Confined Animal Feeding Operations:

The Dominant Force Behind Our "Cheap" Meat Production


The following are excerpts from Chapter 6 of the Saint Louis Regional Food Study, Livestock We Raise.

Most of America’s livestock production does not occur on pasture anymore. Rather, it occurs in industrialized livestock operations known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations – or CAFOs – where poultry or swine are grown for slaughter.  “Since the 1950s (poultry) and the 1970s–1980s (cattle, swine), most animals are now produced for human consumption in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)”[1] or confinements known as Animal Feeding Operations (AFOs). Hogs and poultry raised in confinements spend their entire lives indoors, packed in expansive buildings. Cattle typically spend the first few months of their lives on pasture, before being shipped to feedlots to be fattened on grain prior to slaughter. 

Americans today consume 50 pounds more meat per capita than their 1950s counterparts. We exceed the recommended daily protein intake with meat alone not counting other protein sources.[2]

Table 6-4 shows the 2009 national per capita consumption data for meat (lbs.) from various livestock animals and the extrapolated total pounds of meat consumed in the Saint Louis Regional Foodshed. The data suggests we consume more than 236 million pounds of beef; 228 million pounds of chicken, 189 million pounds of pork, 64 million pounds of fish and shellfish and more than 54 million pounds of turkey.

Table 6-4. Number of Pounds Consumed in 2009, by Livestock Type[1]

[1] See Section 3. Health and Nutrition, supra note 1, at 141.

Livestock Type

2009 Estimated U.S. Annual Per Capita Consumption (lbs.)

2009 Estimated Total Foodshed Consumption (lbs.)







Lamb and Mutton












Fish and Shellfish




Pastureland Decreasing, but Some Grass-fed and Pasture-raised Livestock Producers Remain

The Saint Louis Regional Foodshed’s total pastureland (supporting grazing livestock) decreased from 5,172,164 acres in 1925 to 2,427,737 acres in 2007[3] which is a 53% decrease in total pastureland over 82 years. Fortunately, there are many farmers in the region that nevertheless recognize the benefits of pasture-raised and grass-fed livestock. In 2003, “a group of producers, food service industry personnel and consumer interest representatives established the American Grassfed Association,” with the goal of “promot[ing] the grassfed industry through government relations, research, concept marketing and public education.”[4] 


The Current Missouri Industrialized Livestock Production System

Currently, most of the cattle in our region are raised on pasture, forage, and some grain here and then are shipped out of the region to feedlots and to slaughter. They enter the global food system and journey hundreds or even thousands of miles and return to us as steaks wrapped in plastic at the grocery store or in the form of a burger at the drive-through window. Relying on industrial scale CAFOs for our supply of meat poses proven risks to human health, the environment, and animal welfare that are discussed elsewhere in this report. See the Natural Resource Defense Council's infographic below and corresponding webpage to learn more about the impacts of every step in the livestock production chain.

Source of image: Beef Production, Sustainable Grazing, Natural Resource Defense Council,


Health Implications of Livestock We Raise

Americans are eating more meat than is historically normal, produced in an industrial way that is decidedly historically abnormal, as we have removed livestock from pasture and put animals under roofs in confinement. Industrial scale production processes expose consumers to pathogens, antibiotics,[5] and growth hormones.[6] Eating meat is generally hard on the digestive[7] and cardiovascular systems.[8] “Animal-based foods contribute to chronic diseases,”[9] such as “heart disease; colon, breast, and prostate cancer; and type II diabetes” due to the larger amount of fat in meat, particularly saturated fat, compared to other protein sources.[10] Industrial livestock practices like raising animals in confinement exacerbate these risks.


Nutritional Concerns

Compared to pasture-raised cattle, dairy and meat products from CAFOs are higher in fat and lower in “the omega-3 fatty acids often lacking in our diets.”[11] Omega-3 fatty acids are important for good health. In contrast, pastured livestock may offer more nutritional benefits. For example, “[p]astured chickens have 21% less total fat, 30% less saturated fat, 28% fewer calories than conventionally raised birds. They have 100% more omega 3’s and 50% more vitamin A than conventional birds.”[12] Furthermore, many believe the eggs of pastured chickens have a higher nutritional quality as well. One producer claims, “Pastured eggs have one-third less cholesterol, one-fourth less saturated fat, two-thirds more vitamin A, two times more omega-3 fatty acids, three times more vitamin E, seven times more beta-carotene, four to six times as much vitamin D as typical supermarket eggs.”[13]


Health Impacts to CAFO Workers and Neighbors

The production of industrial livestock in confinement operations causes adverse health effects for those who work in the industry and those who live near the production sites. Employees of CAFOs and feedlots are at risk due to pollution emissions on site from particle pollution, methane, ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide gas. “The prevalence of occupational respiratory diseases (occupational asthma, acute and chronic bronchitis, organic dust toxic syndrome) in CAFO workers can be as high as 30%.”[14] This pollution is mainly a result of CAFOs housing large numbers of animals, which create extraordinary quantities of animal waste on small areas of land.[15]

