An Unusual Request…

I received a personal note last week from a fellow blogger.  It read:

I’m concerned about the health threats posed by large animal feeding operations.  The toxic emissions caused by millions of gallons of manure and the hundreds of thousands of hogs, cows, and chickens confined in small areas put people at risk for everything from E Coli to respiratory problems. (Not to mention the inhumane conditions animals are experiencing).  I would like to send you a guest blog post on this topic.  Would you help to spread awareness by posting it on your blog?

An aerial view of my feed yard and some of the surrounding farm land…

I was a little bit surprised at the request.  I am, after all, the owner and boss lady at what the Environmental Protection Agency considers a large animal feeding operation.

  I was left to wonder—Is there a misunderstanding as to what kind of cattle farm I have?  Or, is there simply a misunderstanding as to what really is an animal feeding operation?

Here I am walking through one of my feed yard pens while the cattle watch curiously…

While I am not knowledgeable enough to speak regarding hog and chicken operations, I would like to take a minute to speak to the above claims as they pertain to my large cattle feeding operation.

  • My cattle feed yard houses just under 3000 animals in 24 pens.  These pens are on average 220 feet by 150 feet in size giving each animal approximately 254 square feet in which to live and express normal bovine play behavior.

Up at the feed bunk eating breakfast…

  • My cattle eat at feed bunks that line the length of the front of each pen—each animal has 12-18 inches of space to stand at the bunk and eat at any given time during the day.

    Another feed bunk picture…You can see the pen’s “living space” in the background.

  • I believe that the animals at my feed yard have very humane living conditions, and my crew and I work diligently every day to ensure that every animal on our farm is cared for and comfortable.  I passionately believe that housing my animals in a feed yard pen situation does not compromise good welfare or care.

    It is my responsibility to provide good care for him…

  • My husband farms approximately 5500 acres within a 20 mile radius of our feed yard.  The manure that my animals make is an incredibly valuable resource for him as he cares for the nutrient needs of our crop ground.

  • Without the natural fertilizer that my animals make, my husband would have to solely look to outside sources of fertilizer in order to care for the soil.  Manure is an important component to the cycle of life that makes our farm sustainable.  We view it as a positive contributor to our farm—an important tool that ensures good soil health…

    This beautifully green alfalfa field needs well nourished soil in which to grow…

  • It is absolutely true that cattle are carriers of E Coli.  It is found naturally in their systems and there are many, many different strains (some can create sickness in humans and some cannot).  Cattle grazing grass pastures carry E Coli, just as cattle living in feed yard pens.  I promise every single one of you that beef farmers all across the country are working with scientists to develop ways to eliminate the threat of food-borne illness.  Food safety is a top priority for us!

    Hamburger–It’s What’s for Dinner at the Feed Yard Foodie house!

  • The connection of  animal feeding operations and human respiratory disease is one that I am not familiar with.  I have worked at a feed yard for almost 16 years and have never witnessed that phenomenon.  Archie has worked at my feed yard for more than 40 years and shares my sentiment.  I am sure that we are prejudiced, but we both believe that living near and working at a feed yard is a cleaner environment than living in a large city!

    Archie and I, and our promise to you…

My husband and I care about our land, our natural resources, our animals, and the products that we grow on our farm.  We strive every day to be responsible caretakers of the resources with which we were blessed.

From our family to yours—we are committed to being the best that we can be…

There are also many other farmers across the United States that share the same values that our family does.  We proudly grow food for our fellow countrymen—being a large animal feeding operation does not change our commitment to excellence.


Filed under CAFO, General

29 responses to “An Unusual Request…

  1. Anne,
    A terrific response to your blogger friend’s request. Thanks for sharing! We also own and operate a “small” feed yard where we have about 2400 head on feed. The only difference is we keep our cattle in mono slope buildings. With your exchange we can hopefully continue to break down the barriers that exist between livestock producers and our friends who consume our products. Keep up the good work!

    • Bryan,

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting. It is always good to hear from other cattle farmers that share the same values that I do!

      Perhaps we will meet one day at a cattlemen’s meeting. In the meantime, I wish you the best as you care for your animals and raise great beef.


