Ask A Farmer: What is a cattle feedlot?

Cattle on the trail in the feedlot

What is a factory farm? What is a CAFO? What is a feedlot? These and numerous other questions are some that I receive on a weekly basis pertaining to cattle production. I have spent most of my life becoming better acquainted with many aspects of cattle production. Over the next several posts, I hope to share some insight from my experience in one of the most intensively managed stages of cattle production.

Next to reproduction, nutrition is probably my favorite area of cattle production. Even as a kid in elementary school, I had calves in the barn lot that my dad put me in charge of feeding. My family managed a large cattle ranch with over 12,000 head of cattle on annual basis. Most of these cattle, when they left our ranch, went to the Panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma to be fed out and turned into the beef that is on our plates.

During college, I spent a summer working as a management intern for Cactus Feeders, which at the time was the largest cattle feeding operation in the country. Apparently, I did not get my fill of cattle feeding and went to work for the now-largest cattle feeding company in the country, JBS Five Rivers, as a cattle-receiving manager after finishing my bachelor’s degree.

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations

Many folks refer to factory farms as a part of modern livestock production. For years, we in agriculture have known these as Concentrated (Confined) Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO).

The USDA, EPA, NRCS, and other government agencies have defined Animal Feeding Operations.

An operation is defined as an animal feeding operation, or AFO, if the facility confines, stables, or feeds animals for 45 days or more in a 12-month period and a ground cover of vegetation is not sustained over at least 50 percent of the confinement area.

An operation is defined as a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, if it meets the definition of an animal feeding operation (above) and also confines more than 1,000 animal units (1,000 animal units is equal to 2,500 swine; 100,000 broilers; 700 dairy cows; or 1,000 beef steers).

In the cattle business, these CAFOs are known as feedlots, interchangeable with feedyard. Feedlots are the final stage of production prior to slaughter with a focus on efficient growth and weight gain of the animals. This is achieved by providing a readily digestible, high-energy diet; reducing the amount of energy expended to find food, directing more toward growth, and managing the cattle to minimize stress and health problems.

Feedlot and Mill in Dalhart, Texas

When and how did cattle feedlots begin?

In the 1800s, grain farmers were looking for a market for excess grains and the ability to provide year-round employment for farm workers. Farmers began feeding the grains to livestock and soon realized the increased value in grain finished beef. Urban demand for this beef continued to grow at the Civil War and farmers began expanding their efforts. As population centers began to expand and transportation became more reliable, farmers soon moved closer to the grain producing areas of the country; primarily the Mid-West.

Around the 1950s, cattle feeding began to grow and centralize in the High Plains states. The arid climate was ideal for finish feeding fat cattle, irrigation enabled farming of grain and forage crops, and relocation of slaughter houses made the region perfect for the growing business away from population centers. Today most cattle feedlots reside from West Texas, through the Oklahoma Panhandle, Western Kansas and Nebraska, and Colorado.

Present day location of cattle finished on grain feeds

Are cattle feedlots considered factory farms?

Cattle feedlots and other CAFOs are considered to be factory farms by many in the animal rights movements. These operations may not be the picturesque red-barn farm, but they are not factories. There have been many misperceptions created about feedlots, which are often referred as synonymous with corporate agriculture. Yes, the feedlots I have worked for were owned by large companies, but most feedlots are owned and operated by family farmers. These feedlots are operated by people just like me, not large corporations out for the almighty dollar.

Holstein steers in a Texas Feedlot

Those who are set on painting the image of factory farms harp on the negative and misrepresent the facts when it comes to CAFOs. Truth is, we do care about animal welfare and good stewardship of our environment and resources. Every animal receives individual, consistent care on a daily basis, even on these large farms. As the amount of land for agricultural use continues to decrease, and the global population continues to increase, these good stewardship principles become ever more so important.

Stay tuned…

Over the next few weeks, I will share my thoughts on concentrated animal feeding operations, specifically cattle feedlots. I will share some insight from my hands-on experience pertaining to animal welfare, antibiotic use, environmental impact and regulation, describe more about how cattle are treated and fed in a feedlot, and address the question “Is there a better option for beef production?”

If you have any questions about CAFOs or cattle feedlots, please leave your concerns in the comments section below or utilize the contact form in the Ask A Farmer tab at the top of the page.


  1. Ryan,

    I am so pleased that you are doing this series of posts. If I can help in any way, please let me know.

    It is so important for feed yards to be open and transparent so that our beef customers can have insight into “where their beef comes from”. I hope that some readers might also visit my FeedyardFoodie blog to see how I care for cattle and raise beef at my feed yard in Nebraska.

    Thanks for starting the conversation!

    1. Thanks Anne! I might take ya up on that. I have received several questions from folks about feeding cattle and feedlots. When I sat down and started writing it just started flowing, so I reckon it’ll make a good series.

