CAFOs* Feed The World

*Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation

Scenario 1:
1.6 million beings are crowded into 23 square miles. This is an occupation rate of 108.9 beings per acre. These beings must provide their own food, shelter and medical care. They live on top of each other in small concrete boxes with little or no outdoor access.

Scenario 2:
100,000 beings are crowded into 800 acres (1.25 square miles). This is a occupation rate of 125 beings per acre. These beings are provided with food and medical care. They live outside in the fresh air and have plenty of companionship.

Can you guess what we’re talking about? Scenario 1 is Manhattan Island, and Scenario 2 is the size and capacity of some of the larger feedlots in the United States. It helps put the livestock industry into perspective compared to how humanity lives.


Some cows at a feedlot. Yes, it’s a lot of cows, but they’re happy being together. Photo source

Large feedlots, also known as a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) often receive a negative portrayal in the media, such as:  they pollute the environment, the animals are neglected and mistreated, the beef is not high-quality, etc, etc, etc. In reality, CAFOs are highly regulated, extremely efficient meat-producing operations that take pride in the cleanliness of their feedlots, the health of their animals, and the quality of the final product, BEEF!

Today we’ll learn more about a feedlot, which is a beef-producing CAFO. Feedlots range in size from several hundred animals to over 100,000 animals. Small and mid-sized feedlots make up the majority of feedlots in the United States and are predominately owned and operated by families. Larger feedlots are more typically owned and operated by corporations, like the large feedlot in Grand View, Idaho that is run by the Simplot Company.


An aerial view of a large feedlot. Cattle pens are on the left, silage or manure compost rows on the top right, and wastewater pools in the lower right. A good, clean operation. Photo source

Feedlots must comply with multiple county, state, and federal regulations to manage animal waste, animal health, and meat output. Feedlots are subject to inspections by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and by other state and federal organizations. These inspections ensure the health and safety of the environment, the animals, and the meat coming from the animals on the lot.

Feedlot operators place a high emphasis on sustainability, animal health, and quality meat, and work to provide the animals in their care with the 5 Freedoms of Cattle. The 5 Freedoms were established in 1979 in the United Kingdom, and have since been adopted by the World Organization for Animal Health, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and multiple other organizations. The established 5 Freedoms of Cattle are as follows:

  • Freedom from thirst, hunger, and malnutrition – by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor
  • Freedom from discomfort – by providing a suitable environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area
  • Freedom from pain, injury, and disease – by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment
  • Freedom to express normal bovine behavior – by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animals’ own kind (herd mates)
  • Freedom from fear and distress — by ensuring conditions that avoid mental suffering

A feedlot that aims to provide these freedoms for their cattle sound pretty good, right? Right! Feedlot cattle live in large outdoor pens, and always have access to food, clean water, and quality veterinary care. While their purpose in life is to eventually be turned into a tasty burger or steak, the life they live up until that point is as comfortable as possible.

A question some of you may have is: why don’t the cattle have shelter? Well, beef animals are bred to be outside on the open range and can withstand snow, freezing temperatures, rain, and all sorts of inclement weather. Feedlots often provide windbreaks, which are walls that the cattle can gather behind to get out of the wind. The cows grow thick coats of hair in the cold months, and press together to share body warmth.

Another common question or misconception is that cattle in feedlots are there for their entire lives. In reality, the amount of time a beef animal spends in a feedlot is very short, around 3-4 months. Prior to that, the animals are on pasture, grazing to their heart’s content. When the animals weigh around 700-800 pounds, the rancher will start teaching them how to eat out of a feed bunk by giving them yummy grain.

Cattle On The Range

Cattle On The Range. This is how cattle spend most of their lives! Photo source

When a cow first enters a feedlot, they are inspected by a veterinarian, and are given vaccinations so they don’t get sick. They get a new ear tag to identify where they came from and what feedlot pen they’re going to live in. Then, they’re started on a diet of grasses and legumes like they were used to before slowly transitioning to a diet of high-energy grain and grain by-products that will help the animals pack on  400-500 pounds over the next few months.

The grains in the animals’ feed includes corn, oats, barley, sorghum, and corn or wheat silage. Silage is the entire plant, and include the stalk, leaves, and grain kernel. It had been harvested early, while it had a high moisture content and before drying out.  Then the wet, chopped silage is packed into a tight, enclosed space, causing it to ferment. The different grains are mixed up with silage and fed two or three times each day. Cattle looooove it!


Silage being fermented in a concrete bunker. It can also be stored in those long, white catepillar-y looking things you see. Photo source.

The use of antibiotics in beef cattle is another issue that has made some waves in the media lately. The perception is that cattle in feedlots are being given tons of antibiotics to help them grow, and that antibiotic residues are in the meat. Some large (100,000+cattle) feedlot operations do use a class of antibiotics called ionophores. While they do increase growth, they also have health benefits to the cattle that are overlooked, like preventing bloat and acidosis, both of which can happen quickly, are extremely painful, and are often fatal.

Another way antibiotics are used in large feedlot operations is by feeding medicated feed. This is typically only used at certain periods of time, like when the cows rations are being changed, or when a large number of animals are sick at the same time.

