Comparative life cycle environmental impacts of three beef production strategies in the Upper Midwestern United States
We used ISO-compliant life cycle assessment (LCA) to compare the cumulative energy use, ecological footprint, greenhouse gas emissions and eutrophying emissions associated with models of three beef production strategies as currently practiced in the Upper Midwestern United States. Specifically we examined systems where calves were either: weaned directly to feedlots; weaned to out-of-state wheat pastures (backgrounded) then finished in feedlots; or finished wholly on managed pasture and hay. Impacts per live-weight kg of beef produced were highest for pasture-finished beef for all impact categories and lowest for feedlot-finished beef, assuming equilibrium conditions in soil organic carbon fluxes across systems. A sensitivity analysis indicated the possibility of substantial reductions in net greenhouse gas emissions for pasture systems under conditions of positive soil organic carbon sequestration potential. Forage utilization rates were also found to have a modest influence on impact levels in pasture-based beef production. Three measures of resource use efficiency were applied and indicated that beef production, whether feedlot or pasture-based, generates lower edible resource returns on material/energy investment relative to other food production strategies.
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