  2. My husband, Augie Velisek, raised Angus cattle because he loved doing it. He also managed a 3,000 head beef feedlot for 22 years, less than 40 miles from Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, Md., which he also enjoyed. He said working with the feedlot made him a better cattleman because he was also dealing with the end product.
    The feedlot was a family-owned operation and part of a 2,500 acre farming operation. Our children and the owner’s children all participated in 4-H, showing heifers and steers at local, regional and national shows. We both had our own small breeding herd also.
    4-H was an exceptional learning experience and taught the children many life lessons including that ones charges must be well cared for and treated well or they wouldn’t produce, both breeding stock and those on feed.
    The cattle raised in the feedlot went to mostly local processing plants. They were fed rations developed scientifically and through much experience and were only given antibiotics and other medications if ill and in need of them. They were mostly graded Prime and High Choice. They were watched over every day and always had plenty of water and protection from the elements. They were never mistreated and were protected from predators. My husband did not allow any use of cattle prods or other devices that would cause discomfort to the cattle. Our breeding herd was handled just as carefully.
    We welcomed visitors and often had school children bussed in to learn about where their food comes from.
    We loved our cattle and loved working with them.

  3. I should have added the owner of the feedlot was a fourth generation farmer and he worked on the farm as well. Also that my husband had managed fairly large purebred operations of up to 850 brood cows, before he managed the feedlot.

  4. Great Job Ryan,

    I have been looking forward to this series and you have a awesome start going here. Hopefully people will learn and keep an open mind. As I said great post and looking forward to the rest but two points of concern in your post. This may be a bit too picky and possibly I am just over thinking it but one line “These feedlots are operated by people just like me, not large corporations out for the almighty dollar.” First point is I guess is that it seems everyone wants to demonize any entity that is a “corporation”. I guess as a small rancher but who operates as a family “corporation” it just seems to have become a buzzword that people love to hate on.

    Second point is this, when did it become such a BAD thing to make a dollar in this country. I absolutely agree that in some cases the dollar has become the “almighty” and that is sad but making a profit from an honest, entrepreneurial, and hard work business for an individual or a corporation used to be looked at with reverence and respect. Now it seems that if a person is not unemployed and living in the street they must clearly be involved in some kind of shady business.

    Looking forward to the rest of the series and thank you so much for all you do to promote agriculture and educate consumers!

  5. How can cattle fed on grain and antibiotics possibly be good when cattle by nature are to be raised on grass…there is no way anyone even you can convince me other wise..that is why the world especially americans are obese men with a huge gut looking as if pregnant…it is unnatural to raise cows any other way then to grass feed….only thing I sees is greed and gluttony for meat …no matter to how extreme and cruel it is to those animals…horror to me

    1. My boyfriend and I were on our way to Colorado and unfortunately we had to drive through Nebraska. This was my first exposure to a “feedlot”…. my eyes immediately welled up with tears. Cows are beautiful, curious creatures with feelings. Why do they have to live like that? Overcrowed areas, standing in their own feces and urine all the time. They can’t even walk around. Just trying to fatten them up, then send them to slaughter.. What a crappy life. I hope everyone who runs a feedlot comes back to life as a cow in their next life. Such bs.

  6. I’m astounded, and at the same time I am not shocked that this person(author of this series and his followers) would write an article of this matter.
    Well of course you are going to say that CAFOS are humane because that is the business that you are in, and you share the same characteristic of any person that exploits and abuses animals, and that is that you Sir are greedy, and ignorant. You have no respect for life, and the dignity it merits. You sugar coat ,and dress up your views and make yourself seem as the savior to these animals. You are a murderer!
    I truly believe that you get what you give, and sir you will one day feel the misery and anguish that these living beings are subjected to from you, and any industry that makes its profit out of the murder, experimentation, and exploitation of animals.

    – And how can you say you love something, when your sole purpose is to slaughter them, and this is the way you earn a living. I see you no differently from drug dealer, actually I think your worst. Your industry ruins lives a,ruins this earth ,and creates disease.

    I hope one day you you will see the wrongs that you are committing, and change your ways.Instead of investing your time on trying to justify the disgusting nature of your motivations.

    PS. AG GAG IS UNCONSTITUTIONAL! I wish animals could speak because of they did …..I’m sure they would not share your views. But hey its not surprising people like you thrive on raping this earth of its resources, and its mute beings, and then you(and the women that posted-Caryl) have the nerve to claim that you love them. Please do not use the word love to describe a business such as yours since its roots are clearly grounded in greed.

  7. I am almost finished with my Bachelors in Animal Production from Tarleton State and my goal is to obtain employment in a feed yard as a management trainee. This article just reaffirms my goal. I never had cattle growing up but have put myself in positions over the years to be around them as much as possible and learn what I can. Thank you for writing this article. I have many friends including my wife who ask why I want to work in a feed yard and this article just gives them a glimpse of what a feedlot is all about. Hopefully and lord willing I will be given an opportunity to pursue this dream. Thank you for what you do in support of Agriculture. Many people don’t understand why things are done a certain way and as agriculturists it is our responsibility to inform them.

    Patrick Holloway
    Aspiring future colleague

  8. as a child we always raised our own food. I have not been to a modern farm of any kind in about 60 years. I would like to see how things are done today. I remember egg farms of 1000 hens as large or a dairy heard where everything was done by hand twice a day. I am curious

  9. I wish the opposition posts heretofore were worded a bit more intelligently so as to be part of the dialogue instead of vilifying the blogger. I guess my problem with the purpose of feedlots is the rapid weight gain with deliberate lack of space to move around. It is not a natural state for an animal to be in and it can’t be too comfortable. I understand a business, any business has to be profitable. I’d like to see more talk of alternatives to achieve that goal that also provide a better quality of life, the whole life, of the animal. There has to be a better way. That is my prayer anyway. Note that as someone who is heading in the vegetarian/vegan direction, I do not make my neighbor wrong in any way for not doing the same. God bless all!!

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