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0909 PD: Is intensive or extensive dairy production a more responsible use of our resources?

Tom Elam Published on 05 June 2009

Land is by far the most significant natural resource used in agriculture. In the U.S., 937 million of our 2.96 billion acres (excluding Alaska) are utilized in one way or another to produce our own food supply and the food we export around the world.

Almost one-third of our total U.S. land base is currently needed to feed ourselves, and much of the remainder is in deserts, mountains, swamps, cities, roads or otherwise unavailable.



On a global scale agriculture is by far the largest use of land. About 1.5 billion hectares are currently harvested every year to provide the world’s food and fiber supply. That area, large as it is, does not include pasture lands used by ruminants to produce meat and milk.

Land used for agriculture represents both a monetary cost and a major alteration of our natural environment. There are significant trade-offs involved in the production practices we decide to use. Extensive agriculture uses land to substitute for technology and results in lower yields. Intensive agriculture disturbs less land, but uses more inputs that have the potential to cause environmental issues. We have tended to opt for intensive systems because they are more cost-effective, but the fact is that intensive agriculture also conserves land for uses other than food and fiber production.

In order to see what intensive agriculture has done for land conservation in the U.S., data need to be looked at in a slightly different way. When we look at the use of land, we normally think about how productive the land is at producing crops. For feed crops, the productivity of land is not the end of the story.

We also need to look at how productive land is at producing the meat, dairy and poultry products that we actually consume. We also need to look at land in terms of not only how much feed it produces, but also by how many people it can feed.

In 1961 the U.S. population was about 184 million people. In 2008 we numbered about 305 million, a 66 percent increase. If agriculture today was no more productive than it was in 1961 we would either need to expand land in farms by 66 percent, or our food supply per person would be 66 percent smaller.


In 1961, it took 111.6 million acres of feed grains and soybeans to grow the major crops used for the U.S. feed supply. If, in 2005, that land was no more productive than it was in 1961, we produced as much per person and our farm animals took as much feed per pound of production, we would need at least a 66 percent increase (70 million acres) in feed crop land use, an area the size of the entire state of Missouri.

Meat and poultry productivity increases reduce land use
The long-term trend in land resources used by U.S. meat, dairy and poultry producers is more complicated than such a simple calculation and also shows an incredible record of land conservation. In fact, despite increasing population and meat production, the crop acres needed to raise our supply of livestock products have actually declined over time.

It is fairly simple to calculate the acreage used for the feed grains and soybeans that are the major contributors to the U.S. livestock and poultry feed supply. Simply take the total tons of feed grains and soybean meal used for U.S. food animal feed and, using average yields, convert those tons back to acreage needed to produce the crops. The feed use estimates and yields are readily available from the USDA.

The trends show a declining acreage of feed grains, increasing acreage of soybeans and a decline in total acreage needed for feed crop production. Since 1960/61 the total acreage of the five key crops needed to produce our livestock, dairy and poultry feed has declined by 32.7 million acres. Soybean acreage increased, in part, because soybean yields have increased at a lower rate than those of feed grains. Also, we have raised the protein content of feed over time, increasing animal efficiency in the process and reducing the acreage needed for feed grains.

With the decline in total acreage of feed crops needed for our animal feeds, we have also seen a major decline in the percentage of plantings of those key crops that are used for U.S. feed production. In the 1960s it took about 80 percent of our harvested acres of these crops for our domestic feed production; in the last few years that percentage has been slightly more than 50 percent, or a nearly 30-point decline.

While reducing land used for feed crop production may seem like quite an achievement, it is very far from the whole story. What is missing is the fact that while we were reducing land used, we also saw the increases in both the U.S. population that were mentioned above, along with even larger percentage increases in total meat and poultry product production.


It took an average of almost 0.6 acres per person to produce enough feed for our meat, dairy and poultry production in 1961. In 2005, that statistic has dropped to about 0.27 acres. In other words, today it takes less than half as much land on a per-person basis to produce our meat, dairy and poultry supply than was the case in 1960/61.

Again, this is not the total story. Along with increases in population our U.S. production of meat and poultry has also increased, even faster than the population. More of that production is exported now than was the case in 1960, and it is consumed elsewhere, but it is still consumed.

In 2005 each ton of production took about one-third the land that was needed in the early 1960s. The decrease is a result of both increasing crop yields and decreases in the average amount of feed needed to produce a given amount of meat and poultry.

Corrected for both population and meat production growth, the land needed for our meat and poultry supply has shrunk dramatically over the past 45 years. Where did that land go? Much of it is used today for producing crops for export or ethanol. Some of it has gone back to nature. From 1990 to 2005, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that the total land in forests in the U.S. increased from 738 million to 749 million acres. Increases in agricultural productivity are what make this possible.