Between 1977 and 2004, one study revealed that 77 fatalities occurred “related to on-farm manure storage and handling facilities” and “[t]he most frequently identified cause of death was asphyxiation with elevated levels of sulfide levels in the blood noted in some cases.”[16] Residents downstream and downwind are at risk as well from airborne particulate and water pollution.[17]


Resource Consumption of the Livestock We Raise

Source: Eliza Barclay, A Nation Of Meat Eaters: See How It All Adds Up, NPR (June 27, 2012), (Original Source: J.L. Capper, Journal of Animal Science, December, 2011. Credit: Producers: Eliza Barclay, Jessica Stoller-Conrad; Designer: Kevin Uhrmacher/NPR).


Grain Consumption 

“66% of the U.S. grain production[] is fed to livestock.”[18] Grain crops, as previously stated, include sorghum, wheat, corn, and oats. Cattle and particularly cattle raised for beef production, consume a significant amount of grain over the course of their 12-22 month lifespan. In fact, “cattle are the most inefficient in their energy conversion, requiring 7 kg of grain to produce 1 kg of beef (compared to 4:1 for pork and 2:1 for chicken) (footnote omitted).”[19]   


Water Consumption

The freshwater resources required to produce livestock in industrial systems is greater than the amount required for livestock produced in grazing production systems. Hundreds of millions of gallons of water – usually well water from local aquifers - is used to flush the waste pits or lagoons in hog and dairy CAFOs. More water is used as the waste is applied to fields. Water is used to wash out barns. To quantify the impacts that livestock production and animal products have on water resources, Table 6-8 demonstrates the gallons of water needed to produce one pound of various food items.

Table 6-8. Gallons of Water Required to Produce 1 lb. of Various Food Commodities[20]

Meat (1 lb.)

Water (gal.)







Animal Products (1 lb.)

Water (gal.)



Processed Cheese




Fresh Cheese





When considering the water needed to produce meat combined with the amount of water needed to produce livestock feed, a livestock animal’s lifespan requires an enormous amount of water to produce the final product: our food. As the image in Figure 6-2  from April 2010 National Geographic’s A Special Issue: Water, Our Thirsty World shows, the number of gallons exhausted to provide animal feed, drinking water and water for cleaning the buildings and farmyards needed for ONE cow in its lifetime equals over 800,000 gallons of water (Figure 6-2).[21]

Figure 6-2. Gallons of Water Used During the Life of a Steer[22]


Source: J.L. Capper, Journal of Animal Science, December, 2011.

Credit: Producers: Eliza Barclay, Jessica Stoller-Conrad; Designer: Kevin Uhrmacher/NPR


Livestock Waste Pollution

Livestock impact our environment beyond resource use. Because of the industrialization in our livestock systems, the management of livestock waste poses serious problems.

Farmers have relied on animal manure for centuries to fertilize crops because manure contains high levels of nitrogen, a primary nutrient that crops need. With well-managed pastured livestock, the plants provide a source of food for the animals while the animals sustain a source of nutrients for the plants encouraging their growth. Now that animals are confined much of their lives in feedlots or buildings with hundreds to thousands of other animals, manure has become a pollutant rather than an asset. CAFO systems concentrate manure beyond the capacity of the land to absorb it.[23] If not absorbed and used by growing plants, excess manure can run into nearby waters or soak into groundwater, causing contamination and pollution concerns with effects including algal blooms, fish kills, or dangerous levels of bacteria.














Source: Carolyn Todd, Factory Farms: The Environment (2012), Villanova University,

All confined animal operations produce waste which can be the equivalent in volume to sewage produced by a small city. Based on a 2005 report, animals in U.S. CAFOs (hog, poultry, dairy and feedlots) produced approximately 335 million tons of dry matter manure waste annually.


Greenhouse Gases 

In CAFOs, gases and vapors from the microbial breakdown of manure and urine “are emitted from animal containment buildings, manure piles and lagoons, and from land application of waste materials” in quantities greater than in natural environments.[24] These emissions include hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, and methane, a potent greenhouse gas. According to a 2006 Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) study, in today’s industrial system, the average adult cow produces between 80 and 120 kg of methane each year.[25]  While methane from livestock makes up only 6% of all greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, methane is much more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2).[26] Extrapolate that range of annual methane emissions to the Saint Louis Regional Foodshed’s cattle inventory (1,124,825), and the Foodshed’s annual anthropogenic contribution of methane from cattle is between 90 million kg (89,986,000) and 135 kg (134,979,000) per year. Furthermore, 18.5% of all anthropogenic methane-producing activities in the United States come from livestock.[27] Cattle emit more annual methane than all other livestock animals or humans (Figure 6-3).[28]


Figure 6-3


Table 6-11. Methane emission of livestock animals and humans each year.[29]

Source of Methane Emissions        

Annual Methane Emissions (kg)

Western cattle


Non-western cattle









Cows & Methane

Cattle emit methane through a digestive process that is unique to ruminant animals called enteric fermentation. . . . [M]ethane represents a loss of carbon from the rumen and therefore an unproductive use of dietary energy . . . . Emissions from beef cows are high for a number of reasons: beef cows are very large animals; diets, consisting mainly of forages of varying quality, are generally poorer than in the dairy or feedlot sectors; the level of management is typically not as good; and the beef cow population is very large.[30]


To learn more about other sources of methane and other greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, see our Climate and Energy page. 