Injectable antibiotics are used to prevent bovine respiratory disease, for brand-new calves who have come through a sale barn and have been in contact with lots of other animals, or when an animal is sick with a disease or infection.

BT Vaccination Backgrounder Cattle 2

A beef animal getting a vaccination to keep it healthy and strong. Photo source

Sick cattle are removedfrom their pens and taken to a sick-pen for treatment. Usually animals respond after one treatment, although they may require several depending on the severity of their condition.


Cowboys ride the pens checking on cattle at Chappel Feedlot. They keep a sharp lookout for sick or injured animals.   Photo source

The FDA regulations disallow any antibiotic residues into our meat supply. Each antibiotic has a specific withdrawal date, which is the number of days it takes for the medicine to get completely out of the animals system. Feedlots are highly computerized, so when an animal is treated, all of the information is recorded in the computer. When a pen of animals is headed to the butcher, each animal in that pen is checked against the computer, and those who have not yet met their withdrawal date are pulled out and held back.

It is also very important to note that cattle get sick very easily, especially when so many live together.  However, the health problems that feedlot cattle face are also very common among cattle out on the open range.

Another common perception about feedlots is that they’re “factory farms” and unsustainable.  This is simply not true. While a feedlot can be a huge operation, the animals are free to roam about their pens, take a nap in the sun, hang out with their cow buddies, get a drink of fresh water, and help themselves to abundant, tasty feed. When they’re sick, they get taken care of, and when it’s time to go fulfill their purpose in life, their caretakers ensure that they’re healthy, clear of antibiotics, and that the meat they will provide will be tasty for the consumer. Definitely not a factory farm, whatever that is….

As far as sustainability, well, it sounds nice to want to have 100,000 cattle finished on grass, but that would require millions of acres of pasture to produce the same amount of beef, and it would take a longer period of time, which, when we’re trying to feed the world, is just not sustainable! For efficient beef production, it is more cost-effective and efficient to sow grain on the expensive, valuable farmland, then to feed that to the cattle in the feedlot.

Another concern is the impact feedlots have on the environment. Many people think that feedlot operators dump their waste into our rivers and streams. In actuality, there are very, very stringent regulations on how cattle manure is dealt with in order to protect our water and air. Ranchers want to take good care of their land, and good care of their animals. CAFOs must prevent any air or water pollution, have buffer zones, not allow discharge to run off the property, and have nutrient management plans in place.

The main air concern is dust, kicked up by thousands of cattle feet. Since many large feedlots are in arid areas, dust can indeed be a problem. Feedlots deal with this by regularly cleaning the pens, and by employing sprinkler systems to wet down the dirt.

For run-off control, which is when water carrying waste trickles off the property, the pens, alleys, and waterways are engineered so that all water is directed to big ponds. The solids in the water settle to the bottom, and are periodically cleaned out and applied to farmers’ fields, while the clean water is used for irrigation. There are also buffer zones surrounding feedlots so that any water that does get away stays on the property.

The manure created by a large number of cattle is the third main environmental concern people have about feedlots. The animals’ pens are cleaned regularly to avoid a build-up of manure, and the waste is collected, composted, and then often sold to farmers in the area to apply to their fields. Talk about sustainability!

A feedlot is our modern way of raising safe, delicious beef very efficiently, cost-effectively, and most importantly, humanely. The beef life cycle that has been developed over the centuries gives the cattle an excellent, natural life.  Although detractors may claim that feedlot cattle are neglected, pumped full of antibiotics and are poisoning the environment, that could not be further from the truth – that’s the hysterical media again, selling air-time.

Do bad things, like abuse and neglect happen on some feedlots? Well, yes, unfortunately those things do occur on some feedlots. But feedlot operators who allow those things to go on are a small minority, and give their counterparts a horrible image with consumers. The vast majority of feedlot operators are committed to keeping their animals healthy, safe, happy, full of good feed, and in protecting the environment, while producing great food at the same time!


Feedlot with shade structures. Note that the cattle are provided very large areas in which to move and roam around.

As the world’s population increases, demand for affordable, nutritious food will increase as well. We must be able to meet that demand, and CAFO’s, where animals are gathered to be fed and prepared for consumption in the most efficient, humane way possible will be increasingly important. It sounds idyllic when anti-CAFO detractors describe a cow’s right to spend its entire life on grass, however to feed the world, that is nothing but a dream. For the few months it spends in a feedlot, a beef animal has companionship, space to move about, abundant food, and experienced, caring management.

Do you have any questions about a beef cow’s life cycle, about vaccines and antibiotics, or anything else? Please let us know and we’ll have our rancher friends tell all!

Information in this article came from multiple great websites, including Agriculture Proud, Feedyard Foodie, and Safe Food.  There is a TON more really great information from these sources, so please take some time to do some reading and really educate yourself about how our beef/lamb/chicken/pork is produced.


Feedyard Foodie

What do feedlot cattle eat?

How are antibiotics used in feedlots?

Feedlots and the Environment

Safe Food, Inc


This entry was posted in Ag Production, Beef, Feeding the World, Livestock Production, Ranchers and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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