Think about the last time you were in the grocery store. I’m sure you weren’t thinking of feedlots.
When you went to pick up hamburgers or steaks, you may have noticed a “grass-fed” label on some of the meat.
Did you stop and think, “What does that actually mean?”
A lot of people have this moment because terms like “grass-fed,” “grain-fed,” or “pasture-raised” are used all the time.
And yet, we don’t learn about those terms in school and often don’t know what it means for the food we’re putting in our bodies.
Grass-fed beef became popular so rapidly that many assumed it was “better” without actually knowing the details.
While grass-fed is often the preferred method of production, it’s nice to know why.
Why is grass-fed beef better for animals, the environment, and rural communities?
How does a feedlot fit into this production model?
If you plan to run a farm, is a feedlot something you should consider?
Let’s get started.
1. What is a feedlot?
A feedlot is a type of animal feeding operation that is used in intensive animal farming.
It is often used to feed beef cattle, swine, horses, sheep, turkeys, chickens, or ducks prior to slaughter.
You’ll find large beef feedlots called “concentrated animal feeding operations” (CAFO) in the U.S. and “intensive livestock operations” (ILOs) or “confined feeding operations” (CFOs) in Canada.
In these setups, there are often thousands of animals in various pens.
2. What is the purpose of a feedlot?
A feedlot is intended to increase the amount of fat gained by each animal as quickly as possible.
When an animal is confined in a feedlot rather than grazing freely over grassland, they gain weight more quickly and efficiently.
3. What is some vocabulary you need to know?
If you’re not familiar with cattle farming, you may be encountering some unfamiliar terms in the article.
Let’s start by clarifying the necessary vocab you’ll need to understand the core points of this blog.
Conventional and grain-finished: All cattle start out in the U.S. as pasture eating, grass-fed “beef”.
However, when the calves are weaned, conventionally raised cattle are shipped to centralized feedlots known as CAFOs.
Here, they are fed grain for several months to fatten up quickly before slaughter.
This is why conventional cattle are often referred to as grain-finished.
Grass-fed and pasture-raised: Cattle may be referred to as “grass-fed” or “pasture-raised.”
For the most part, grass-fed cattle do not receive any grain.
However, producers will sometimes market their beef as grass-fed if they technically feed the cattle grasses and hay on the feedlot.
Overall, you’re consuming a healthier variety of meat when cattle are permitted to roam and graze before being slaughtered for food.
Cattle environment: Commodity, corn-finished cattle are confined to feedlot operations where movement is limited.
They gain weight faster because the animals are unable to move and they have feed and water brought to them.
Cattle diet: Conventional animals are “finished” when they are fattened with grains like corn.
This makes their diet unnaturally high in carbohydrates.
These animals can gain anywhere from 5 to 6 pounds per day when they eat concentrated high-energy grain feed.
This is because grains are digested faster than the cellulose cattle would get in a typical grazing diet.
Thus, these animals can eat more food and gain weight faster.
The grain diet is also tough on digestive systems, so not only will cattle gain weight, but they are more likely to have medical issues like ulcers, metabolic disorders, and suppressed immune systems.
Antibiotic use: Conventional cattle are finished in confined feedlots, and these feedlots are a high-risk environment for disease because so many animals are near each other.
Industrial farmers pre-emptively treat herds with antibiotics, and this contributes to the likelihood of antibiotic-resistance pathogens.
Sometimes antibiotics are supplemented with synthetic vitamins and steroids to encourage naturally fast fattening.
Environmental impact: Conventional beef is often fed an unnatural diet that’s both unhealthy for their digestive systems and produced using industrial agriculture methods that are terrible for the environment.
These industrial agriculture methods include pesticides, chemical fertilizers, tillage, and GMOs.
Such operations also pollute neighboring ecosystems and waterways.
Cattle breeds: An entirely different type of animal was needed to be bred when CAFOs became widespread
Feedlot cattle needed to be taller and “slab-sided” to be able to stand in a feedlot covered in mud, muck, and manure.
Ranchers also looked for cattle with digestive systems more amenable to an unnatural diet dense with carbohydrate grains.
Country of origin: The USDA has weak labeling rules, so much of the grass-fed beef can be labeled as “Product of the USA” in a US grocery store even if it isn’t from the United States at all.
To qualify for this label, meat only has to pass through a U.S.-based inspection plant or blend in with meat from animals born and raised in the U.S.
Cattle can be born, raised, and slaughtered elsewhere.
Keep in mind that it’s estimated that 75 to 80 percent of total U.S. grass-fed beef sales by value are imported, so this greenwashing is devastating for American ranchers.
Waste: Conventional beef producers operate in a linear, extractive system.
This means that cattle are brought to a processing plant and slaughtered for products that can either be sold wholesale or in a grocery store.
Slaughter: Conventional cattle are slaughtered in a traumatic process.
They are first packed into large trucks to be transported long distances to centralized meatpacking plants.
Most of these plants rely on mechanized slaughter methods for the maximum speed of slaughter (some as fast as 400 head of cattle per hour).
Worker conditions: Conventional cattle are processed by meatpacking workers.
Many of these individuals receive low wages and operate in unsafe working conditions.
4. When and how did the cattle feedlot begin?
The cattle feedlot began in the 1800s when grain farmers were faced with a glut of excess grain.
Farmers happened to feed the grains to livestock and saw the increased value in their grain-finished beef.
As a result, the demand for this beef soared, especially in urban areas during the Civil Wars.
Farmers expanded their efforts as population centers began to grow and transportation became more reliable.
Soon, farmers were moving closer to grain-producing areas in the country (i.e. the Midwest).
In the 1950s, cattle feeding grew and centralized in the High Plain states, where the arid climate and available irrigation made for ideal conditions.
Slaughterhouses were also relocated to the region, further consolidating the industry.
