Recently there has been a spate of articles celebrating the supposed ecological virtues of free-ranging, "grass-fed" beef as opposed to grain-fed cattle. Consumers are being told that grass-fed beef is ecologically and ethically superior to livestock fattened in feedlots. Who is to say whether beef cattle that are castrated, branded with a hot iron, and forced to search for scraps of grass under a blazing sun or survive the wind and snow of a winter blizzard are "happier" than cows standing shoulder to shoulder at a feeding trough? We will allow others to debate the ethics of beef production. However, there is no denying that grass-fed beef has numerous unavoidable ecological impacts, rendering suspect the claim that grass-fed beef is somehow a desirable alternative to other production methods.
Most of the public mistakenly believes that grass-fed cattle are fed their whole lives by grazing rolling hills of grassy pastureland. In fact, grass-fed cattle typically rely on hay and other feed in winter and other times of the year, and especially during periods of drought. Hay production usually requires the conversion of entire valleys into fields of exotic grasses with an equal and simultaneous loss of native vegetation. In Montana, for example, hay fields make up more than 5.5 million acres or 6 percent of the state, a sizeable commitment to supplemental forage production.
Hay fields must be irrigated, which is typically done by dewatering streams or through ground water pumping. Both reduce the flow of surface water, negatively affecting aquatic ecosystems. Sometimes entire streams and rivers are completely dewatered, leaving fish and other aquatic species high and dry. Often small fish will attempt to escape dwindling streams in (or are otherwise "sucked" into) irrigation canals where they are trapped and die, frequently killing most of the annual recruitment into the population.
Whether on private or public lands, grass-fed livestock cause widespread damage to western ecosystems:
Anyone who suggests grass-fed beef is superior to grain-fed beef is only considering a fraction of the real costs of beef production. Whether grain-fed or grass-fed, beef production is an ecological disaster for the American West.
Finally, most "grass-fed" cattle are "finished" at feedlots on "grain" (mainly corn and chemical supplements), as mosts consumers do not actually favor the flavor of grass-fed beef.