What Can We Do About Environmental Impacts of Cattle Feedlots?

I 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 the environmental impacts of cattle feedlots. 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.

environmental impacts of cattle feedlots

What environmental impacts of cattle feedlots are there?

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

These regulations make sense because we (farmers) want to be good stewards of the land and our resources. Having guidelines as a place to start on how to manage the environmental impacts of cattle feedlots and having so many animals in one place 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.

environmental impacts of cattle feedlots
Aerial view of a cattle feedlot where I worked in Texas

How environmental impacts of cattle feedlots addressed?

Nutrient management is a large part of any CAFO. When there are large numbers of animals in a concentrated area, a large number 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.

environmental impacts of cattle feedlots

Dust from Cattle Feedlots

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.

environmental impacts of cattle feedlots

Water in Cattle Feedlots

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, where solids will be 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 no water that runs off during a rainstorm.

cattle feedlot CAFO manure management

Manure in Cattle Feedlots

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.

Other Environmental Impacts of Cattle Feedlots

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.

The 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 CAFO 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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