Optimizing diet and pasture management to improve sustainability of U.S. beef production.


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System sustainability balances environmental impact, economic viability and social acceptability. Assessment methods to investigate impacts of enterprise management and consumer decisions on sustainability of beef cattle operations are critically needed. Tools of this nature are especially important given the predictions of climate variability and the dependence of beef production systems on forage availability. A model optimizing nutritional and pasture management was created to examine the environmental impact of beef production. The model integrated modules calculating cradle-to-farm gate environmental impact, diet cost, pasture growth and willingness to pay (WTP). Least-cost diet and pasture management options served as a baseline to which environmental-impact reducing scenarios were compared. Economic viability was ensured by a constraint limiting change in diet cost to less than consumer WTP. Increased WTP was associated with improved social acceptability. Model outputs were evaluated by comparing to published data. Sensitivity analysis of the WTP constraint was conducted. A series of scenarios then examined how forecasted changes in precipitation patterns might alter forage supply and opportunities to reduce environmental impact in three regions in the United States. On a national scale, single-objective optimization indicated individual reductions in greenhouse gases (GHG), land use and water use of 3.6%, 5.4% and 4.3% were possible by changing diets. Multi-objective optimization demonstrated that GHG, land and water use could be simultaneously reduced by 2.3%. To achieve this change, cow–calf diets relied on grass hay, continuously- or rotationally-grazed irrigated and fertilized pasture as well as rotationally-grazed pasture. Stocker diets used rotationally-grazed, irrigated and fertilized pasture and feedlot diets used grass hay as a forage source. The model was sensitive to consumer WTP. When alternative precipitation patterns were simulated, opportunities to decrease the environmental impact of beef production in the Pacific Northwest and Texas were reduced by precipitation changes; whereas opportunities in the Midwest improved. Economic viability, rather than biological limitations, reduced the potential to improve environmental impact under future precipitation scenarios. Decreased spring rainfall resulted in lower pasture yields and required greater use of stored forages. Related increases in diet cost reduced opportunities to appropriate funds toward investment in environmental-impact reducing pasture management strategies. The model developed in this study is a robust tool that can be used to assess the impacts of enterprise management and consumer decisions on beef production sustainability.