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What’s Really ‘Green’? A Look at Beef Finishing on Feedlots

Words by 3p Contributor
Leadership & Transparency
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By Jonathan Gelbard, Ph.D.

In my last post, I used a science-based green purchasing framework to evaluate sustainability of cattle grazing operations. The first two steps were to identify (1) key impacts of poorly managed ranches, and (2) solutions to each impact. Here I repeat this exercise for beef feedlots. Given the destructive consequences of industrial crop production, evaluating feedlot sustainability encompasses impacts and solutions related to feed supply chains.

What are Feedlots & Why It Matters How They are Managed

About 97% of U.S. cattle are “finished” on grain at feedlots, where they spend the last 4-6 months of their lives. The EPA defines feedlots (animal feeding operations; “AFOs”) as "agricultural enterprises where animals are…raised in confined situations. AFOs congregate animals, feed, manure and urine…and production operations on a small land area. Feed is brought to the animals rather than the animals grazing…" Feedlots become "concentrated animal feeding operations" (CAFOs) when they meet specific conditions, including size thresholds.

Sources of Feedlot Pollution: The USDA estimates that livestock produce 500 millions of tons of manure annually, over three times America’s 150 million tons of human sanitary waste. Most beef feedlots manage manure as solids in piles, with “catchment basins” storing polluted runoff. Others, including dairy operations that sell animals to beef processors, store manure as liquids in lagoons.

Manure management is often poor. A Duke University report found only half of large beef feedlots have manure management plans. Without effective planning and monitoring, manure contaminates waterways, poisons drinking water, and causes stomach-turning air pollution.

Producers can reduce these impacts by using science and practical knowledge to improve management. Below I summarize top environmental, health, and other impacts of poor feedlot management, and benefits of good management.

Surface & Groundwater Quality

Impacts of Poor Feedlot Management: Feedlots – including and beyond beef – account for an estimated 55% of sediment pollution and 30+% of nutrient pollution in America’s drinking water. Inadequately sealed and maintained manure runoff catchment and storage lagoons pollute thousands of miles of waterways and leak into aquifers. This pollution, along with runoff from farms that over-apply feedlot manure to crop fields (or apply it at the wrong time), may contain harmful chemicals including pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, and heavy metals. Nutrient pollution attributable to feedlots also occurs when they source feed from farms that over-apply fertilizer, further contributing to aquatic dead zones.

When manure nitrate pollution reaches aquifers, health impacts include diseases such as hyperthyroidism and diabetes, neurodevelopmental defects, and reproductive disorders such as blue baby syndrome.

Additionally, 10-50% of cattle transport dangerous pathogens such as Salmonella, E. coli O157-H57, and Cryptosporidium. In areas where farmers apply manure to fields, surface and ground waters face high risk of pathogen contamination. A study of water quality in agricultural regions found the highest levels of fecal coliform at sites near feedlots.

Benefits of Well-Managed Feedlots: Well-managed feedlots secure pollution permits and mitigate water quality risks. They implement a nutrient and manure management plan that details how the operation recycles nutrients, and balances nutrient inputs with use. Effective nutrient management plans:


  • ensure feedlots properly manage and maintain manure runoff catchment basins and storage lagoons, and precisely apply manure to ensure crops uptake nutrients;

  • use better management practices (BMPs) like riparian buffers and green strips along field edges (which filter runoff), storing solid manure on impermeable surfaces, and covering manure piles to reduce runoff pollution; and

  • monitor water quality near manure storage facilities and following applications of manure and fertilizer to feed crops (at appropriate agronomic rates). This helps quickly detect and stop discharges, minimizing impacts to water quality and the health of animals and communities.

Operations that holistically demonstrate good manure and nutrient management also use feeds produced on farms that minimize water pollution. Looking at the big picture, reintegrating crop and livestock operations – fertilizing crops with animal waste and feeding animals crop wastes – is drawing renewed interest for its valuable benefits. These include reduced fertilizer and manure disposal costs, and protection against pollution-related risks.

The Climate Crisis

Impacts of Poor Feedlot Management: Beef feedlots contribute to climate disruption via emissions of heat-trapping enteric methane (from cattle belching), manure methane (from storage lagoons), and nitrous oxide (from stored and applied manure and, indirectly, from over-applying fertilizer to the feed crops they rely on). Additional sources of heat-trapping pollution include carbon dioxide from 1) agrochemical production, 2) soils by conversion of native ecosystems to feed croplands, and 3) poor management of feed crops (e.g., by degrading soils).

