The average American buyer consumes an estimated 56 pounds of beef each year, making the USA the biggest consumer of beef worldwide. All of this meat necessitates a massive cattle operation, the largest in the world in fact, with over 91 million farmed cattle and billions and billions of dollars of revenue.
While the public may be more aware of the pastures and slaughterhouses in which the short lives of these animals begin and end, feedlots are also a firmly entrenched stage of cattle production. As of July 1, 2022, there were 13.4 million cattle and calves on U.S. feedlots, facilities aimed at maximizing their growth before slaughter.
What Are Cattle Feedlots?
Feedlots, sometimes referred to as feedyards, are large, fenced areas of land on which cattle are kept and fed a diet of grains until being sent to a slaughterhouse. They are considered the last stage in the farming of cattle for meat.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) refers to feedlots as animal feeding operations, defined as operations where animals are confined for at least 45 days in a year, and where crops and vegetation are not grown.
Is a Cattle Feedlot Considered a Factory Farm?
According to the EPA, a feedlot is not necessarily a factory farm because not every animal feeding operation meets the criteria to be considered a controlled animal feeding operation (CAFO), the agency’s term for large-scale factory farms.
Farms qualify as CAFOs either by being likely to pollute waterways, or by confining a certain number of animals. Feedlots confining 1,000 or more cattle are automatically classed as Large CAFOs, and these intensive operations account for most of the industry’s output. According to the USDA, feedlots holding more than 1,000 cattle represent only 5 percent of all U.S. feedlots, but they market 80 percent to 85 percent of the fed cattle produced.
The animal agriculture industry is trending towards fewer large, specialized feedlots. Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico make up the nation’s biggest cattle-feeding region, marketing over 6 million fed cattle annually, according to the Texas Cattle Feeders Association. In this region, the size and intensive nature of these feeding operations is plainly visible. In 2020, The Guardian reported that Texas feedlots contain over 26,000 cattle on average, although worsening drought and extreme heat have led some ranchers to cull animals, reducing the size of some herds.
How Did the Cattle Feedlot Begin?
The cattle feedlot as we know it today began in the 1950s, as beef production started to rise to meet growing demand. However, smaller feedlots containing up to 400 cattle could be found as far back as the early 20th century, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.
In the 1960s, large-scale feedlots appeared in the plains of the Midwest, and the number of U.S. feedlot cattle grew from around 10 million to 12.5 million by 1985, reports Feedlot Magazine. Today, feedlots continue to be concentrated in this region of the nation, where dry conditions facilitate the growing of grains fed to cattle.
How Does a Cattle Feedlot Work?
Calves born into the dairy industry are separated from their mothers almost immediately, females reared as dairy cows while males are typically sold to be raised for beef or veal. In the meat industry, while some cattle are ultimately brought indoors, most calves typically begin life in pastures and will wean at around 6 to 8 months of age.
For many, this is the time when their life changes significantly. They may be vaccinated, castrated and dehorned in practices standard to the industry, most often without the use of anesthesia or other methods of pain relief. They are sold through livestock auctions or directly to commercial feeders and will then be “finished,” or made ready for slaughter, at a feedlot.
Cattle may be transported many miles in all weather conditions to reach the feedlots, which are mainly concentrated in the Midwest. On feedlots, diets are designed with profitability in mind, aimed at maximizing growth. A ration is usually 70 to 90 percent grain and protein concentrates, according to the USDA, causing the cattle to gain an average of 2.5 to 4 pounds daily.
Cows remain on feedlots for variable amounts of time, depending on their weight gain, but feeding periods tend to fall within 90 to 300 days, according to the USDA.
Why Are Cattle Feedlots Bad?
A feedlot is outdoors, and therefore consumers may believe that cattle raised there do not suffer, or that these operations have a light environmental footprint. The reality is that feedlots, like the beef industry as a whole, take a heavy toll on animals, the planet and even surrounding human communities.
How Do Cattle Feedlots Cause Pollution?
Just one large-scale cattle feedlot may produce 1.1 million tons of manure annually, and such a massive amount of waste inevitably has effects on the surrounding environment.
Manure stored on feedlots can seep into groundwater and local waterways, sometimes overflowing due to rainfall or melting snow or if manure is not properly contained. Nutrients found in the waste, including nitrogen, can harm marine life and ecosystems by causing harmful blooms of algae or bacteria that lead to oxygen depletion.