Resource use consequences of organic and natural production systems
If we examine the organic food industry from the point of view of cost, the higher overall resource use of organic production is abundantly obvious. In competitive markets, and agriculture is about as price competitive as it gets, prices reflect costs, and costs directly reflect total resource use. As the Organic Trade Association admits, “While the retail price of organic meat is generally greater than conventional, to many consumers, the greater peace of mind is priceless.” How much is the value of the additional resources needed for this “priceless” system’s products worth in the niche organic market?

The added cost, price and thus resource use numbers can be quite revealing. An organic beef packer in northern California on December 29, 2006 was advertising organic beef tenderloin at $41.50 per pound, plus shipping and handling. On the other end of their price scale, the packer’s 90 percent-lean organic hamburger was priced at $7.00 per pound. Local grocery store prices for these same beef cuts were $9.99 and $3.44 (93 percent lean) on the same day. In this one instance the cost, and thus total resource use, of an organic beef production system is 4.2 to 2.0 times that of beef produced with the benefits of modern technology.

Other comparisons from a local grocery store, made on 12/29/06, show the same general price, and thus resource use, advantage for modern technology farming for a wide variety of meat, dairy, egg and vegetable products. While the difference may reflect more than just cost of production and resource use, it does show the kind of extreme prices that may be needed by organic producers to cover all their costs. Again, from an economic efficiency viewpoint, as revealed by the price premiums needed for profitability, organic technology is incredibly resource- intensive relative to conventional agricultural systems.

Efficiency increases in beef and dairy production have conserved resources
Over the last 50 years, the cattle industry has raised an increasing proportion of the beef supply in feedlots rather than on pasture and range land. A major impact of agricultural technology has been on the amount of land needed to produce the feed required for cattle feedlots. Given the large increases in the fed beef supply since the 1950s, most would assume that the amount of land needed to produce increased amounts of feedlot beef has increased, but, in fact, this is not the case.

Through a combination of yield increases for feed crops and more efficient use of feed by feedlot cattle since 1955, we have actually increased beef produced in feedlots by almost 200 percent, while slightly reducing the acreage of corn needed to produce that larger fed beef supply. What is really remarkable is that the corn content of rations also increased significantly since 1955. Acreage needed to produce roughage also decreased markedly. Technology has enabled producers to become significantly more productive. We are using fewer cows, fewer farms, fewer farmers and less land to produce a growing milk supply.

Production systems and global agricultural land availability
In 1961 each person on the planet had, on average, 1.03 acres of food crops harvested for their food supply. In 2006 we each had about 0.55 acres. By 2050 the average will be only about 0.4 acres per person, and that assumes that we can, in the face of urbanization, actually keep total acreage at current levels for the next 42 years.

It’s very simple – unless productivity increases offset fewer acres per person, food production per person is going to decline. If productivity does not keep pace with (or perhaps due to increased demand even increase faster than) global population, the pressure will be to increase global food production acreage. The problem is that there is no reserve of highly productive land that is available to be brought into production. Land that can be brought into agriculture is mostly in environmentally sensitive areas and would be costly to farm.

On a global basis we also must continue to increase the productivity of the animals we raise for the food supply. As stated by the FAO Animal Production and Health Division, “FAO and other institutions suggest that global production of animal products will rise impressively over the next 20 years. The growth in demand for livestock products suggests that there will be a consequent rise in demand for animal feed, not only of cereals but of other feeds and particularly proteins.”

“Improving productivity is the key to increasing livestock production in the developing world. This requires proper animal husbandry: feeding, housing, health and breeding practices.”

Simply put – in the U.S. and globally – without increasing production per acre and improved animal efficiency we will need more acres in farms. Where would that land come from? Forests? Swamplands? Meadows? The Conservation Reserve Program? Unfarmed hillsides? Deserts? Biofuel production? Our parks and recreation areas?

As long as population and food demand are growing, and they will for at least the next 50 years, farmers and scientists will have to continue to look for ways to grow more food on each increasingly precious acre. Included in that efficiency calculation is the conversion of feed to animal-based products. We need to make sure that our farmers here in the U.S. and around the world have the tools, the incentives and the freedoms to farm as productively as possible.

Modern agriculture and its supporting organizations need to think seriously about the response to those who, in the name of conservation, insist that we need to abandon the technology that has enabled us to affordably feed the world’s increasing population.

Unless agriculture is willing to proactively make its case for the use of high yield technology to feed the world, those who favor resource conservation and efficiency run the risk of losing the battle for the hearts and minds of a large portion of the consuming public. To do so would result in less global food production per person, higher food costs and a lower standard of living. PD

References omitted but are available upon request at

—Excerpts from 22nd Annual Southwest Nutrition and Management Conference Proceedings