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Resource use and greenhouse gas emissions from grain-finishing beef cattle in seven Australian feedlots: a life cycle assessment

Wiedemann, Stephen, Davis, Rod, McGahan, Eugene, Murphy, Caoilinn, Redding, Matthew
Animal production science 2017 v.57 no.6 pp. 1149-1162
arable soils, beef cattle, breeding, cradle-to-gate, domestic markets, energy, environmental impact, exports, feed conversion, feedlots, finishing, fossil fuels, freshwater, gate-to-gate, grasses, greenhouse gas emissions, greenhouse gases, irrigation, irrigation water, land use change, liveweight gain, methane, milling, regression analysis, slaughter, slaughter weight, supply chain, water stress, Australia
Grain finishing of cattle has become increasingly common in Australia over the past 30 years. However, interest in the associated environmental impacts and resource use is increasing and requires detailed analysis. In this study we conducted a life cycle assessment (LCA) to investigate impacts of the grain-finishing stage for cattle in seven feedlots in eastern Australia, with a particular focus on the feedlot stage, including the impacts from producing the ration, feedlot operations, transport, and livestock emissions while cattle are in the feedlot (gate-to-gate). The functional unit was 1 kg of liveweight gain (LWG) for the feedlot stage and results are included for the full supply chain (cradle-to-gate), reported per kilogram of liveweight (LW) at the point of slaughter. Three classes of cattle produced for different markets were studied: short-fed domestic market (55–80 days on feed), mid-fed export (108–164 days on feed) and long-fed export (>300 days on feed). In the feedlot stage, mean fresh water consumption was found to vary from 171.9 to 672.6 L/kg LWG and mean stress-weighted water use ranged from 100.9 to 193.2 water stress index eq. L/kg LWG. Irrigation contributed 57–91% of total fresh water consumption with differences mainly related to the availability of irrigation water near the feedlot and the use of irrigated feed inputs in rations. Mean fossil energy demand ranged from 16.5 to 34.2 MJ lower heating values/kg LWG and arable land occupation from 18.7 to 40.5 m2/kg LWG in the feedlot stage. Mean greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the feedlot stage ranged from 4.6 to 9.5 kg CO2-e/kg LWG (excluding land use and direct land-use change emissions). Emissions were dominated by enteric methane and contributions from the production, transport and milling of feed inputs. Linear regression analysis showed that the feed conversion ratio was able to explain >86% of the variation in GHG intensity and energy demand. The feedlot stage contributed between 26% and 44% of total slaughter weight for the classes of cattle fed, whereas the contribution of this phase to resource use varied from 4% to 96% showing impacts from the finishing phase varied considerably, compared with the breeding and backgrounding. GHG emissions and total land occupation per kilogram of LWG during the grain finishing phase were lower than emissions from breeding and backgrounding, resulting in lower life-time emissions for grain-finished cattle compared with grass finishing.