7 Apr 2009

Where's the Beef?

Before last week's meat-ignorance post, JR wrote this post on hypocrisy:

Lots of people who complain about agricultural use of "excessive" and "unreasonable" quantities of water focus their critical attention on field crops such as alfalfa and sudan grass that are forage foods for cows.

I doubt very many of those people are vegetarians, and I'll bet most of the ones who eat meat have no idea how much water is required to support their carnivorous diet.

Bottom Line: Let he who is without guilt cast the first stone.
Note that the figure for producing a pound of beef represents both the water required to grow the fodder that the cows eat and the water required to support the cows themselves over a 2-plus year period, since cattle raised in feedyards are generally slaughtered prior to 2 years of age,dairy cattle may live 4 years before being turned into burgers, and range cattle live 5 to 6 years before ending up as meat.)

Data from Ecological Integrity: Integrating Environment, Conservation and Health (Island Press, 2001)


  1. Show me the calculations. Here are mine and I have not assumed a cow/calf operation which generally is raised on the open range not on alfalfa which would greatly reduce these numbers:

    25#hay per day /cow X 365 = 9125# per year / 2000 = 4.56 ton of hay

    1 acre on average will produce = 4.56 ton / year ( two good cuttings)

    Consumptive use C.U. = 1.6 acre feet AF per acre

    1.6 AF X 325900gallons/AF = 521440 gallons

    8 gallon / day X 365 = 2920 gallons / year / drank per cow

    500# calf produced per year

    calf hay & drinking requirement ½ of cow requirement

    521440 X 1.5 = 782160

    2920 X 1.5 = 4380

    500# calf plus 1/6 of 1200# cow = 700 # per year of beef
    ( Cow will produce for 6 years and be slaughtered)

    786540 / 700# = 1123 gallons / pound of beef

    Consumptive Use is the only fair basis for an evaluation. 100% C.U. was assumed for all water drank by cow & calf. AF/A for alfalfa will vary, but so will production per acre. 1.6 AF/A is a generally accepted high number in Court cases in CO at elevation of 4000 feet.

    Our calculations differ by a factor of 10 ! Where did they get their 12000 gallons per pound number ?

    Even if a calculation of 40% were made for the waste from the slaughter of the animal, the gallons per pound would only adjust to 1800 gallons per pound.

    Granted that calves are generally not slaughtered until after a year of feedlot feeding of grains. Maybe someone else would like to do the calculations or provide the amount of grain required so that a similar calculation can be fairly made...?

    WaterSource waterrdw@yahoo.com

  2. I don't know the numbers, just the process. In prairie country, you can buy local grass fed beef, which is leaner. The stockman keeps a brood herd that calve in early spring. The weaner calves are put to pasture in May, and harvested after about 18 months right before the snow flies. The hitch is the snow covers the pasture from late November to April, and hay must fed during that time. It's still not a feedlot, because corn or grains are not used for feed, but the steers are confined by deep snow into a small area. (They are often joined at their feed by deer and wild turkeys.) A heated water trough must be kept full for the animals too. It's a lot of work getting stock through a hard winter. So there's a carbon factor on top of the water factor here--moving the stock from pasture to pasture during the growing season as they graze out each area, and in winter to transport hay and check on the water supply each morning. My neighbor ranches buffalo, and they have one enormous range, about 1000 plus acres, and they are even leaner than grass fed beef, and bring up to ten bucks a pound at the supermarket. They can't be moved around like cattle since they are wild, strong, and huge beasts. Most cattle ranchers out here have hay fields sufficient to feed their stock through the winter most years. People with smaller acreages (like me) would have to buy hay to feed their stock over the winter, but my pastures would feed two steers when snow free. Some ranchers have converted to an entirely organic process with no antibiotics, supplements, and feeding organically grown hay during winter. This beef is twice as spendy as non-organic and sold in the upscale markets (although it is turning up at Costco lately). I don't know anyone who feeds grain or "feedlots" cattle before harvest in our quadrant of the Inland Northwest. (But we are all very small operators around here compared to ranches down on the basin.)

  3. I would be very interested in viewing the water data/calculations from _Ecological Integrity_ as well. There have always been large discrepancies with regards to water per pound of beef, which obviously differ due to feed, climate, and husbandry practices, etc.

