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How Much Feed and Water are Used to Make a Pound of Beef?

[Update] A new study has found that Canada’s beef industry has dramatically reduced its water footprint over the past several decades, and that trend is expected to continue. Learn more at The Canadian Beef Water Footprint in Shrinking, published December 14, 2017

We recently received an email asking: “I’ve read that it takes 16 lbs of plant material and 5000 gallons of water to make a pound of beef. How far from the truth is this?

So we calculated just how much feed and water beef cattle do use before they’re harvested.

Feed

In terms of plant material, because water content is higher in some feeds than in others, feed use is measured on a dry matter basis. Feed conversion (pounds of feed consumed per pound of live animal gain) varies with the type of feed an animal is fed, how it is processed, etc. Current feed to gain ratios in a feedlot animal are about 6lbs of feed per 1lb of live weight gain.

For example, if an animal enters the feedlot at 500lbs and finishes at 1400lbs live weight (which will produce an 868lb carcass with 512lb of edible beef), that animal needs to gain 900lbs. At a 6:1 conversion, that’s 5400lbs of total feed used.

5400lbs feed ÷ 512lbs beef  =
10.6 lbs feed per pound of edible beef
.

In western Canada, much of the feed used for feedlot cattle is either barley that didn’t make the grade for brewing, or sometimes wheat that didn’t make the grade for bread milling, or grain that spoiled in storage. For instance, you hear a lot about the rail shipping backlog leaving lots of grain on the farm. Given last year’s bumper crop, a lot of that grain was stored on the ground and spoiled. Spoiled grain is no longer good for beer or bread, but it’s fine for cattle. Feeding it to cattle means that grain doesn’t go to waste.

Back in the 1950’s, feed conversion ratios were nearly 11:1, meaning that it took nearly twice as much feed to produce a pound of beef. Genetic selection and innovations continue to improve feed conversion in cattle.

Water

Based on average daily consumption numbers available here, a beef animal that reaches slaughter weight at 21 months would probably drink about 18,600 liters (4,091 gallons) of water. That animal produces around 512 lbs of edible beef.

4,091 gallons ÷ 512lb beef  =
8 gallons of water per pound of edible beef.*

Many cattle go to slaughter at earlier ages, in which case that water use number would be lower.

Cows use water, but they don’t use it up. Water cycles. Only a very small fraction of the water consumed is retained in the body. Most of the water that cattle drink continues to cycle in the environment.

*Note that water used during processing was not included, nor water used for irrigation to grow feed (some parts of the country use irrigation, some don’t), because accurate data is currently unavailable. However, we do know that both irrigation systems and packing plants have become much more efficient in water use.

Progress

It is safe to say that as an industry, we’re doing a lot better at using water than we used to. Back in the 1950’s, cattle were closer to 3 years of age at slaughter, would have drank closer to 50,000 liters (11,000 gallons), and produced a much smaller carcass (250 lb edible beef). It would have taken 44 gallons per pound of edible beef, instead of the 8 gallons per pound today. (That’s still a far cry from 5,000 gallons per pound!)

Canada’s beef industry produces more beef now, using a lot less water and feed than we used to. That’s good for farm economics, and helps keep beef affordable for consumers. At the same time, improvements in feed efficiency also mean that we’re producing less greenhouse gas and manure per pound of beef. That’s good for the environment.

[Update] A new study has found that Canada’s beef industry has dramatically reduced its water footprint over the past several decades, and that trend is expected to continue. Learn more at The Canadian Beef Water Footprint in Shrinking, published December 14, 2017

The sharing or reprinting of this BCRC Blog article is welcome and encouraged. Please provide acknowledgement to the Beef Cattle Research Council, list the website address, www.BeefResearch.ca, and let us know you chose to share the article by emailing us at info@beefresearch.ca.

Dwayne GoldenJune 3, 2014

How much manure is produced? Since the point of the query for many is that we should be vegetarian.saving the earth resources. But, that question never takes into account the output of organic material that provide energy for plants, as well.

Replies

Thanks for pointing that out, Dwayne. the question was about how much water and feed is used, so is what our answer focused on. The question about how much manure is produced is an interesting one, and one that we’ll tackle in the near future.

Replies

JarettMarch 21, 2016

yes. how much poop? nay...WHERE does it go? they gotta pee, too...that goes somewhere as well. i think it enters the water table, then seeps from there into our waterways, and lakes and oceans. i can't imagine the impact that has on the environment. then, cows fart! lots. that's methane. a very nasty greenhouse gas. I don't want our race going extinct because we forgot about cow farts.

Replies

Beef ResearchMarch 23, 2016

Hi Jarett,

Nutrients in cattle manure are largely cycled within grassland ecosystems without reaching high concentrations or leaving the system. Nutrients in feces and urine are dispersed as cattle move throughout the pasture seeking new forage stands to graze. Fecal pats provide nutrients to insect communities such as dung beetles and the readily available nitrogen in urine is quickly utilized by plants. Manure from feedlots is also a valuable source of fertilizer and is applied to surrounding farmland, reducing the reliance on chemical fertilizers and increasing the organic matter content of soils. To date, there is little evidence that the accumulation of nutrients in cropland adversely impacts the surrounding environment or crop production.

A global research effort has identified technologies that can reduce methane emissions from cattle. Increasing the value of carbon would increase the use of these technologies in beef production. Meanwhile, beef production is increasing efficient. A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Manitoba, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) Lethbridge and Environment Canada found that there has been a 15% decrease in methane, 16% decrease in nitrous dioxide and 13% decrease in carbon dioxide from beef production in Canada between 2011 and 1981. Comparing the same time periods, it took 29% fewer cattle in the breeding herd and 24% less land to produce the same amount of beef. Canada’s beef industry currently accounts for 3.6% of Canada’s greenhouse gas production and 0.072% of global greenhouse gas production.

