How bad are feedlots really? It's a common question once people realize these sprawling complexes are affecting their air and water, not to mention the food they are eating.
One of the most significant environmental impacts of poorly managed feedlots is water pollution. Feedlots account for more than 55% of sediment pollution and over 30% of nutrient pollution in America's drinking water. Manure runoff catchment and storage lagoons that are inadequately sealed and maintained pollute thousands of miles of waterways and leak into aquifers.
This pollution may contain harmful chemicals such as antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, and heavy metals. Over-applying feedlot manure to crop fields or applying it at the wrong time can further contribute to nutrient pollution and create aquatic dead zones.
When manure nitrate pollution reaches aquifers, it can cause health problems such as hyperthyroidism, diabetes, neurodevelopmental defects, and reproductive disorders such as blue baby syndrome. Pathogen contamination is another significant risk associated with poorly managed feedlots.
Up to 50% of cattle transport dangerous pathogens, such as Salmonella, E. coli O157-H57, and Cryptosporidium. When farmers apply manure to fields, surface and ground waters face a high risk of pathogen contamination.
In addition to the environmental impacts, poorly managed feedlots also contribute to the climate crisis. Beef feedlots emit heat-trapping enteric methane from cattle belching, manure methane from storage lagoons, and nitrous oxide from stored and applied manure. Other sources of heat-trapping pollution include carbon dioxide from agrochemical production, soils by conversion of native ecosystems to feed croplands, and poor management of feed crops.
With clean water supplies in decline and climate change accelerating, we must change how we raise beef now, or we will be forced to change later, by nature itself.