The Thirstiest Crop

Part of the Water: H2O = Life exhibition.

Beef: A thirsty “crop”

What's the link between beef and water? All told, it can take 2,300 liters (600 gallons) of water to produce 150 grams (one-third of a pound) of beef for a large hamburger. Most of the water required to raise any livestock animal is not what the animal drinks, but what's needed to grow its food.

By the Numbers

A single, grain-fed steer typically eats more than 1,300 kilograms (2,870 pounds) of corn, soy, and other grain in its lifetime.

Ancient, Underground Water

For decades, farmers in the Great Plains of the U.S. have drawn water for corn and other crops from the Ogallala Aquifer (in green, left), an immense underground supply of ancient water that took millions of years to form. People are drawing out roughly 12 billion gallons a day from the Ogallala Aquifer—so despite its immense size, some areas are beginning to run dry. In Texas, the water level has already dropped more than 40 feet.

cattle trough

Industrial beef

Most of America's beef cattle spend several months being fattened in industrial feedlots (photo), where each animal is fed more than a ton of food—most of it corn. While feedlots may be efficient at producing beef quickly, waste from cattle feedlots, and from industrial pig, chicken and dairy feeding operations, can pollute underlying groundwater and nearby streams.

Environmentally friendly solution

Instead of “finishing” cattle on grain in feedlots, we could feed grass to our beef cattle for their entire lives. This would lessen water needed for irrigating feed crops. And since grass-fed beef cattle graze over large areas, their manure is distributed across entire pastures, reducing the risk of water pollution.