[1] JoAnn Burkholder et al., Impacts of Waste from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, Envtl. Health Persp., Feb. 2007, 308, 308,

[2] U.S. Census Bureau, Section 3. Health and Nutrition, in Statistical Abstract of the U.S.: 2012, 99, 141, 142 (131st ed. 2011) [hereinafter Section 3. Health and Nutrition] (providing 2009-estimated per capita consumption of grain and meat products). Red meat consists of beef, veal, lamb and mutton, and pork. Id. Protein sources consist of meat, poultry, eggs, beans and peas, processed soy products, nuts and seeds, and seafood. U.S. Dep't of Agric., What Foods are in the Protein Foods Group?,, (last visited July 10, 2013) [hereinafter What Foods are in the Protein Foods Group?].

[3] See U.S. Dep’t of Commerce, Missouri, in U.S. Census of Agriculture 1925, 904, 904-16 (1927), [hereinafter 1925 Census of Agriculture - Missouri]; U.S. Dep’t of Commerce., Illinois, in U.S. Census of Agriculture 1925, 492, 492-503 (1927), [hereinafter 1925 Census of Agriculture - Illinois]; See Nat’l Agric. Statistics Serv., U.S. Dep’t of Agric., 2007 Census of Agriculture - Missouri - State and County Data 374-88 (2009);,_Chapter_2_County_Level/Missouri/mov;1.pdf [hereinafter 2007 Census of Agriculture - Missouri]; Nat’l Agric. Statistics Serv., U.S. Dep’t of Agric., 2007 Census of Agriculture - Illinois - State and County Data  359-71 (2009) (provides total farms in Illinois for years 2002 and 2007),_Chapter_2_County_Level/Illinois/ilv1.pdf [hereinafter 2007 Census of Agriculture - Illinois].

[4] About Us, Am. Grassfed Ass’n, (last visited July 11, 2013).

[5] Leo Horrigan et al., How Sustainable Agriculture Can Address the Environmental and Human Health Harms of Industrial Agriculture, 110 Env’t Health Persp. 5, 445 (2002), available at

[6] Food & Water Watch, Food Safety Consequences of Factory Farms 3 (2007) (citing Doohoo I. et al, Report of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association Expert Panel on rBST, Health Canada (1998)).

[7] See Levi et al., Processed Meat and the Risk of Selected Digestive Tract and Laryngeal Neoplasms in Switzerland, 15 J. Annals Oncology 346, 346 (2004)

[8] See Horrigan, et al., supra note 5, at 449.

[9] Id. at 449.

[10] Id. at 445.

[11] Michael Bomford, FOOD:Getting Fossil Fuels Off The Plate 4 (2011)

[12] Windy Lake Farm, LLC pamphlet. For more information, contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

[13] Id. (citing Letitia L. Star, The Best Foods to Reduce Cholesterol, The Herb Companion (Feb./Mar. 2012)

[14] Id.

[15] What’s the Problem?, EPA (June 2, 2011),

[16] Randy L. Beaver & William E. Field, Summary of Documented Fatalities in Livestock Manure Storage and Handling Facilities-1975-2004, 12 J. Agromedicine 3, 3 (2007) available at

[17] Horrigan et al., supra note 5, at 451.

[18] Horrigan et al., supra note 5, at 447.

[19] Horrigan et al., supra note 5, at 445.

[20] Hidden Water, A Special Issue: Water, Our Thirsty World, Nat’l Geographic, April 2010, at 16 (providing a special supplement, World Rivers/Water Footprint, which illustrates the gallons of water needed to produce common food products). [hereinafter Hidden Water].

[21] See id. (providing an inserted infographic with gallons of water needed for a steer over the course of its lifetime); see The Hidden Water We Use,  Nat’l Geographic (last visited July 24, 2013).

[22] See Hidden Water, supra note 20 (providing a special supplement, World Rivers/Water Footprint, which illustrates the gallons of water needed by a steer over the course of a lifetime).

[23] Horrigan et al., supra note 5, at 448.

[24] Toxic Steering Group, MDEQ, Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) Chemicals Associated with Air Emissions 2 (2006)

[25] Id. at 8.

[26] Id.

[27] Id. (citing National Resource Council 2003).

[28] Dan Bell, The Methane Makers, BBC News Magazine, Oct. 28 2009,

[29] See id.

[30] Ruminant Livestock, EPA, (last updated Mar. 21, 2007).

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