An argument sometimes heard from grazing critics is that feedlots, due to efficiencies of scale and technological advances, are a more sustainable option than grass-based grazing operations. This argument originates from a 2012 paper by Judith Clapper titled "Is the Grass Always Greener? Comparing the Environmental Impact of Conventional, Natural and Grass-Fed Beef Production Systems."
This paper compares conventional feedlot systems, "natural" grazing systems (defined as feedlots without growth hormones), and grassfed systems, concluding that the conventional system offers the greatest sustainability due to smaller amounts of land usage and shorter lifespans of animals.
More Recent/Robust Research Disputes This Claim
While this paper is often cited by those looking to excuse the environmental outcomes of feedlot operations, its conclusions are not supported by other peer-reviewed research. Notably, Dr. Paige Stanley of CSU more recently published in 2018 a highly lauded paper titled “Impacts of soil carbon sequestration on life cycle greenhouse gas emissions in Midwestern USA beef finishing systems” that conducted a life cycle analysis (LCA) on the finishing phases of feedlot and regenerative cattle operations. Of note, while Capper 2012 used theoretical modeling for their research, Stanley 2018 studied real-life livestock operations with actual measurements taken.
Further, Capper 2012's study was focused purely on animal diet (i.e. "grassfed") and did not factor in animal management (i.e. "holistic planned grazing" aka "adaptive multi-paddock grazing") which has been shown to be a critical factor in determining soil health and ecosystem function. A main tenet of the regenerative grazing movement is the acknowledgment that diet alone does not determine the health of an animal or its ecosystem, so it would be incorrect to correlate results of a grassfed study to that of regenerative systems.
Results of Stanley 2018 find that AMP finishing improved soil organic carbon (SOC) by 3.5 tons per hectare per year. This resulted in a net negative footprint (or drawdown) of 6.6 kg of carbon dioxide equivalence per kg of carcass-weight (CW). Thus, for every kilogram of carcass weight produced, over six times that amount was reduced from the atmosphere in terms of carbon dioxide equivalence with all other production related gases accounted for, including enteric and manure emissions. The paper argues that previous studies that had appeared to show superiority of feedlot finishing in regards to climate (i.e. Capper 2012) had failed to account for the carbon capture in newly formed soils that are pronounced in the AMP method. Incorporating this drawdown more than compensated for the extra land and the extra days in pasture required AMP grazing.
Shorter Lifespans & Methane
Another aspect being raised when comparing conventional and regenerative systems is the shorter lifespans seen in feedlot systems which result in lower overall methane output. While methane is indeed an incredibly volatile greenhouse gas and the output may be lower for animals with shorter lifespans, output is but one piece of the full methane lifecycle. A more complete assessment would consider healthy living soils that include methane oxidizing bacterial species, also known as methanotrophs, that quickly oxidize enteric methane emissions.
Water & Land Usage
Finally, Capper 2012's claims that feedlot systems require less water and land usage are made through an incredibly narrow lens. While the size of a feedlot takes up less acreage than that of open pasture, feedlots import feed from outside monocultures of croplands that themselves take up massive tracts of land and have equally massive environmental footprints. Further, feedlots and cropland displace wildlife from their natural habitat whereas regenerative grazing on open pasture creates wildlife habitat where livestock and wildlife symbiotically coexist. A similar argument can be made for water footprints. A feedlot's water footprint comes from croplands that are utilizing mostly blue water (irrigation) and grey water (irrigation that becomes wastewater), whereas in an open pasture regenerative grazing system the water footprint is almost entirely green water (natural rainfall that allows for vegetation growth).
In all of these comparisons, a nuanced and holistic perspective easily demonstrates that regenerative grazing for the full animal lifecycle provides the greatest environmental outcomes.
For a more thorough collection of peer-reviewed evidence demonstrating the positive ecological, economic, and social outcomes of regenerative grazing operations, please see Savory Institute's online science library at https://savory.global/science-library/.