      • These appear to be decent reasonable people Anne and commenter guy. There is no “comfortable” easy way to Feed Cattle until sale. They eat, sleep and walk around the pasture or feed lot. Not very exciting or pretty.

      • Hi Boswell,

        Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. One of the biggest things that I struggle with being a blogger is accurately interpreting what my readers are trying to share when they ask questions or comment. I have to admit that I struggled with this both with the initial request and also on your comment.

        When I received the initial request from a fellow blogger (whom I am sure is a very reasonable person), I was indeed confused. I sent a follow up email to this person asking if we could share information and have a conversation on the topic so that we could learn from each other. I never heard back after sending my request, and I was disappointed. I decided to write this post after realizing that I was not probably ever going to hear back—I wrote it because it occurred to me that more of my readers might be confused as to the type of farm that I have.

        As to your comment, I believe that there is a good way to raise cattle and I try very hard to ensure good care and animal comfort at my feed yard. I am sorry that you disagree, but I respect that it is your right to have a different perspective than I do.

        Thanks for sharing.

        All the best,

  2. DebbieLB

    Very well put! I appreciate you answering these concerns head-on! And I especially enjoyed your comment that living in the country near the feed yard is cleaner than in the middle of a city! I feel the exact same way!

    • Hi Debbie,

      Great to hear from you–I am glad that you enjoyed the post. I can imagine you smiling as you read my comment about living in the country.

      I look forward to seeing you at NCBA this winter.

      All the best,

  3. cowdoc lana

    While I do believe that in some areas of animal agriculture we can and should do better, I also believe that in many instances the media has failed to remember how to report and simply inflames. If we look specifically at beef – we come to closest to all animal agriculture in following and balancing the 5 Freedoms which I consider the basis for providing optimal animal welfare. In cow calf and seed stock farms and ranches the animals are outside on pasture most of their lives, able to express normal bovine behaviors including social interactions with herd mates and bovine frolic and play. Cattle are fed a forage based diet year round, vaccinated for the common diseases (just like people are vaccinated to prevent diseases like the flu), provided with access to water and shelter. And shelter for a cow is not an indoor closed stall but can be as simple as a wood lot or a wind block – cows in general prefer to be outside. We use polled genetics so calves do not have to be dehorned and if they need to be dehorned we have ways to mitigate pain and stress. We use low stress handling techniques and work to give our animals a life worth living. We use modern scientific information to prevent disease, mitigate pain and stress, provide excellent nutrition, use high accuracy calving ease bulls for our heifers (to prevent calving difficulties) and work every day – rain snow shine of sleet to make sure our animals are happy healthy and have a life worth living. We do this on farms and ranches that range from 1 or 2 cows to thousands of cows. Could we do better – sure – and we strive every to do so.

    In regards to respiratory diseases of cattle – most bacterial and viral diseases of mammals are host specific – ie they don’t want to live in an animal other than their preferred host. The primary cattle respiratory viral and bacterial diseases do not affect or infect humans.

    In regards to manure – the ability to spread cattle manure on pasture and crops (and cattle on pasture spread it as they walk) allows the ground to be enriched with a natural fertilizer.

    Perhaps the fellow blogger would like to spend a winter day at the feed yard, or get up in the middle of the night to check on pregnant heifers, or fix the frozen waterline in a sleet storm, or haul water when the electricity is out – we do these things and more every day 24/7/365 to assure that our cattle have an excellent life.

    • Hi Doc,

      I am, like you, a believer in the 5 Freedoms. Thanks for sharing that, along with your insight on the other issues. It is always good to hear your thoughts!