Jay GarloughJune 6, 2014

Just so you know, I have foodie and farming friends sharing this around on facebook & social media saying that "8 gallons of water per pound of edible beef" is realistic and accurate. To me it appears that all you have done here is some back-of-the-envelope estimate and if that's the case you might want to make it a bit more clear.

What I'm wondering is how it is possible for you to know "that both irrigation systems and packing plants have become much more efficient in water use" when "accurate data [on water used during processing and irrigation] is currently unavailable"?

Replies

Hi Jay: You may have overlooked the hyperlink that references daily water consumption statistics for cattle of different ages and ambient temperatures (which both correspond to different times of the year). As noted, total consumption will vary with the production system. The longer it takes to get an animal to market, the more water they will consume. Getting animals to market sooner is one of the biggest things that the industry has done to improve resource use (and reduce waste production) over the years. The blog does point out that it’s difficult to know how much irrigation water is used for livestock (i.e. as opposed to a variety of other crops, golf courses or farm dugouts for human use), or how much water is used by packing plants. But the efficiency of these systems has very clearly improved. For instance, between 1950 and the early 1990’s, canal rehabilitation projects in Southern Alberta reduced the water loss from canals (evaporation and seepage) by 85%. Improvements in the irrigation equipment itself would be in addition to this. One example of how packing plants reduce their water use is by capturing water used to clean equipment inside the plant, and using it again to clean livestock trailers and outside pens. More subtle improvements (like more efficient water recirculation systems, optimizing the water pressure in cleaning systems, maintaining hoses, pumps, valves, etc.) add up as well. For example, an 800 head capacity beef processing plant being renovated near Calgary is installing a water recycling system that will reduce its water requirements from 500,000 to 20,000 gallons per day. That 96% reduction will reduce water use from 625 to 25 gallons per head processed, or from 1.22 to 0.05 gallons per pound of beef. We are currently funding research to be able to get more precise answers to questions about the environmental footprint of beef production in Canada.

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Bob Jr.February 10, 2016

Ah, I have an answer for that too, most people only say what the cows drank. That is the answer for that question but that is a very good question Jay. Nice work, and you also have a very good answer admin, GOOD WORK EVERYONE!! :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :)

Tristan StallcupJanuary 27, 2016

what about the water required to grow the feed for the cattle? god damn ignorance is real

Replies

Reynold BergenJanuary 29, 2016

Hi Tristan.
We're looking at historical changes in water use in beef production in this study: http://www.beefresearch.ca/research-topic.cfm/environmental-footprint-of-beef-production-6. Those data are being gathered now and will be analyzed over the next year.
Reynold

Bob Jr.February 10, 2016

I don't know Tristan Stallcup but I sure would like to know too, so if anyone can help please do so :)

~Bob Jr.

Paul WatsonApril 18, 2016

I just saw a post from a friend on FB that claimed 1,300 gallons of water were used to produce a the patty for a hamburger (a pounder, I am sure).

Here's my back-of-the-envelope calculation for that to be true.

n Canada, we eat 20.2 kg of beef per person per year. So, annually, Canadians eat (approximately) 725M pounds of beef. and that would mean using 925 billion gallons or 3.5 trillion litres of water used to produce this beef annually. In the USA, they consume more but for simplicity, let's just multiply by 10. So, 35 trillion litres of water consumed.

Lake Ontario holds 1,638,095,457,398,147 (roughly 1.5 quadrillion) liters of water. The beef consumption in the USA would empty Lake Ontario in about 4 years. And that would be every year if the post was about a quarter-pounder...

Replies

Reynold BergenApril 18, 2016

Hi Paul

Remember the water cycle Mr. Jones told us about, way back in grade 6?

Turns out it still works.

To read about the shallow science behind scandalous "gallons per burger" like that, see http://www.beefresearch.ca/blog/blame-it-on-the-rain-bergen/

RB

JacksonMay 7, 2017

How much water is used to feed the whole cow. Not the 512lb crap that you say.

BrentMay 9, 2017

Just curious as to whether any Canadian beef farms import feed from across international borders. If so, where from?

CamDecember 10, 2018

some other sites have said that there is a lot more water used per Litre of beef used
According to the guardian https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2013/jan/10/how-much-water-food-production-waste

15,415 litres of water are used per pound of beef produced. This sounds unrealistic as this site claims that only 66.76323435 Litre of water are used for every kg of beef. Not sure what to believe as this site looks kind of sketchy where as the guardian has a history of producing solid and trusted information before

Replies

Reynold BergenDecember 11, 2018

Hi Cam,

A couple things.

First, we checked the Guardian’s numbers again. They say 15,415 liters per kg, not 15,415 liters per pound.

Second, when we wrote that post, we clearly pointed out that the numbers were based only on water used for drinking, but not water needed to grow pastures or feed, or water used to process beef, because Canadian-specific numbers were not available at the time we wrote it. We have those numbers now. At the top (and bottom) of this page you’ll see “Update” links that we posted a year ago that will lead you to the most current Canadian research on the topic. We left the original post up so that we could be transparent, while showing how research gives us new insights into important questions and issues pertaining to beef production in Canada. For some additional thoughts around beef cattle and water use, please take a look at this post: http://www.beefresearch.ca/blog/are-cattle-drinking-canada-dry/.