Beef 101: Sustainability


Cattle spend the majority of their lives on pasture, from the time they are born to when they are sent to the feedlot. During this time in the their diet consists primarily of grass, forages, and occasionally crop residues from grain production. By grazing, cattle expand the land available for food production by being able to consume forages on non-arable lands that are unsuitable for agriculture.

After the cow calf and backgrounding stages, cattle may spend the last 4-6 months of their life in a feedlot, where 50-85% of their diet is composed of grain from corn and other by-products, like distillers grains. By grain-finishing cattle, it shortens the time it takes to get from birth to harvest, thereby lessening their environmental impact, while increasing the total amount of beef produced per animal.

The beef production system works in harmony to produce the most sustainable product, balancing all of the trade offs that come with it. Each sector of the supply chain plays a critical role in doing so. When grazing, cattle are able to utilize their unique ruminant digestive system to upcycle, turning human inedible products, like grass, into high quality protein for human consumption. In doing so, the beef production system is not only a net contributor (meaning the beef production system produces more protein than it consumes) to the human edible protein supply, but the quality of human edible protein produced is enhanced throughout the beef value chain. However, a trade-off of this upcycling superpower is that cattle produce methane during the digestive process. This trade-off is balanced by feedlots, where cattle are fed grain. The higher-energy, grain-based diet consumed there produces less methane emissions than a high-forage diet. However, the net protein contribution is relatively less compared to when cattle consume a forage based diet. Overall, when considering livestock’s net protein contribution, beef and dairy cattle have the highest contribution, followed by poultry and swine. It is important to consider all trade-offs when evaluating sustainability, as each component of the supply chain plays a unique and important role in healthy, sustainable beef production.


About 90% of what cattle eat can’t be digested by humans, making them invaluable to a sustainable food system. Cattle consume plants that humans can’t eat and through their unique digestive system, transform these plants into a high-quality, nutrient-rich protein. In addition to the grasses, they graze on for most of their lives, cattle can eat numerous other food byproducts. They can take items like brewers’ grains, pea pulp, beet tops, and potato peelings and turn those products into beef.

By using byproducts that would otherwise go to waste, cattle are enhancing the sustainability of other industries. For example, cattle eat distillers grains from the corn ethanol industry, cottonseed that is a byproduct of cotton production, and beet pulp that is a byproduct of sugar beet production.

Approximately 29% of the land in the United States is too wet, rocky, steep, or arid to support cultivated agriculture.2 However, cattle graze on plants native to their surroundings that humans can’t eat. Their unique, four-compartment stomach and digestive system is home to trillions of microbes. These microbes allow cattle to benefit and gain nutritional value from these sources that other animals can’t digest.

Approximately 29% of the land in the U.S. is pasture or rangeland that is too wet, rocky, steep, or arid to support cultivated agriculture. This land is able to support cattle, sheep, and goats— and protein upcycling.


  • Upcycling adds additional value to products that otherwise would’ve been wasted.
  • Byproducts from biofuel and food production industries, such as distillers grains and beet pulp, are digestible by cattle, reducing the volume of waste going to landfills.
  • Properly managed cattle grazing can improve rangeland and wildlife habitats.
  • As the global population continues to grow, ruminant animals like beef cattle can help us make more food with less.
  • More than 44% of an animal’s live weight transforms into other goods such as leather, cosmetics and pet food.