5. Where do most feedlots reside today?
Most cattle feedlots reside in West Texas, the Oklahoma Panhandle, western Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado.
6. Is a cattle feedlot considered a factory farm?
Many animal rights movements consider cattle feedlots and other CAFOs to be factory farms.
A factory farm is a modern industrial method of raising farmed animals.
It is a form of intensive agriculture that is designed to maximize profits while using as few resources as possible.
Factory farms confine large numbers of animals to small spaces.
This is why animal rights movements are opposed to factory farming.
They believe that these living conditions are inherently stressful for the animals.
You can learn more about examples of inhumane treatment in factory farms at The Humane League.
7. Do cow feedlots threaten animal welfare?
Factory farming involves inherent cruelty to animals; however, some factory farming is better than others.
It can be argued that those farms that allow access to the outdoors are less cruel than those in which animals are confined to indoor areas only.
Still, there are three primary animal welfare concerns with outdoor lots:
Issues with mud
If an area with a feedlot gets high levels of annual rainfall, then outdoor feedlots can get very muddy.
This can result in the cattle becoming cold, wet, and dirty.
To resolve this, areas must be provided where cows can lay down, clean and dry off, get space, etc.
Heat stress problems
Approximately 5,000 cows die each year due to heat stress.
Heat stress can be recognized by open-mouth breathing and tongue extension.
It occurs primarily because of lack of shade, excessive weight brought on by being fed an increasingly heavy diet, and cows with black hides.
Building shades that are big enough to enable all cows to lie down within their shadows can help with heat issues.
Unfortunately, many feedlots in the U.S. don’t install these devices.
Cow handling and treatment of newly arrived cows
While handling has been improved over time, cattle farms have a negative history of rough handling.
They used to use rough, electric prods to herd animals.
Today, many farms use hydraulic squeeze chutes that restrain cows while helping them to stay calm.
These improvements can be attributed to feedlot managers who properly train workers.
However, this still remains an area of concern and something managers must keep an eye on to prevent any issues.
8. What’s the difference between grass-fed and feedlot beef?
Most people aren’t able to tell you if the meat on their plate is grass-fed or feedlot beef.
Cattle eat around 50 to 60 pounds of feed a day, so examining the contents of that feed is important.
The way these cattle are fed can have a major impact on the nutrient composition of the beef, and this transfers to you when you consume it.
Most cows will start on a pasture, drink milk, and eat grass.
Conventionally raised cows, however, will move to feedlots and feed mainly on grain-based feeds.
Grass-fed beef often contains less total fat than grain-fed beef, but a lot more omega-3 fatty acids and CLA.
Both are linked to health benefits.
We’ll talk more about the benefits of grass-fed beef in the next section.
9. What are the benefits of grass-fed beef to consumers?
Here are some of the benefits of grass-fed beef.
Grass-fed beef is lower in total fat
Meat from grass-fed cattle is lower in fat and calories.
When you compare a 6-ounce steak from a grass-finished animal, it has almost 100 fewer calories than the same sized piece from a grass-fed animal.
The average American eats about 67 pounds of beef a year, so switching to grass-fed beef can save you nearly 18,000 calories.
Grass-fed beef is higher in beta-carotene
Grass-fed beef is higher in vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol)
Overall, meat from grass-fed cattle is higher in vitamins like vitamin E than grain-fed cattle.
Vitamin E is linked with a lower risk of heart disease and cancer.
Grass-fed beef is higher in the B-vitamins thiamin and riboflavin
Grass-fed beef is higher in the minerals calcium, magnesium, and potassium
Grass-fed beef is higher in total omega-3s
Omega-3 fatty acids are fats that are essential to human health.
Sixty percent of the fatty acids in grass-fed beef is omega-3, and is formed in the chloroplasts of green leaves.
Since omega-3 is formed in the chloroplasts of green leaves, it shouldn’t surprise you that grass-fed beef is much higher in these fats.
In fact, grass-fed cattle can contain as much as two-to-four times more omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed animals.
Grass-fed beef has a healthier ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids
A higher ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids has been linked with an increased risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, allergies, depression, obesity, and autoimmune disorders.
A ratio of four to one or lower is considered ideal.
Grain-fed beef has a much higher ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids than wild game or grass-fed beef.
Grain-fed beef is more than 14 to 1 while grass-fed beef is approximately 2 to 1.
Grass-fed beef is higher in CLA, which is a potential cancer fighter
CLA is conjugated linoleic acid.
Meat from grass-fed animals is the richest known source of CLA, and grass-fed cattle have been found to produce 2 to 5 times more than grain-fed cattle.
In laboratory animals, even a small amount of CLA greatly reduced cancerous growths.
Grass-fed beef is higher in vaccenic acid, which can be transformed into CLA
Grass-fed beef is lower in saturated fats, which is linked with heart disease
10. Can feedlot beef be an ethical choice?
Based on the above information, you may be wondering if you should ever consume feedlot beef.
After all, grass-fed beef is often marketed as more environmentally friendly and ethical than beef produced on feedlots.
So should you avoid feedlot beef altogether?
Are the health benefits that stark?
Some have argued that grain-finishing systems have fewer environmental impacts than grass-finishing systems do.
Additionally, grass-fed beef is more expensive, making it an impractical choice for many.
The more complex question is where animal welfare comes into play.
Feedlot conditions are inherently more stressful than pastures.
Having said this, well-managed lots can do a lot to mitigate many of the issues previously listed.
And many small farmers raise healthy cows in small-scale feedlots that are a far cry from the industrial-scale operations we have referenced in this article.
A feedlot or feed yard can be a lucrative endeavor for a landowner.
However, there are several factors to keep in mind, especially animal welfare.
Be sure to do your research before making any final decisions.
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