the farm is located. Rainfall is the primary water source. They average about 12 steers a year for slaughter and the others are in various stages of growth. There are always new bull calves coming in from a local dairy, and these are hand raised, which makes for a docile and easily managed herd. Other than parasite management there is little vetting to be done, so costs are low. Fuel for haying being the major expense.

    We decided to end the grain finishing, and the quality of the beef is quite good. All are Holsteins, and are sent for processing at 24 months rather than the usual 18, which seems to be the industry standard. This system has been in operation now for close to twenty years without any other major modification, and has been providing excellent beef for the school where it exists.

    In the near future my kids want to start a family farm and we are looking at doing the same thing. Dairies will always be a source of bull calves, and in Europe the Holsteins as well as other varieties of dairy cattle have been doing double duty for centuries. Sustainable? Well I guess it could be looked upon as being so… we gotta eat.

  6. Steve Savage

    I think that is a good example of using cows to make good human food from land that would otherwise not be very suitable. Animal systems are actually far better suited to “local” production than all the crops that are climate and/or quality limited.

  7. Justin Van Kleeck

    Admittedly, cows are not the primary victims of concentrated factory farms–that “honor” goes to chickens, hands down. While it is true that cows spend less time in concentrated feedlots, many still do at some point in their lives. That also does not obviate the question of how humanely they are slaughtered. There are very few reliably “humane” slaughterhouses in the country, and the USDA is notoriously bad about monitoring slaughterhouses for safety; there is also the question of transport to the slaughterhouse, which can be stressful enough to kill many animals or spoil the meat (due to adrenaline rushes and other hormonal problems). I would also point out that farmed animals have no protection under the Animal Welfare Act, and only spotty “protection” under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. Lastly, one has to consider the ethics of raising animals only for the purposes of feeding us, when we could choose plant-based foods (as well as stop letting our population increase exponentially and force the Earth to become a grocery store on every possible square inch just to support us).

    My basic point is that there are still a great number of ethical problems with the beef and dairy industries, and the general farmed-animal industry as a whole; the fact that many cows are not stuck in CAFOs for their entire lives should not make us feel a whole lot better about the situation. Numbers do not tell the whole story.

  8. Steve Savage

    I certainly wouldn’t argue that our animal agriculture is without problems, but I think it is interesting that this is one source of food that actually could be “local” for many regions for the whole year. Maybe someone should set up a network of small humane slaughterhouses that has its own certification scheme. I bet there are a lot of people who would feel better about that.

  9. Justin Van Kleeck

    Thanks, Steve. I would definitely feel better about smaller, locally owned and operated, “humane” slaughterhouses. Good luck with that one, though, considering that the USDA is supposed (ha ha) to inspect *every* carcass of an animal–this when slaughterhouses are processing thousands of animals per hour. (And we wonder why there are salmonella and other issues with raw meat…)

    Anyway, it should still disturb us that 15% of cows (forgetting other animals for a minutes) are housed in CAFOs, since by the numbers you cited that would still mean 14.4 million. But the bigger issue here with focusing only on finding ways to ramp up food production is that it does nothing to address, and reduce, the human population. I fear that any of these ag-related strategies to support a growing population make as much sense as trying to fix the stoves on the Titanic while it is sinking…
    Thanks again.

    1. Steve Savage

      Actually population growth is now almost exclusively an issue in Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Middle East. Most developed countries are already well below “replacement rate” (2.1 births/woman). If it were not for immigration the US would be at about 1.6. Japan, Italy and Russia are at ~1.1. Our challenge is going to be how to run a society that is heavily weighted to very old people by mid-century.

      The best thing we could do for the areas that are still growing too fast is to invest in infrastructure and agricultural research so that their standard of living could rise. In every case where that has happened (and where women are educated) the birth rate drops dramatically.

  10. Justin Van Kleeck

    True, Steve, in general more education leads to reduced birth rates, and it is important to make sure that people in developing countries have opportunities to support themselves and get education, as well as women’s rights and family planning. However, I would be careful about how the push to raise their living standards is handled…what we really need to do at the same time is lower our (in the developed world) living standard, or at least (to put it another way) transition away from being a consumer culture. That is one of the biggest problems for developing countries, since it creates a vacuum that sucks resources and money from them to us (e.g., the U.S. has 5% of global population but uses about 30% of its resources). Also, it is important that the improvement in living standards does not turn into a Westernization–which sadly is happening in places like China & India, leading to crazy growth built on the backs of unsustainable practices in agriculture, building/planning/development, etc.

    Basically, I think that we would do well, across the board, to stop seeing things in terms of what is best for us (as a specific country and/or as an entire species) alone and start thinking more holistically. Quite a big challenge…

  11. Herman Meister

    Cattle do not do well on diets that contain high amounts of cellulose. Cellulose/lignin require a lot of energy to break down and at least 7 % protein in their diet to deigest. On a high cellolose diet, cattle will actually lose weight. Google the Texas A&M web site and check out rations.

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