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What Is a CAFO? The Costs of Industrial Farming

How much do you really know about our food system? Most meat, dairy, and eggs produced in the US come from a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation). These massive facilities are nothing like the traditional family farms of the past.

Modern agribusiness is more efficient than ever before, thanks to consolidation, automation, and the never-ending quest to produce more low-cost food. But it’s also causing ongoing, well-documented harms to the environment, people, and animals.

Many of us in the farming community are now working to heal farmland through regenerative practices and adopting standards for the compassionate care of livestock. So we know there is a sustainable path for both consumers and food producers to move away from the bigger, faster, cheaper mindset.

If you want to explore that path, learning what a CAFO is and how it affects land, communities, and animals is a great place to start. 

What Is a CAFO?

CAFO refers to an agricultural facility housing a large number of animals for a period of 45 days or more, with no land being used for crops, grazing, or foraging. 

CAFOs can be small, medium, or large based on the number of animals. A large cattle CAFO is anything at or above 1,000 cows, while a small turkey CAFO may have as many as 16,500 turkeys. The size of the CAFO determines its requirements under government regulations, including EPA oversight

CAFOs are very different from traditional agriculture and animal husbandry practices, in that they create a controlled, overpopulated, and unhealthy environment, in contrast to a pasture-based farm. 

How Does a CAFO Work?

The goal of a CAFO is to produce meat, eggs, or dairy as efficiently and cheaply as possible – while meeting the minimum regulatory requirements. In pursuit of that goal, CAFOs control every variable within their power.

Animal Welfare

While animal welfare in CAFOs is regulated, those regulations have to balance what is healthiest for the animals with efficiency. 

By definition, animals in a CAFO environment aren’t living in their natural environment. Concentrated animal feeding operations put a large number of animals in an enclosed space to maximize the use of resources.

Most enclosures include automated systems for:

  • Waste management
  • Ventilation
  • Watering
  • Feeding 

These conditions go against an animal’s instinct to socialize and move around. An example of this is the housing of pigs. On CAFOs, they live in crates too small for them to turn around, separated from other pigs, so they can’t form social connections or seek security. 95% of pigs in the US live in this way.

CAFO pigs

This type of housing leads to high levels of stress and irritation in the animals resulting in workers having to look out for, prevent, or manage any problems that arise.

Farms that opt for more humane treatment of animals create conditions in which they can express their instinctive behaviors, including the freedom to graze, socialize, and live outdoors. As a result, the animals are calmer and healthier.

Overfeeding and Supplemented Animal Nutrition in CAFOs

The goal of CAFOs is to maximize production. As a result, animal diets are high in calories to promote rapid growth and weight gain, or to maximize the production of eggs or milk. 

The animals can’t forage, and their optimal foods are not compatible with an automated feeding system or scheduled feeding. Feeds include components like grains and soybeans, along with supplements to compensate for missing nutrients or to boost growth and weight.

Dangers of Overfeeding

When a cow is overfed grain, acid buildup occurs. This leads to infectious bacteria making its way into the liver, where it causes abscesses. 

Another danger of overfeeding grain to cows is that it can accumulate in the intestines because the animals lack starch-digesting enzymes. The result of this buildup of bacterium is often associated with feedlot cattle and sudden death.

grainfed cows

Animals on farms where they are allowed to graze for food how and when they want, get the nutrients their body needs, and the right amount of food. As a result, their dietary needs are met naturally, which results in better overall health and better meat for consumers.

Trying to Keep Animals Healthy in a CAFO

Because of the tight space and crowding, keeping CAFO animals healthy is an uphill battle. CAFOs rely on a variety of medicines and vaccines to prevent diseases from taking hold and spreading.

While these practices ensure that the maximum number of animals in an enclosure minimizes sickness, there are serious drawbacks.

Overuse of Antibiotics

The widespread use of antibiotics in CAFOs is a driving force behind antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which greatly impacts public health.

Another downside to the heavy use of antibiotics in the agricultural industry is that it can cause shortages when people need these medicines.

A report by the FDA in 2016 found that medically important antibiotics accounted for 62% of all antibiotics sold for use in food-producing animals in 2015, and that number has remained consistent since. 

Farming practices that allow animals to forage food in their natural environment, and sleep in clean, uncrowded enclosures can eliminate or significantly decrease the need for antibiotics. As we’ve seen by implementing this practice, our animals are healthier and hardier

Waste Management in a CAFO

CAFOs use lagoon systems to manage waste like manure and urine. These systems collect and store the waste in large, open-air pits or ponds.

