A feedlot is an animal feeding operation used in factory farming to prepare livestock for slaughter. Feedlots provide all conventionally raised beef and most organic and naturally raised beef. They appeared in the 1960s and 1970s. Large feedlots are concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Almost 30 percent have more than 1,000 penned cattle per feedlot; some contain up to 100,000. The environmental impact of such large-scale ranching is great.

Feedlot Advantages

Feedlot-produced meat satisfies U.S. consumer demand, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports averages 60 lb. of beef yearly. While all cattle start out eating grass, 75 percent mature in feedlots, fed specially formulated, grain-based feed. Once cattle weigh roughly 650 lb., the cattle are sent to a feedlot to consume a diet of corn byproducts and other grains. The animal may gain 400 lb. during its final few months. USDA Prime, the highest grade, has more marbling and flavor, is more tender and can be produced inexpensively in feedlots. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, 60 percent of the world's pastures are covered by grazing systems that supply only 9 percent of the world's beef production. Feedlots are far more efficient.

Environmental Risks

The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that approximately 70 percent of antibiotic use in the U.S. is for animals on factory farms. The antibiotics prevent infection in closely confined animals and spur their growth, but pose risks to humans in the form of resistant strains of bacteria. Alternatives to antibiotics include expanded sanitation and testing procedures. Feedlot cattle may be covered in fecal matter and bacteria. However, a Kansas State University study found no differences in organic, naturally raised beef and feedlot raised beef in terms of E. coli. Also, after the animal is slaughtered, the meat is cleaned with chlorine; for hamburger, dry ice is mixed in.

Government Regulation

Most feedlots require government permitting and plans to deal with the waste generated. Manure contains nitrogen and phosphorus; if not managed properly, they can pollute nearby water bodies. Citizen groups have raised concerns about water quality to regulatory agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 2003, the EPA revised permitting requirements and effluent limitations for CAFOs, estimating that these regulations would prevent 56 million lb. of phosphorus and 110 million lb. of nitrogen from entering water bodies each year. The EPA requires CAFOs to have a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit and a Nutrient Management Plan.

Risk Mitigation

Low-cost steps can be taken to preserve the benefits of industrialized livestock production while limiting its harms. These include reformulating feed, designing sloped feed stalls, monitoring microbes and using manure to create energy. Countries such as Canada and Australia have innovated their feedlot systems. A U.S. Economic Research Service executive has said the growth and consolidation of the cattle industry have actually benefited sustainability because large operators can address manure volume and other environmental hazards.