Benefits of Well-Managed Feedlots: Well-managed feedlots optimize herd health, manure and nutrient management to minimize climate-disrupting emissions. Whether they grow feed or externally source it, they use feeds produced by operations that precisely apply fertilizer, avoid conversion of native ecosystems to croplands, and use practices like cover crops that regenerate soil health and sequester carbon. Dairy operations that sell animals into beef supply chains (and hopefully soon more beef feedlots) also use anaerobic digesters to convert methane into energy, and sell digested manure as innovative fertilizer products. These and other climate-smart practices improve management quality, generate revenue, cut energy costs, and enhance resilience to extreme weather.

Air Quality

Impacts of Poor Feedlot Management: Decomposing manure produces 160+ different gases. Odorous volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as hydrogen sulfide and ammonia cause profound health impacts to agricultural communities. Other pollutants include particulates and pathogens. Studies of communities near feedlots document increased rates of depression, anger and fatigue. People living next to an Iowa feedlot had high rates of breath shortness, nausea, dizziness, and headaches.

This pollution causes severe economic impacts. One study determined that Missouri CAFOs have lowered property values in surrounding communities by an average of $2.68 million.

 Benefits of well-managed feedlots: Well-managed feedlots actively reduce air pollution. For example, facilities that manage manure as solids cover stockpiles to curtail odor and maintain facility humidity to minimize dust. Operations that manage manure as liquids cover lagoons, and use anaerobic digesters fitted with pollution control devices where necessary.

Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs

Impacts of Poor Feedlot Management: America uses more antibiotics per pound of meat produced than any other nation. According to the Food and Drug Administration, 80% of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are fed to livestock. Of that, feedlots use about 70% for “non-therapeutic” purposes (routine feeding of antibiotics to healthy animals to prevent disease and promote growth). These misuses of antibiotics breed antibiotic-resistant superbugs, reducing the effectiveness of critical life-saving medications.

Benefits of Well-Managed Feedlots: Well-managed feedlots implement herd health, sanitation, and other good animal husbandry practices that prevent disease without using non-therapeutic antibiotics. For example, steps to prevent infection include avoiding excessive animal densities, since overcrowding facilitates disease transmission.

 Native Fish, Wildlife & Plant Biodiversity

Impacts of Poor Feedlot Management:

Benefits of Well-Managed Feedlots: Well-managed feedlots minimize impacts to biodiversity by managing and maintaining facilities to minimize pollution. They use BMPs such as vegetated riparian buffers to filter runoff, protect aquatic ecosystems, and provide habitat for pollinators, wildlife, and predators of pests. In addition, they source feed from farms that minimize pollution and avoid controversial pesticides.

Animal Welfare

Impacts of Poor Feedlot Management: Some feedlots are highlighted in the media as “factory farms” for graphically poor treatment of animals and given nicknames like “Cowschwitz”. There are far too many examples of inhumanely managed operations.

Benefits of Well-Managed Feedlots: Well-managed feedlots ensure high animal welfare through a herd health plan requiring proper nutrition, prompt resolution of health issues, low-stress handling, proper sanitation, record keeping, and overall good animal husbandry. Transportation to and from facilities is safe and humane.

 Conclusion

You can make an important difference by purchasing beef from brands that reduce feedlot pollution, phase out non-therapeutic antibiotics, and treat animals humanely. As with grazing operations, it is critical to develop purchasing guidelines that avoid as many impacts as possible and drive business to more sustainable producers.

Emotions run high with feedlots. CAFO activists have launched far more devastating food brand-focused campaigns than groups combatting impacts of poorly-managed grazing. You don’t want it to be activists who expose gaps in your procurement guidelines. This is a big reason why many brands turn to independent, third-party certification to prove they have minimized impacts.

Next, I’ll explore the landscape of certifications and other eco-labels in the beef sector.

Jonathan L. Gelbard, Ph.D. is Principal and Senior Conservation Scientist at Conservation Value Solutions. As a researcher, writer, speaker, and advisor, he digs deep to identify root causes of problems, and catalyzes transformative solutions.

 Dr. Gelbard was Senior Scientist at the Grasslands Alliance, a partnership between NGO’s, certifiers and ranchers that developed and piloted a comprehensive certification standard for U.S. and Canadian beef cattle and bison grazing operations. The Grasslands Alliance is currently fundraising to support its development of certification and continuous improvement programs. Click here to learn more.  

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons

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