    Note these 2 articles from the WSJ that discuss this very issue: http://blogs.wsj.com/numbersguy/the-swimming-pool-in-your-burger-252/ and http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120001666638282817.html

    While discrepancies exist and there really needs to be a more systematic look at water use in the processes of all stages of agricultural products, the point is that meat, and beef in particular, has a huge water (and carbon) footprint. The thing is that most people love to eat meat and that isn't going to change anytime soon. Sensible pricing (and valuation) of water might be accurately reflected in such products as steak, etc., thus making it more dear.

    Personal preference: While I certainly eat meat, it isn't a bad thing, both environmentally and health-wise, to reduce my consumption.

  4. CORN

    The formula in Nebraska is Consumptive Use minus Effective Precipitation divided by the inefficiencies of the irrigation delivery system. 29.1 inches ET minus 14.1 inches Effective Precipitation minus Soil Profile Storage of 3.3 equals 11.70 inches Net Irrigation Requirement (Nebraska's numbers.)

    Irrigated corn yields 300 bushel/acre or less; one bushel cracked corn weighs 56 lbs dry weight

    Assuming 5# corn per day to fatten calf X 365 =1825 lbs /56 = 32.5 bushel

    Using 50 bushel would equate to 1/6 acre of corn per calf to fatten

    11.7 inches or one foot is one acre foot or 325,900 gallons/AF C.U. / 6 = 54317 gallons , but the calf will gain 1000# or 600# in raw beef.

    Gallons / pound of beef in fattening process 54317 / 600 = 90 gallons plus the drinking water which is 2920 gallons / 600 = another 5 gallons/pound; the fattening only amounts to 100 gallons needed per calf.

    This is not my area of expertise, so if anyone has better numbers, plug them in and see what you calculate.

    Point being that my numbers are no where near the 12000 gallons / pound that was claimed.

    WaterSource waterrdw@yahoo.com

  5. water requirement for the corn:

    11.7 inches = 1 ft c.u.
    325900 gallons per acre one ft deep

    300 bushels/acre X 56# per bushel =
    16800# per acre

    325900 gal / 16800# =
    19.4 gallon of water per pound corn

    Again, this hardly compares with the 168 gallons / # corn shown in the chart !

    Bottom line: It is always good to check the bottom line calculations ! The folks who provided these must have been paid by some government agency ... nobody else would accept their figures !

  6. Good Magazine just published a report that a pound of beef requires 1500 gallons. This is right in line with my calculated 1800 gallons / pound.

    Thanks Aguafornia for posting the report.

  7. Certainly there seems to be a lot of variability in the estimates of how much water is required to produce different types of food. But I think everyone would agree that producing a pound of beef requires more water than producing a pound of any other non-meat variety of food.

    At any rate, I think the point of the original post was that a lot of meat-loving people are critical of farmers who grow thirsty field crops such as alfalfa, despite the fact that such crops are essential for production of cows. Anyone who claims forage crops use excessive and unreasonable amounts of water, but who nonetheless consumes the beef produced by the use of such crops, is a hypocrite.

  8. It would be interesting to narrow down the numbers on this topic. I remember this controversy after reading "Diet for a Small Planet" in the 1970s. I was a vegetarian then but have long since gone back to enjoying hamburger, steak and other red meat.

    I do not think it is entirely fair to call someone a hypocrite, however, to eat beef but complain about how much water is used to produce it. I live and work in California, which is the nation's largest producer of a number of agricultural products, including dairy (I am not sure about beef). Cattle in our Central Valley certainly consume quite a bit of our limited water supply and contrubute significantly to pollution of surface and groundwater.

    In most of the U.S., alfalfa is not irrigated. True, the productivity (tons/acre) is lower than in California, but it might be better for the overall environment if some of the cows moved back to South Dakota, Wisconsin and other states. It might be better for their economies as well.

    Yes, eating less meat is probably better for us and our surrounding natural environment, but it also matters where various activities take place.

  9. As was commented elsewhere in this blog, I would like 'water sequestered' or the appropriate term.

    For a 500 pound calf with 40% waste, there are 300 pounds of meat. If the meat is 50% water, then the calf sequestered only 150 lbs. of water.

    The rest of the water in these calculations passed through the cow, grain, etc. and went on to other uses. It was not packed into the beef and it was not destroyed.

    If I use some of the calculations above, I get that the rainfall in the Amazon is many times the measured rainfall. The Amazon recycles its rain 20 times, I think, before this water gets to the Atlantic.

    So, I would like calculations in which the terms include inputs and outputs and can be added appropriately.


  10. @Eric -- good point about "passing", but I'd say that water that's ET'd is water that's "used" under our current definition of use...


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