Ammonia and particles from the waste, known as fecal dust, also pollute the air, helping to spread strong odors nearby. Complaints from neighboring communities, who are forced to endure the unpleasant odors and pollution, often result in little or no action.
Yet breathing in dust and ammonia has been tied to conditions such as asthma and other breathing difficulties and even to early death. In 2021, a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences tied air pollution from food production to 15,900 U.S. deaths annually, and 80 percent of those to the production of animal-based foods. Cattle farming specifically was linked to 4,000 deaths.
How Do Cattle Feedlots Contribute to Climate Change?
A cattle feedlot’s most hazardous environmental impact may come in the form of emissions of methane. This extremely potent greenhouse gas, estimated to trap heat up to 80 times more effectively than carbon dioxide, is released by the cattle themselves and by stored waste. An individual cow can release 220 pounds of methane via burps in one year due to the digestive process known as enteric fermentation, and a feedlot can contain thousands and thousands of cattle.
Beyond direct emissions, the clearing of forests for feedlots and the industrial production of crops used in feed are also responsible for releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Proponents of feedlots may argue that these enclosures are outdoors, offering fresh air and sunshine and the ability to engage in some natural behaviors. However, cattle may still be subjected to suffering.
In feedlots, cattle have little to no protection from harsh weather conditions. They may suffer from heat stress or die in high temperatures and humidity. Thousands of feedlot cattle died in June 2022, when extreme heat of over 90 degrees suddenly hit Kansas. At the other extreme, feedlot cattle have succumbed to the freezing cold and blizzards of winter.
A paper on animal welfare in feedlots published in Veterinary and Animal Science in 2016 notes that high amounts of rainfall can leave the ground muddy and cattle unable to stay clean and dry, and that animals may be handled roughly as they are moved on and off transport trucks.
Perhaps the most significant threat to feedlot cattle comes in the form of bovine respiratory disease (BRD). An analysis published in Veterinary Research in 2022 reveals that over 90 percent of large-scale feedlots report BRD as their most frequently occurring disease despite the widespread use of preventative antibiotics. The authors state that this respiratory illness accounts for anywhere from 10 percent to 50 percent of cattle deaths, and that young calves recently transported to feedlots are at the highest risk.
How Long Do Cattle Stay in Feedlots?
Cattle spend an average of six months in a feedlot, though the period depends on how quickly they reach market weight.
When it appears the animal is no longer gaining weight daily, both a live weight and estimated carcass weight are measured, the goal for the latter being between 600 and 950 pounds. If their weight falls within that range, the cattle are typically then transported to a slaughterhouse where they will be killed and their meat processed for beef.
Are Cattle Feedlots Profitable?
For commercial feeders who own cattle feedlots, these operations can be profitable, although profits do not remain steady. In 2017, feedlots showed average returns of $177 per head of cattle, after a decline in previous years. In 2022 profitability is expected to increase. This projection comes despite cattle ranchers struggling with drought and other conditions that, ironically, may worsen as climate change — significantly impacted by cattle farming and animal agriculture — accelerates.
What Are the Alternatives to Cattle Feedlots?
Some cows are raised on pastures and never confined in an intensive feedlot. This may provide a more natural and less stressful existence for the cattle, but it does not solve all problems when it comes to beef production and would likely not be sustainable on a large scale.
Research has shown that grass-fed beef in fact leads to higher greenhouse gas emissions, and switching to grass-fed beef to meet demand would require almost three times as much land, meaning further deforestation.
Some cattle are raised in indoor feeding operations with some access to the outdoors, but these facilities face animal welfare challenges. Flooring is often unnatural, and cattle may walk and lie on hard concrete, often in their own waste. Some flooring features slats to allow manure to fall through the openings, but this does not eliminate all of the waste.
What You Can Do
Despite the environmental degradation caused by cattle farming, the suffering it inflicts upon animals, and the known health implications of eating red meat, U.S. beef consumption remains high. The truth is, the rate at which we are consuming meat and other animal-based foods is simply unsustainable, causing pollution, driving deforestation and harming biodiversity.
Simply reducing or eliminating beef and other meat from your diet has the power to significantly reduce your toll on the planet. Browsing this practical guide and some of the many plant-based recipes available may help you get started. More resources are available on our Take Action page.
Jennifer is a writer and editor based near Washington, DC. Her background is in communications in the animal protection movement. She is also a contributing writer with Sentient Media.