Come on Larry, you\’re better than this

Larry Elliott:

Meat consumption is rising in China, India and Brazil, and since it takes 7kg of grain to produce 1kg of beef (and 4kg to produce 1kg of pork), this is adding to global demand.

No, no, it doesn\’t.

The efficiency with which various animals convert grain into protein varies widely. With cattle in feedlots, it takes roughly 7 kilograms of grain to produce a 1-kilogram gain in live weight. For pork, the figure is close to 4 kilograms of grain per kilogram of weight gain, for poultry it is just over 2, and for herbivorous species of farmed fish (such as carp, tilapia, and catfish), it is less than 2.

Note the \”in feedlots\” there. This is not a typical method of producing beef in the UK. We use a lot more pasture land than the Americans do. Indeed, the Americans also use pasture at times, as do the Brazilians, Argentines and so on.

I\’m afraid that it pisses me off mightily that these figures from one, extreme, US technology are used as the average across all meat producing technologies. It just ain\’t true.

I know there are several farmers who read this blog. Do we actually have any US style feedlot beef operations in the UK? In Europe even? If so, are they a large part of the system? A small part?

Does anyone feed grain (as opposed to grass, hay,) to cattle to fatten them up?

22 thoughts on “Come on Larry, you\’re better than this”

  1. Veal calves are usually kept indoors (in roomy barns in the UK) on a largely grain based diet and Wagyu beef is grain fed. But other than that beef is from cattle that largely live on forage; grass, maize silage etc. Dairy cattle will be given some grain based feeds to keep up production. And beef animals will often be given some extra concentrated feed which may be grain based to “finish” them, to get that exact amount of lean and fat and weight the butcher requires.
    I think the same often applies to American feedlots. The cattle are born and grow out on the range and are brought in to the feedlot to put some meat on the bone – if that is added into the equation the ratio you mention is just for the extra weight gain, not for the whole beast.

  2. As above. UK and Irish produced beef (and lamb of course) is grass fed for either all or the majority of its life. The same most likely goes for beef produced on the Continent, but not having any direct experience of their farming methods, couldn’t be sure.

  3. Not to mention the Chinese really aren’t increasing beef consumption. I’ve seen figures saying beef consumption has been stable since the 80s, while fish consumption has quadrupled. Outside of expensive western style restaurants I don’t think I’ve ever seen beef in a restaurant in China. I also guess a fair amount of Chinese pork is raised in villages, and the pigs I’ve seen there are all eating vegetables.

  4. Ditto Australia. We’ve got a *lot* of marginal land that isn’t suitable for intensive cropping. On the “wet but hilly and rocky” bits it’s mostly dairy pasture, lovely lush meadows but I’d hate to drive a tractor on them. On the “dry but with enough grass and scrub” it’s beef cattle or sheep (wool more than meat, people don’t like mutton much anymore. Personally I love it if I can find it). And some of those stations are fucking huge. Like bigger than England huge. I don’t really know but I assume when they muster them they get a bit of time in a feedlot to put some condition on them.

    I agree with you Tim, this figure gives me the shits. It assumes the same land could be turned over to cropping to generate 7x as much food, even before taking into account that it comes from a very specific type of farming. And that is complete bullshit.

    I know one farmer quite well, north-western Victoria – his mainstay is wheat/barley, it’s a hot but irrigated area so that does well – but he runs a small sheep flock for lambs most years too. On the salt-affected land he can’t crop. Saltbush grows fine and the sheep eat it without a problem.

  5. There is almost always some grains involved in raising ruminants for feed in modern ag, whether it’s economical or not should be up to the market, unfortunately, this is often not the case, with direct or indirect subsidies for feed-grains, import-duties, export-restrictions etc. Growing food-grains is also somewhat more resource-intensive (good protein wheat needs extra nitrogen, separate handling), and growing the high-protein legumes needed for an adequate veggie diet is challenging, as these don’t yield too much and can’t be grown on the same location year after year. The advantage in having a lot of feed-grains in the cycle is that in an event of an unlikely catastrophe in world grain production, there’s an infinite amount of barley, maize, feed-wheat and ew, soy, that can be sold for a better price as famine foods when meat-prices go up.

  6. Still this blog continues the weird argument that cattle raised on marginal land is the solution to current or future food shortages, real or imagined. Yes, there are bits of Devon best suited to cows, and large parts of Australia only suitable for sheep or cattle. But these places are already used for same, so increased Chinese meat consumption will have to be met from elsewhere.

    Given the amount of soybeans that argentina and brazil produce and export, it looks like a lot of that increased consumption is being supported by grain/soy fed beasts http://www.spectrumcommodities.com/education/commodity/statistics/soybeans.html (yes, Argentina consumes a lot of soya, but as anyone who’s been there will tell you, argentinians
    only consume soya after it has been processed by a cow).

    Now that may be sustainable. It may be necessary if everyone is to have a reasonable amount of protein – see Beefeater’s points. But Tim, I know you’re loyal to your west country roots, but you may have to abandon your pastoralist fantasy of free range organic grass fed Devon cows feeding the world.

  7. SBML @9 – which aren’t currently being used? Which could make a meaningful contribution? That 1.3 billion chinese people have failed to notice?

