What happens in a cattle feedlot – Explaining Aerial Images

What’s really going on in the feedlots you see on television or in google images?

Google cattle feedlot aerial photos and you come up with a number of results that describe the “horrors of industrial beef”. People like to make these images out to be scary and damaging for conventional cattle operations. Even when an artist shares touched-up aerial shots of feedlots as a piece of art, opponents use them to demonize this way of finish feeding cattle. Some people have said that agriculture wants to ban people from seeing these things or learning about what goes on in a feedlot by using “ag gag” laws. These are things that have inspired me to describe what happens in a feedlot and share that experience with others who haven’t had the opportunity to experience the finish feeding phase of raising beef cattle.

In earlier posts, I’ve described my experiences growing up around  and working in the cattle feedlots of the country. In this post, I’ll walk through several snap shots of what you’re seeing of feedlots through aerial shots on services like google maps. Be sure to refer to my previous and future posts when I describe my daily roles in working in this feedlot.

JBS Five Rivers' Coronado Feeders, Dalhart, Texas
JBS Five Rivers’ Coronado Feeders, Dalhart, Texas

This is an aerial photo of Coronado Feeders outside Dalhart, Texas. I worked here immediately after college and covered every inch of this place on a daily basis. The capacity of this feedlot is approximately 60,000 head of cattle at one time. The offices and feed mill are on the bottom right. The lagoon is on the bottom left corner.  The layout of the feedlot is engineered so that all water drains to the lagoon. Water evaporates and solids are used as fertilizer for local farmers to use on their fields. No water runs off the premises (as required by EPA regulations for CAFOs). The pens where cattle live take up most of the photo. On the top left, you see one of the many crop fields owned by local farmers that surrounds the feedlot. This feedlot is currently owned by JBS Fiver Rivers Cattle Feeding.

shop coronado feeders jbs five rivers dalhart texas

In this photo we see the main entrance to the feedlot. In the center are the offices and feed mill which are connected. In some feedlots, these buildings are completely separate. The offices house the managers offices, cafeteria and automotive shop. The feed mill “batches” (mills or mixes) around 1,500,000 pounds of feed a day. In several yards where I have visited and worked, you can estimate that 40,000 head of cattle will eat just shy of 1,000,000 pounds of feed a day. The silos next to the feed mill store feed ingredients like corn and many byproduct feeds like distillers grains used to make the cattle feed.  There is also tons of alfalfa and wheat hay stored here. To the far right is the silo where silage or wheatlage (harvested from fields owned by local farmers that surround the feedlot) is stored. This is corn or wheat that is harvest in early stages of maturity (before grain kernels are fully formed) and stored at a high moisture and allowed to ferment, which breaks down the cell walls to make the plant contents much easier to digest. This forage is a very important part of the diet for feedlot cattle. Just left of the office buildings are the receiving pens (slanted and smaller rectangles). This is where cattle are unloaded from the trucks when they arrive from farms and ranches all over the country. Most of the cattle in this feedlot arrive from all over Texas and New Mexico. They will stay in these pens to rest, drink water and eat all the hay they want. Then they will be processed in the smaller white barn at the top of the pens. Here they receive vaccinations, hormone implants in the ear, new ear tags and are sorted into three groups according to weight. Once the groups they are being sorted into are complete, they will be moved into their “home pens” which are much larger and are where they will stay during the duration of their stay in the feedlot.

It’s very critical that the cattle are placed under as little stress as possible during this receiving period. This means handling cattle calmly and humanely, making sure they always have access to hay and water, and no running, shouting, yelling, hitting, or slamming of gates which would make the cattle excited and nervous. Stressed cattle are not healthy cattle, so it would do no good to make that happen.

cattle pens coronado feeders jbs five rivers dalhart texas

These are the “home pens” for cattle where they will stay during their entire stay at the feedlot. The small dark spots are cattle. As you can see they are not packed in like sardines. They have plenty of room to move around, exercise, rest, lay down and move. The feed bunks line the paved roads, running left to right in this photo. The water tanks are just behind the feed bunks. Plenty of space is left in the pens so that when it does rain and become muddy, the cattle still have plenty of room to rest on the dry mounds of dirt built in the middle of the pens. This feedlot is in a very arid region of the country. So when it does rain, mud almost always dries within a day or two of rain. The larger dark spots in some of the pens are mud where water has collected. These were older pens and the drainage system needed some work. We adjusted the capacity down on these pens until the work crews were able to fix the problem. With fewer cattle in the pen, they were not forced to stand in any mud that collected. The lighter colored pens are empty. Each pens is cleaned of mud and manure after a set of cattle leave and before a new set arrives.

The small white barn in this photo is a veterinary shack. Each of the 6 sections in this feedlot have a satellite barn where cattle are moved to when they become sick. They would stay in the hospital pens for 3 days after treatment and would go back to their home pens once regaining their appetite, which is a sign of improving health.

shipping pens coronado feeders jbs five rivers dalhart texas

These are the shipping pens on the north side of the feed lot. These are built so that the cattle flow easily in and out of the pens. This is another critical step where it is important that cattle are not stressed. The cowboy pen riders will bring the cattle from their home pens, all of the cattle are counted on to the scales (in front of the small white shack at the top of the photo), weighed, and counted off. The tag of every animal is checked to make sure that it is in the appropriate pen. Those tags are then matched with the records to make certain that no animal ever leaves the feedlot if it still has a medicine withdrawal. If one did happen to slip by, we would have to shut down the slaughterhouse until it was found, which would cost the feedlots in huge fines for every minute that passes. This was one of many absolutely critical check points in the process of making beef that goes into the slaughter process is safe, healthy, and free of drugs. Once the cattle are weighed, counted, and checked again, the truck drivers will back up to the docks at the center of the pens and load the cattle to be taken to the slaughterhouse just a few miles down the road. JBS owns the feedlot and the slaughterhouse and the trucks that the cattle are shipped on, so it has very tight control on every step of the process, making sure things are done correctly, for the safety of the animal, beef and people.