These containment systems still release pollutants into the air and groundwater, which leads to environmental concerns. They can also cause major public health issues when manure spills, leaks, or runoff that contain bacteria, viruses, fungi, synthetic hormones, or parasites end up in fruit and vegetable fields or water supplies. 

To remove these risks to the environment and consumer health, farms like ours raise livestock in open pastures, where waste is never a concentrated source of pollution. We build and maintain regenerative landscapes that sequester more carbon, absorb more clean water, and photosensitize more sunlight.

CAFO Labor and Management

Automated systems help keep CAFOs optimized and cost-effective, but they still need a lot of labor. The push to keep costs as low as possible means that many CAFO workers are low-wage, non-unionized workers with little power to negotiate the hazardous conditions and health risks that come with the job.

And since CAFOs are often owned and operated by major agribusiness corporations, it’s difficult for workers to speak up about the dangers they face, or push for changes.

Working with other farmers and community members to affect positive change in how farms are run reduces risk to both the animals and the workers.

CAFOs' Negative Impact on the Environment

The EPA recognized that large-scale, concentrated animal feeding operations have a significant negative impact on the environment both at the local and global level, including:

  • Advancing climate change
  • Water pollution
  • Land pollution
  • Air pollution

Air pollution studies show that CAFOs produce unpleasant smells and high concentrations of particulates and gases that contribute to lower air quality.

Leakage from lagoon systems and other waste management processes pollute rivers, lakes, and ponds and can even leak into aquifers used to supply water to humans.

In addition, CAFOs are dependent on tillage-based mono-cropping for grain production – a contributing factor to a poorly managed carbon cycle.

Regenerative farming practices improve soil health and can even begin to undo some of the negative impacts of large-scale agribusiness practices. We know these practices allow the land to heal because farms like ours are seeing soil health improve.

The Economics of CAFOs

CAFOs are a major driver of agribusiness. This means that corporate interests benefit from it more than individual farmers and communities.

CAFOs have a far-reaching impact on the economy from the local to the national level and even worldwide. They raise costs for local communities by increasing pollution and other hazards to residents and reducing opportunities for farmers in other countries due to the price-lowering impact of inexpensive meat.

CAFOs have helped consolidate economic power for a small number of corporations, at the expense of small farms, but there are alternatives.

Sustainable methods and local sourcing reduce the outsized economic footprint of CAFOs and allow smaller farms and family farms to compete.

CAFOs and the Complications of Regulation

The EPA is the primary regulatory agency when it comes to CAFOs. However, there are several different layers of regulation for large-scale intensive animal agriculture.

  • EPA establishes the basic guidelines regarding water and air pollution, setting standards for waste management, and the requirements for farms applying for the designation.
  • USDA plays a role in regulating animal welfare and setting standards at the national level. 
  • FDA oversees CAFOs as products move from the farm to the distribution system.
  • State and local authorities have added methods for regulating how CAFOs operate. States also set laws and regulations regarding worker treatment and pay.
  • Each state has the right to determine animal welfare standards, such as what types of enclosures farmers can use and what machines are allowed. 
  • On the local level, zoning laws and city and town ordinances set guidelines for what locations are acceptable for CAFOs and what conditions the local government will accept.

With so many agencies regulating the standards of caring for animals, it’s tough for consumers to know how their food was raised. Muddying the waters even more is the millions of dollars agribusinesses spend lobbying against regulation and enforcement.

Buying from local farmers who are transparent about their methods is one of the most important things people can do to ensure they're consuming ethically raised meat. 

CAFOs Are Big, but They’re Not the Only Way

CAFOs have an outsized impact on the economy, environment, human health, and animal welfare. The shift towards intensive animal agriculture isn’t just confined to “conventional” products, either. Organic dairy and organic chicken corporations have been caught using CAFO methods that are at odds with the spirit of organic production. 

cafo chicken farm

But even though CAFOs are a huge factor in producing our food, conscious consumers are looking for – and supporting – an increasing number of ethical food producers in the US. 

Sustainable farming practices like regenerative grazing and pasturing reduce emissions, check soil erosion, help keep the water cleaner, and help combat public health issues, all while giving the animals the best, most natural life possible.

We know it works because these are the practices we use, and we’ve seen the results firsthand. If you’d like to learn more, explore our resource page on sustainable farming practices.

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