Water footprint of livestock: comparison of six geographically defined beef production systems

  • Bradley G. Ridoutt
  • Peerasak Sanguansri
  • Michael Freer
  • Gregory S. Harper



Water use in the livestock sector has featured in the debate about sustainable food systems. Most evidence has come from virtual water calculations which lack impact assessment and adequate consideration of the heterogeneity in livestock production. This study sought new evidence, using a recently developed life cycle impact assessment method for water use to assess six geographically defined beef cattle production systems in New South Wales, Australia, a major production region.


The livestock production systems were diverse in farm practice (grass and feedlot finishing), product (yearling to heavy steers), environment (high-rainfall coastal to semi-arid inland) and local water stress. Life cycle inventories were developed from representative farm enterprise budgets. The farm water use inventories sought to describe the impact of the production system on catchment water resources and included irrigation water use as well as the reduction in flows due to the operation of stock dams.

Results and discussion

The normalised life cycle impact category results for water use, referred to as the water footprint, ranged from 3.3 to 221 L H2Oe kg−1 live weight at farm gate. Due to variation in local water stress, the impact category results were not correlated with the inventory results.


The substantial variability in water footprint between systems indicates that generalisations about livestock and livestock products should be avoided. However, many low input, predominantly non-irrigated, pasture-based livestock production systems have little impact on freshwater resources from consumptive water use, and the livestock have a water footprint similar to many broad-acre cereals. Globally, the majority of beef cattle are raised in non-irrigated mixed farming and grazing systems. Therefore, the general assertion that meat production is a driver of water scarcity is not supported.


Agriculture Environmental labelling Livestock Meat consumption Water footprint Water scarcity Water stress Water use 



We sincerely thank Andrew Moore (CSIRO Plant Industry) who provided expert advice on pasture growth rates in eastern Australia, Robert Young (CSIRO Livestock Industries) who advised on livestock husbandry practices, as well as the feedlot operator who provided data on feed composition and sourcing. This study was jointly funded by Meat and Livestock Australia and CSIRO Sustainable Agriculture National Research Flagship; the authors have exercised complete freedom in designing the research and interpreting the data. Finally, we thank Beverley Henry (Queensland University of Technology), Chris McSweeney (CSIRO Livestock Industries) and Jay Sellahewa (CSIRO Food and Nutritional Sciences) who reviewed the manuscript and made helpful suggestions.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Bradley G. Ridoutt
    • 1
  • Peerasak Sanguansri
    • 2
  • Michael Freer
    • 3
  • Gregory S. Harper
    • 4
  1. 1.Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)Sustainable Agriculture FlagshipVictoriaAustralia
  2. 2.CSIRO Food and Nutritional SciencesVictoriaAustralia
  3. 3.CSIRO Plant IndustryCanberraAustralia
  4. 4.CSIRO Livestock IndustriesSt LuciaAustralia

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