    If there’s so much marginal unused land that could be producing beef/pork etc, why are the Chinese importing so much soya?

    Look, I’ve nothing against meat eating (I do it myself). I accept that there are large areas of land that are pretty useless for arable crops. But the fact is that, as Beefeater says, modern ruminant production involves feeding grain/soy to ruminants, in varying amounts. If there’s enough grain/soy to go round, great. If there’s not enough, we have to eat less meat, or chop down more of the Amazon/use less for biofuels/whatever. More shockingly still, we could use less grain for beer and whisky.

    I’m optimistic that none of these drastic measures (except maybe dumping bioduels) will be needed – technology/market forces etc. I just (a) doubt that deserts, bogs etc will solve much and (b) think it’s stating the bleeding obvious to say that modern cattle don’t just eat grass, and (c) equally obvious that it takes quite a lot of grain to produce not much cow to produce still less human.

  8. SBML – beat me to it. The sad part being my “L” stands for Luke too. This is where it gets confusing.

    Luke (you, not me) “this blog” said nothing about marginal land. That was my extension of the original point. You can argue with me if you like.

  9. More shockingly still, we could use less grain for beer and whisky

    Really? You’re going to go with that? A comparative percentage would be helpful. I’d be very surprised if it was over 1% of worldwide production.

  10. @Luke: you are assuming the current production from the areas that are suited to livestock (but not arable crops) are running at 100% capacity. I would argue that increased production in all cattle/sheep areas would be possible, if the prices dictated it so.

    The current UK sheep flock is well below its peak in the late 90s, and I expect the UK cattle numbers are similar, if not considerably worse after the BSE/F&M crises. There is considerable upside for production in the UK, and all over the EU if required, and demanded by higher prices.

  11. Ltw @ 12. I was being facetious. I have no idea how much is used. I was however being serious when I said that I doubted such drastic measures will be necessary.

    Jim, no one will be more delighted than me when unsubsidised welsh hill farmers, are multi millionaires (apart from them). I just think it’s unlikely (unless they put their sheep in pens in the valleys and buy lots of feedstock, made cheap by technical progress).

  12. I was being facetious too Luke. But now I’m not

    “(b) think it’s stating the bleeding obvious to say that modern cattle don’t just eat grass, and (c) equally obvious that it takes quite a lot of grain to produce not much cow to produce still less human.”

    How can you say that when several people have already pointed out that many beef producing countries don’t use grain? Specialty operations producing wagyu beef or whatever don’t count. And if you’d like to look it up Aust is still a major beef producer. It doesn’t turn out to be quite as obvious as you think.

  13. It’s worth pointing out that the figures for usage of ‘grain’ are complete nonsense in any case, because they include the entire plant – mostly cellulose and inedible to humans – rather than just the grain which is edible to humans. A large proportion of ‘grain-based’ cattle feeds are actually based on grain by-products.

  14. In the USA, about 3% of beef is “grass-finished”, and the rest comes from feedlots where it’s fed on subsidized corn. Calves are usually sent to feedlots when they’re weaned, or not long after.

    Certainly there’s some scope for increasing meat production from marginal land – sheep-farming on Welsh hills for example (I agree with Ltw about mutton). But, as Luke says, that’s not going to provide burgers for a billion or so Chinese.

  15. I think what is being said is animals (of any sort) are only 10 percent efficent..

    to raise 10 calories of cattle ,they need to eat 100 calories ,whether scrub grass or grain…

  16. LTw @ 15 you say , quoting me, then on your own

    “How can you say that [that modern cattle don’t just eat grass] when several people have already pointed out that many beef producing countries don’t use grain? ”

    Knowing little about cattle farming, but having a hunch that modern, Western cattle don’t just eat grass, I looked at the comments.

    1. “Veal calves are usually kept indoors… on a largely grain based diet… But other than that beef is from cattle that *largely* [my emphasis] live on forage…maize…. Dairy cattle will be given some grain based feeds to keep up production. And beef animals will often be given some extra concentrated feed which may be grain based…”

    2. “as above”

    5. “I don’t really know but I assume when they muster them they get a bit of time in a feedlot to put some condition on them.” (Your comment).

    7. “There is almost always some grains involved in raising ruminants for feed in modern ag…”

    17. “In the USA, about 3% of beef is “grass-finished”, and the rest comes from feedlots where it’s fed on subsidized corn. Calves are usually sent to feedlots when they’re weaned, or not long after.” [not that I relied in that]

    Every comment that deals with the question, including your own, says exactly what I said, namely that modern cattle don’t *just* eat grass. That’s why I said it. If you disagree with your own comment, fine, but don’t express outrage that I agree with you.

  17. ebutler

    Good luck eating the 100 calories of scrub grass that the cattle can live on. I’ll wait for the 10 calories of the beast afterwards, thanks.

  18. Turns out I was wrong anyway. Locally killed beef is generally not grain-fed at all. Live exports spend some time in a feedlot at the destination country, presumably to regain condition after the trip.

    I’ll grant your point that you said they don’t *just* eat grass, but in the context of this discussion I’m not interested in a short period before sale or niche stuff like veal. That’s just noise, it’s not *raising* cattle on grain. Tim asked if there were US style feedlot operations in other countries. My answer is that in Australia, no.

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