Can pastured livestock ever go mainstream?

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chick in brooder

Most of the meat produced in the U.S. is not raised on pasture. Pastured livestock is a niche market right now. But could it ever go mainstream?

Pasa Sustainable Agriculture looked into this in a recently released study titled “Scaling Up Pastured Livestock Production.

The group, a Pennsylvania-based sustainable agriculture association, worked with 10 farmers across Pennsylvania to develop feed and land efficiency benchmarks for the three most common meat animals: beef cattle, pigs and broiler chickens.

All the farms are raising animals in a pasture-based system. That means the animals have continuous access to pasture, except during farrowing and brooding periods of pigs and chickens.

The verdict? It’s possible, but pasture-based farmers have a long way to go. 

“Looking at our back of the envelope calculations, we might have to accept less meat but it’d be much better meat in terms of the costs involved,” said Franklin Egan, one of the authors of the study and director of education for Pasa Sustainable Agriculture. Brooks Miller, of North Mountain Pastures, a farm in Newport, Pennsylvania, also authored the study.

The methodology

Farmers reported the live weights of animals, hanging weight of animals, acres grazed, dry hay harvested, hay purchased off farm, grain or feed mixes fed to animals and other information.

Pasa came up with some standardized calculations to make the best of the data gathered from farmers and their processors to come up with feed efficiency and land efficiency benchmarks. That was one of the challenges of the study.

“I went into this with a lot of optimism about how easy it would be to get data from our farmers,” Egan said. “I really discovered a lot of challenges with record keeping on these small, diversified farms.”

For example, the farms with poultry would sometimes feed different poultry groups from the same feed bin. Laying hens, broilers and turkeys would all get feed scooped out for them from the same bin, because it was most time efficient for farmers to do it that way. That made it difficult to track how much feed any one group was getting, though.

The results

The most efficient of the five beef cattle farms in the study produced 164 pounds of meat per ton of hay. Contrast that with the two least efficient farms that produced 28 pounds of meat per ton of hay.

Again, the most efficient five beef cattle farms produced 71 pounds of meat per acre of pasture and hay. The least efficient farm produced 31 pounds of meat per acre.

The wide gap between the most efficient and least efficient farms was seen with all the livestock groups.

For pigs, the most efficient eight farms produced 1,186 pounds of meat per acre. The least efficient farm made 313 pounds of meat per acre.

The most efficient poultry farms produced 4,958 pounds of meat per acre, while the least efficient farm produced on average 1,697 pounds of meat per acre.

It’s clear that there’s room for farms to become more efficient at making feed and land into meat, Egan said. Looking at the numbers, the pastured operations in the study are much less land-efficient than conventional animal confinement feeding operations.

Some of the difference may be explained by limiting factors, like land or soils, or by genetics of the animals. But others may come down to management practices, Egan said. Some farms in the study were managing grazing closely, while others were closer to a continuous grazing system.

What would it take

Pennsylvania has about 706,000 acres in pasture and 4.6 million acres in crops, according to the 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture.

Using the farmers from the study, what would it take for them to provide pasture-raised meat for all of Pennsylvania?

A rough calculation shows that all of the state’s cropland would need to be converted into pasture. On top of that, an additional 7.3 million acres of pasture and 1.2 million acres of cropland from outside of Pennsylvania would be needed.

In contrast, to raise all those animals in confinement to feed Pennsylvania, 4.9 million acres of pasture and 1.3 million acres of crops would be needed.

Looking ahead

It’s a small sample size, no doubt. But Pasa is looking to gather more data from other farmers. The study may be updated later if enough data is gathered, Egan said.

The spreadsheet to crunch the numbers for your farm’s operation can be found at pasafarming.org/land-feed-benchmarks-worksheet. The full study can also be found at that link.

Farmers can also contact research@pasafarming.org for more information. The spreadsheet includes sections for sheep and turkeys as well as the three animals listed in the study.

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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