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.

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