To fully understand feedlots, you have to go into space

A feedlot, or feedyard, is a method of intensive farming most notably used for beef. Once the domain of the Americas and Australia, this type of farming has been expanding across the globe as the demand and supply of the meat industry continues to grow. The vast majority of beef produced in the US (97%) comes from cows that have been reared in a feedlot. To fully comprehend how these feedlots work – and the consequences of such intensive agricultural production – The Skylark has collected a series of unedited satellite images of standard feedlots from space.

JBS Five Rivers Cattle Feeding, Colorado. JBS has been accussed of widespread deforestation across the Amazon. Photo by Google Earth

Feedlots are about size, scale and efficiency – a system that prioritises putting muscle on cattle as quickly as possible before they go to slaughter. This is achieved by penning the animals, often in the tens of thousands, into grass-less enclosures where they can be easily fed. The lack of space stops them moving around and burning excess calories that can be turned into muscle and fat instead.

Perry Kirkland Feedyard, Texas. Photo by Google Earth

The pens are designed to keep a large amount of cattle in one place where they can be efficiently fed. As the images show, the pens lack any meaningful shelter from extreme weather, are grass-less, prone to flooding, and quickly fill with manure and animal waste. Different farms put cattle in these yards for different amounts of time, but it is thought that the majority will spend their entire life in these pens.

Horton Feedyard, Colorado. Photo by Google Earth

Cattle are fed regularly with a mix of roughage, grains and artificial supplements. This is to fatten the calf up as quickly as possible before slaughter. Cattle are purposefully given a high grain diet, more than what is suitable for their natural health, in order to put on muscle. This type of diet leads to bloating, diarrhoea and digestive issues.

The feed is tipped into a long trough that runs along the front of the pens, where cattle gather and cram up against the fence line in order to reach the food. Ideally, cattle will gain between 50-80% of their bodyweight in just 200 days.

Close up of cows being fed at Dalhart Cattle Feeders, Texas. Photo by Google Earth

Through cramped and unsanitary conditions, disease spreads quickly through feedlots. Therefore, animals are heavily dosed with antibiotics, vaccines and suppressors. Huge amounts of waste are also created in this confined area, which is washed away into vast open air sewage ponds. A toxic cocktail of waste, chemicals and poisons, these ponds pose a number of risks. They can leach into water systems, degrade nearby soils and kill local wildlife. In fact, the overuse of antibiotics in industrial farming is leading to a rise in antibiotic resistant bacteria which threaten all human life.

East Barn, Oklahoma. Photo by Google Earth

Surrounding these feedlots can be thousands upon thousands of acres of intensely farmed land, used to grow the grain that feed the animals. Though they may look green, these huge monocultures are useless for most wildlife. In fact, the crops – often genetically modified – are so heavily treated with fertilisers, pesticides and fungicides that life beyond the crops cannot exist, from birds in the sky to insects on the ground to the microbial communities essential for soil health. This type of farming is degrading topsoil around the world, leading experts to predict that we have only 40-60 harvests left before the ground is too infertile to grow food.

Midwest Feeders, surrounded by the intense crop farming in Nebraska. Photo by Google Earth

Alternatives to feedlots exist that don’t produce these impacts. Adaptive multi-paddock grazing is a form of regenerative farming that has been shown to be cheaper, more efficient, organic and far better for the animals’ health. Regenerative farming supports the natural balance of the surrounding environment, keeping soils fertile and encouraging a rich ecosystem of wildlife and fauna.

Swisher County Feedyard, Texas. Photo by Google Earth

The average consumer rarely considers where their food actually comes from. Behind cleverly designed packaging and adverts showing cows in lush green fields, lies the truth of industrial scale beef production. And yet the monumental scale and damage caused by feedlots can be seen from space.

The vast majority of global beef comes from industrial farming that is damaging human health and the environment, whether that’s steak from the supermarket, burgers from fast food restaurants or sausages at a local diner.

Industrial sized farming, such as this, is also a leading cause of climate change and deforestation. In fact cattle ranching and soy production (to feed beef farms in the US), is the number one cause of destruction of the Amazon rainforest.

If consumers are put off by this, then the power is in their hands to do something about it. Feedlots, falsely propped up by agricultural subsidies, will exist so long as there is demand. So by simply reducing your meat intake you are helping reduce the impact of these practices. And if and when you do eat meat, use a local supplier who can guarantee the meat has be produced through regenerative farming practices.

Ponderosa Diaries, Nevada. Photo by Google Earth
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