Ask a Farmer: Cattle Feedlots and the Environment


cattle feedlot CAFO feed millI had an interesting conversation with a young woman from a Journalism class a few weeks ago who asked to interview me about Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) in livestock production, specifically environmental concerns. A Meat Science professor had recommended me since I have spent most of my life acquainted with cattle feeding – my family took care of more than 12,000 head of cattle per year and sent most to the feedlots of Texas and Oklahoma – and I have worked for the two largest cattle feeding companies in the country.

What impact do CAFOs have on the environment?

Government has a heavy role in AFO/CAFOs for the purpose of environmental regulations. AFOs must prevent any air or water pollution, no discharge (run off) is allowed, buffer zones must be observed, and nutrient management plans must be specified. View this guide from Missouri Department of Natural Resources for more information on guidelines and classification of AFOs.

Texas cattle feedlot environment
Aerial view of a cattle feedlot where I worked in Texas

These regulations make sense because we (farmers) want to be good stewards of the land and our resources. By having guidelines as a place to start on how to manage the impact of having so many animals in one place, and it defines a level of accountability for everyone across the board. From a small, family AFO to the largest operation, we are all held accountable by the same standard when it comes to environmental impact.

Sometimes folks try to take shortcuts or slack on following these guidelines. They leave a black eye for the rest of the industry because in today’s world of internet communication and food conversations, news spreads quickly without being fact-checked and one bad apple ruins the entire bunch. Most often, these issues are addressed by regulation enforcers and the problem corrected.

How do cattle feedlots address environmental concerns?

Nutrient management is a large part of any CAFO. When there are large numbers of animals in a concentrated area, a large amount of nutrients – feed, dust, water, manure – will be present. This is the same for concentrated populations of people, but we do not realize all of the planning that takes place to manage our own waste in landfills and sewage treatment.

texas cattle feedlot dust CAFO environmentDust – Most cattle feedlots are in more arid regions of the country. This means that manure, mud, and dirt dry out quickly. This is great for the cattle as far as pen conditions and heat stress goes, but it creates an issue with dust. If you have ever been on the High Plains when high winds kick up, you will learn that dirt can become airborne from any exposed surface (pretty much everywhere). Dust issues are a concern when feedlots are near major roadways or towns. Feedlots control dust problems by regularly cleaning pens, scraping any loose mud/dirt out of the pens on a regular schedule, minimizing water collection areas, and using water sprinklers to keep loose dirt moist.

Texas cattle feedlot water CAFO environmentWater – Absolutely no water discharge ran off the premises in the feedlots where I worked. Feedlots are not built on flood-prone areas, for obvious reasons. All water is collected in a collection pond, were solids will settled and water can be used for crop irrigation on neighboring fields. A large amount of planning goes into building a feedlot. Engineers plan the slopes of all the pens, alleys, and waterways so that water will collect in one central point. There is a buffer around the feedlot making sure that there is not water that runs off during a rainstorm.

Texas cattle feedlot manure environment CAFOManure – When there are several thousand animals in a concentrated area, they produce tons of manure. This manure is cleaned from pens on a regular schedule and more often when needed. In many feedlots, pens are built with a raised mound, giving the cattle a dry place to bed down when rainstorms pass or during the messy parts of winter. Being in arid regions allows moisture to dry quickly, so any mud created usually does not last long. The manure is collected, composted, and usually sold to local farmers who apply it as organic fertilizer to their fields.

There are other environmental impacts controlled by regulations (air quality, noise, smell), but these above are the main areas where I have experience. The same goes for poultry, pork, and other livestock farms classified as CAFOs. If you want to learn more, many NRCS and USDA websites contain detailed information.

Bottom line, CAFOs are a method of livestock production that has developed because of market and supply demand. We have a growing global population and decreased amount of land available for food production. For those who cannot afford locally sourced, small-scale, niche food production larger scale food production provides viable options.

Producers of animals on a larger scale are concerned about minimizing their impact on the environment and take steps daily to achieve that. The majority of us exceed expectations determined by the government powers-that be. We work constantly to make improvements and are always a work in progress.

What questions do you have about cattle feedlots? I’m addressing your concerns in my Ask A Farmer series. Leave a comment or use this contact form.

We do care about being stewards of our environment and resources, animal welfare and proper handling. You do not have to agree. All I ask is that you respect my opinion. If you have concerns about how food is produced in CAFOs systems, take time to approach the conversation with an open mind, ask questions of someone with hands-on experience, and learn more about it.

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14 Comments

  1. Awww, feedlots. My husband worked for Cargill in Texas and Western Kansas for almost 10 years. He was a feed manager, a mill manager and a yard manager through those years. Lots of regs to follow, but all for the betterment of the facility, land, animals and the community that the feedlot was located in.

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  2. My husband managed a feedlot about 40 miles from Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. Granted it was not 12,000 head, only 3,000, still a lot of cattle. The land, water and environment, plus the cattle, were all very well cared for. There is a lot of agriculture in this area including some large dairy and beef, sheep and chicken farms, and we are in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and are monitored very closely.

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  3. Aww…yes feedlots…CAFO’s…One of the main contributing factors as to why our beef has to be pumped full of antibiotics. In nature, herd animals move constantly which reduces–almost eliminates–the rise of infection and disease. Couple that with feeding them Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s), like Monsanto GM corn, and you have an extremely unhealthy steak on your plate. But don’t worry…the USDA and the FDA love you…they would never bend to corporate pressure and allow anything dangerous on the market.
    There is certainly not a “revolving door” between corporate seats and government regulatory seats and back again. (Extreme Sarcasm) “There’s nothing to see here…move along!”

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    1. Thanks for the input. We are free to believe/doubt as we wish. This post is simply an excerpt from my life experience. If you have an actual question, I’ll be happy to join in a discussion.

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  4. I’d just like to add that antibiotics are expensive and giving them is time consuming. We only gave them to animals that were ill and needed them. (Just as we do to humans.) If folks don’t want to eat what’s raised by farmers, let them go to the store and get the stuff that’s made in the rear of the store. That makes about as much sense as some of the things some people are saying about how we raise cattle and other livestock. And (don’t laugh) I have actually been told by non-farm kids, that’s where our food comes from. We really need to educate, educate, educate!

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  5. Ryan,
    I am curious about feed requirements in the CAFO. We hear so much negativity about grain being fed to ruminants I would like your thoughts on tue subject. Also, I was on the EPA website (ag101) and they mention cattle usually spend 90-120 days in the feedlot. Basically to go from 700-1100 pounds. Is there a reason they are only kept for a specific number of days? Does the specially formulated CAFO diet effect the health of the cattles rumen like some books say it does?
    Thanks
    Jeremy

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  6. There is a proposal in my area for an 8000 Cow feedlot. You mentioned some give a black eye for all. If the farmer has a violation in 2012 and 2015 totaling fines of 25,000, on a 800 animal lot, should he be allowed to expand? His violations were having twice the number of units he was approved for.

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