How Does a Cattle Feedlot Work?

What is a feedlot? These large fenced-off areas of land house thousands of cattle as they gain weight before slaughter. But how do they work?

What Is a Feedlot?

Explainer Food Industry

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Feedlots are large fenced-off areas of land that house thousands of cattle while they gain weight before slaughter. But this isn’t quite the whole story. Feedlots can also describe any number of farming operations that confine animals for feeding. Regardless of the animal raised, feedlots have a few common characteristics, including animal welfare issues. 

What Is a Feedlot?

A feedlot is a housing system used to raise many different types of animals. The term is used most widely within cattle ranching to describe the last step for the herd before slaughter. This is when the animals are “finished,” which is the stage when animals are fed a very precise diet to put on more weight. There are two types of feedlots: indoor and outdoor. Both types are designed to maximize efficiency, which can create a whole host of animal welfare problems.

Which Operations Are Considered Feedlots?

There are two different definitions of the term “feedlot.” Within cattle ranching specifically, a feedlot is the last step for beef cattle before transport to the slaughterhouse. Before reaching the feedlot, most animals have spent at least a few months on pasture. Because the feedlot stage is the last in which the cattle can grow and put on weight, it is considered to be the finishing stage. In February 2023, roughly 11.75 million cattle were housed in feedlots containing 1,000 or more animals across the 16 top cattle-finishing states. 

The term can also be used for other animals in line with the EPA’s definition of an “animal feeding operation.” In order to be considered an animal feeding operation, a farm must confine animals for a total of 45 days or more within any 12-month period, and bring food to the animals rather than allowing them to forage and graze for themselves. Cattle usually stay on a feedlot for anywhere from 90 to 300 days. Other animals that might find themselves on a feedlot include dairy cattle, pigs, chickens and any other species raised in an industrial operation. 

What Are the Types of Feedlot Systems?

There are two different kinds of feedlots: indoor and outdoor. A number of factors determine which type an operation uses, including the animals raised and the climate. Chickens and other poultry tend to be housed indoors, with little if any access to the open air. Pigs, on the other hand, can be housed either outside or inside, but are more often housed indoors. Climate tends to be the biggest determinant of how cattle on feedlots are housed. 

Outdoor Feedlots

In high plains climates with limited rainfall and wide expanses of land, finishing systems tend to be outdoors. Some areas where this is common include Texas, eastern Colorado, Nebraska, and, internationally, northern Australia, parts of South America and parts of Mexico. 

Indoor Feedlots

Indoor feedlots are typically found in places with higher rainfall so they can keep the animals and their bedding out of wet weather. Indoor feedlots have walls and roofs, and also tend to be much smaller. Though they house fewer cows, they are also packed more tightly together. Indoor systems also tend to have slatted floors through which manure and other waste can pass.  

What Is the Purpose of a Feedlot?

The reason that feedlots exist is to maximize the efficiency of food production. Since cows and their feed are often not grown on the same farms, feedlots enable farmers to keep animals confined and bring food to them. This also allows them more control over every aspect of their lives. 

During the first several months of their lives, cows farmed for beef spend their days on pasture. Once they are transported to a feedlot, their diets are carefully controlled in order to maximize growth. While there, protein concentrates and grain generally make up 70 to 90 percent of their diets. The result is that the cattle grow by between 2.5 and 4 pounds a day

How Does a Cattle Feedlot Work?

Roughly the first six months of a beef cow’s life are likely to be spent on pasture with other cattle. While this pasture grazing is likely to have severe environmental impacts, the cows enjoy higher welfare than many other farmed animals who spend their whole lives in feedlots or factory farms. 

Feedlot Management

Following their time on pasture, the herd is gathered and placed into feedlots, where they lose the ability to spread out and forage for their own food, since the population of cattle is much more dense in a feedlot than on pasture. Here they’ll spend between 90 and 300 days, depending on the grade of meat they are being raised for, how old they were when they were brought to the lot and what specific type of feed they are being given. 

While they are at the feedlot they are fed diets heavy in grains and protein to encourage swift weight gain. Yet because these diets can be difficult for cattle to digest, they are also fed antibiotics to prevent them from developing health problems like liver abscesses.  

Feedlot Versus Pasture

There are a few key differences between finishing cattle on feedlots and allowing them to live their short lives on pasture before they are shipped to slaughter. Cows raised completely on pasture tend to be slaughtered at between 18 and 24 months whereas cattle finished on feedlots are slaughtered younger at 14 to 18 months. This discrepancy is largely due to the type of food that they eat. On a feedlot, the cattle are fed diets rich in grains and protein, leading to swift weight gain, whereas on pasture the cattle consume various grasses which leads to slower weight gain. 

What Happens in a Feedlot?

Exactly what happens on a feedlot varies based on what kind of animal is raised. Feedlots that house cattle maintain them for roughly six months on a diet that can cause issues with digestion and regularly results in internal ulcers. To prevent these health problems, the cows are routinely given antibiotics, whether they are showing signs of illness or not, a practice that contributes to the public health threat caused by antibiotic resistance

Do Cow Feedlots Threaten Animal Welfare?

Having access to the outdoors is often associated with higher welfare, but this is not always the case. Feedlots, whether indoor or outdoor, have been associated with several welfare issues

When It Rains, It Gets Muddy 

Even in areas with low rainfall, when it does rain the ground gets muddy which leads to cold cows and opens the door for them to develop foot rot, a painful condition that causes most lameness in cattle. 

Heat Stress 

Cattle like it cool. Unfortunately, feedlots are often built in warmer environments. Many of the lots even lack shade. The risk of overheating also increases with cows gaining so much weight at a fast rate. 

Can Feedlot Beef Be an Ethical Choice?

Even on high-welfare farms, there are ethical reasons to avoid consuming beef. 

First, the environment. Whether from a cow who is completely grass-fed or one finished in a feedlot, beef is harmful to the planet. While all meat results in greenhouse gas emissions, beef is by far the worst offender, causing a massive 100 kilograms of carbon emissions for every kilo of beef produced. Cattle ranching is also the largest driver of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. Finally, beef is an extremely inefficient use of land, water and crops despite the industry’s focus on maximizing productivity. Every pound of flesh gained by a cow while at a feedlot is the result of six pounds of dry feed

What You Can Do

The livestock industry uses feedlots to increase efficiency and productivity, usually at the expense of animal welfare and public health. Beef raised on feedlot is more efficient for greenhouse gas emissions than pasture-raised beef, yet it’s still one of the most damaging foods that you can eat, mainly because of the methane-rich cow burps and vast quantities of land that cows require. 

One of the best steps that you can take as an individual is to eat less beef and shift to a plant-rich diet. For more information, see our Take Action page here

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