veterinary shack coronado feeders jbs five rivers dalhart texas

This is a closer photo of the satellite hospital pens in each of the 6 sections of the feedlot. The cowboy pen riders ride through each pen of cattle, every single day, looking at every single animal. They know how to spot the signs of an animal that is not healthy, lame, or not eating. The sick cattle will then be brought to this hospital. The veterinary crew would then give the animal a special tag to identify it and track all treatment information, take it’s temperature and diagnosis it’s illness. If the animal was running a fever past a critical point (102 – 104 depending on the time of year), the animal would receive the appropriate treatment prescribed by the veterinarian who was on staff. If the animal did not need treatment, it was placed in a separate pen, observed closely, and would return to its home pen the next day. The cattle that did receive treatment were placed in the pens in front of the white barn and observed for 3-4 days before returning to their home pens once their appetites had returned and they were on the road to being healthy animals once again. Some of the most common causes for illness are respiratory diseases, preexisting conditions, or bloat.

crop fields coronado feeders jbs five rivers dalhart texas

This is a wide shot of the feedlot to show the great number of fields surrounding the area. The manure from the feedlot, once dried would be spread on the area crop fields as an organic source of fertilizer. This is part of a comprehensive waste management plan that is required under EPA regulations for feedlots that house more than 1,000 head of cattle. Extensive engineering and planning goes into this process to ensure the proper handling and application of manure fertilizers on surrounding fields to ensure the balance and safety of surrounding environments. The farmers raising crops on these fields raised many of the feeds that cattle in the feedlot eat. That’s something most people don’t recognize. Many feedlot cattle are eating grains and forage grown locally to the yards, reducing transportation costs and supporting local farmers and ranchers in the communities in these rural and expansive regions of the country.

 What questions does this post leave you asking? Feel free to drop me a note in the comments section below or use the private contact form above so I can share my experience with you. Also, be sure to reference the many previous posts on this blog discussing cattle feedlots. Stay tuned as I continue adding to this list.

24 Comments

  1. Thank you for this very informative piece! I have driven by feedlots before, but not being a rancher, I don’t really have the opportunity to see how they work. I have a couple of questions:

    1. When cattle is brought to the feedlot, are they kept together with the cows they came with? (As in, cows from ranch A go here, cows from ranch B go there?) Or do they assimilate?

    2. Do cows that came from grassy ranches adapt easily to feedlots, or does their diet have to be adjusted in stages?

    1. Thanks for reading Diana! Great questions.

      1. It depends. If my family sends cattle to feedlot, we own the entire bunch, and they will stay separate from other cattle and in their own pen the entire time they are there. If the feedlot owns them (as is an increasing occurrence, partly due to the increasingly large amount of money cattle are worth and will be subsequently tied up for an extended period of time, a load a company like a feedlot is able to carry vs a family farmer/rancher), the cattle will be co-mingled with others of similar type, age, sex, or weight.

      2. Cattle going into the feedlot, regardless of origin, generally go onto a transition diet from higher amounts of forage to higher amounts of grain. Their diets prior to entering the feedlot may help them to make the transition quicker, but it is determined on a pen by pen basis how quickly that transition is made.

      I hope that helps!

  2. I have truly enjoyed following your blog over the past few years! I had never seen one of these operations in person until, I rode my bike thru Texas this summer. I actually stayed the night in Dalhart, and met some very generous cattlemen in Hartley who bought us ice cream at a little diner we stopped in to escape the heat. But back to your post, I think you are missing your aerial image of the Coronado Feeders. The Wrangler Feedyard is set up a bit different. Anyway, thanks for all the great information you continue to share!

    1. Oh NO! Thanks for pointing that out! I knew I was going to get something mixed up and can’t believe I haven’t caught that. Changed now! I appreciate that. The Wrangler photo goes on another post in this series.

      There are some great people in Dallam and Hartley counties. Glad you were able to experience some of that!

  3. Great piece! How long does it take to feed out the cattle, from the time they arrive to the time they go to the slaughter house? Thank you!

  4. Great piece. I live next to several feedlots in Bushland, TX and I’m currently taking Agri-business management through casper college (I’m 47 but better late than never right lol). My goal is to work in management of a feedlot or dairy. Can you describe some of the different jobs in a feedlot, especially the office/management.
    Thanks!

  5. Been farming my whole life and never have read such an informative article on what really happens. As a new England dairy farmer, I am far away from a Texas feedlot. Will be back looking to learn more from your site, Ryan.
    Great writing and understanding of the subject!

  6. It takes a lot to make me stop my day and read something from start to finish, and this article did it! Living in Texas, feedlots are just a part of life. They are quiet, calm places where cattle swish their tails waiting for their next meal. It would make no sense to treat cattle in such a manner as to keep them stressed, since they are there to finish out their weight and become protein for us. The sooner they are finished, the more economical the process is. So in simple terms, happy, calm, stress free cattle are the most efficient cattle.

  7. I had no clue about feed lots whatsoever. Well, other than what Facebook “activists” like to share. Thank you for writing this!

    I dd notice this, though: “The offices and feed mill are on the bottom left. The lagoon is on the bottom right corner. In that image, it looks like the lagoon is on the left and the offices on the right.

  8. Nice work on this,from a journalistic aspect. Very informative.
    I have run stables and worked breeding farms and for Reining Horse trainers (grew up Dairy). Thinking bout giving it a try as Pen Rider, just for the experience, for a bit. I also have a possible farrier apprenticeship hanging out there.
    What think you?

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