U.S. Department of Agriculture: Agricultural Research Service, Lincoln, Nebraska


Date of this Version


Document Type



J. Anim. Sci. 2013.91:5427–5437; doi:10.2527/jas2013-6506


A methodology was developed and used to determine environmental footprints of beef cattle produced at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (U.S. Meat Animal Research Center) in Clay Center, NE, with the goal of quantifying improvements achieved over the past 40 yr. Information for U.S. Meat Animal Research Center operations was gathered and used to establish parameters representing their production system with the Integrated Farm System Model. The U.S. Meat Animal Research Center farm, cow–calf, and feedlot operations were each simulated over recent historical weather to evaluate performance, environmental impact, and economics. The current farm operation included 841 ha of alfalfa and 1,160 ha of corn to produce feed predominately for the beef herd of 5,500 cows, 1,180 replacement cattle, and 3,724 cattle finished per year. Spring and fall cow–calf herds were fed on 9,713 ha of pastureland supplemented through the winter with hay and silage produced by the farm operation. Feedlot cattle were backgrounded for 3 mo on hay and silage with some grain and finished over 7 mo on a diet high in corn and wet distillers grain. For weather year 2011, simulated feed production and use, energy use, and production costs were within 1% of actual records. A 25-yr simulation of their current production system gave an average annual carbon footprint of 10.9 ± 0.6 kg of CO2 equivalent units per kg BW sold, and the energy required to produce that beef (energy footprint) was 26.5 ± 4.5 MJ/kg BW. The annual water required (water footprint) was 21,300 ± 5,600 L/kg BW sold, and the water footprint excluding precipitation was 2,790 ± 910 L/kg BW. The simulated annual cost of producing their beef was US$2.11 ± 0.05/kg BW. Simulation of the production practices of 2005 indicated that the inclusion of distillers grain in animal diets has had a relatively small effect on environmental footprints except that reactive nitrogen loss has increased 10%. Compared to 1970, the carbon footprint of the beef produced has decreased 6% with no change in the energy footprint, a 3% reduction in the reactive nitrogen footprint, and a 6% reduction in the real cost of production. The water footprint, excluding precipitation, has increased 42% due to greater use of irrigated corn production. This proven methodology provides a means for developing the production data needed to support regional and national full life cycle assessments of the sustainability of beef.