      All the best,

  4. Nebraska Farm Wife

    Thanks Anne for your thoughtful and great response to the bloggers request. Even as a cow/calf producer I can at some times of the year be considered a AFO (Animal Feeding Operation). We also meet 1 of the 2 criteria to be considered a Small CAFO by the EPA even though my cows spend 10 months out of the year grazing open pastures and corn fields however, they do spend a couple months in smaller pastures and pens during calving time. This gives us the ability to keep a closer watch and provide optimum care during the birth of the calves. Our calves spend about 3-6 months in a pen very similar to yours in the feedlot from the time they are weaned till they go to a feedlot to be finished for beef. Even though we are not a feedlot our calves still have ALL of their physical and emotional needs met every single day, rain or shine, 20 below zero or 100 plus degrees. We have a nutrient management plan, we still have to prevent animal waste run off from getting in the river that is close by, and we recycle the manure to our corn and hay fields for fertilizer to replace the nutients removed with the crops each year. Both my Husband I grew up on a farm/ranch and have spend our whole lives near animals, we don’t have allergies, we hardly ever get the flu or even the common cold. I believe that by living closer to nature we have built a better stronger immune system by being exposed to the bacteria that are naturally found there. Our first child will be born in a few months and he/she will grow up playing and working near our livestock and I am 100% confident that he/she will not contract any illness or disease by growing up with our cattle living out side our front door.
    We have a really big job in bridging the knowledge gap between what we really do and what the media portrays to our consumers. I would like to believe that our consumers will over time realize that getting their information direct from the farm is a much better source of accurate info than from a guy/gal who doesn’t know the difference between corn plant and an alfalfa sprout.

    • Bobbi,

      Thanks for your great comment. I appreciate you adding your own story of what happens on your farm to this discussion. You bring up great points about AFO’s and the reality of providing feed and care during the calving season.

      Good luck with your new little one coming. What a blessing!


  5. Paula

    Excellent reply! Thanks for so eloquently sharing your story.

  6. What a fantastic reply. Just this week Animals Australia (similar to PETA/HSUS) has started a campaign to end ‘factory farming’. However they have no understanding of the lengths that all farmers whether rangeland, pen or barn based go to ensure the welfare of their animals. I congratulate you for your thoughtful, intelligent response.

    • Rebecca,

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I really appreciate hearing your “global” perspective. I hope to one day travel to Australia–my husband and I have it on the “list of things that we really want to do someday”.

      Please keep reading and sharing!

  7. Gaylene Hanson

    Wonderful, well written response. I worked in and for the cattle industry for 20 years and lived on a cattle farm for the first 18 years of my life. There is way too much misconception that follows this life. Thanks for trying to set at least a portion of the story straight.

    • Gaylene,
      Thanks for the compliment and thanks for signing up to follow the blog! I look forward to hearing from you again 🙂

      All the best,

  8. Rex

    Your unusual request seems to come from someone who is unaware of the environmental improvements that happened in the last 40 years since the Federal Clean Water Act and all the work your do to avoid a “toxic emission” even in the event of a 25 year flood.
    She also seems have the erroneous notion that cattle in a feedlot do not have essentially the same health challenges as free range cattle.

    • cowdoc lana

      Rex I may be misinterpreting what you are saying but I have to disagree with your statement (“notion that cattle in a feedlot do not have essentially the same health challenges as free range cattle”.) Any time you mix together groups of mammals from various places in somewhat close of confined quarters – be they kids in kindergarten or calves in a feed yard – they are at risk for developing infectious diseases – that is why proper nutrition and vaccinations and low stress are so important in protecting the health of both our kids and our calves. The relatively close quarters and co-mingling in both the classroom and pen expose each individual to more “other individuals” than if they were in an open unconfined space. So IMHO the risk is greater for kids in kindergarten vs home schooled just like calves in a co-mingled pen vs home in a field…

      • Rex

        I have often observed cattle in pasture loafing in a corner or near the windmill at concentrations similar to a feedyard.

  9. Mary Laura

    From what I have read, respiratory problems are a (potentially serious for those with breathing difficulties) consequence of high levels of ammonia associated with high concentrations of animal urine. However, I suspect that only happens with animals confined in limited space without proper stable management. I would think these high levels of ammonia wouldn’t happen outdoors in well drained pens, especially on your nice clean farm, and ESPECIALLY with the Nebraska winds.
    Mary Laura

  10. Mary Laura

    To clarify, I meant respiratory diseases in people associated with animal waste.

  11. cowdoc lana

    Rex – if those cattle under the windmill shade are a mixed group of feeders, unweaned and unvaccinated prior to mixing – then I agree – however, if those are a herd of cows with no new entries into the herd I disagree – if a herd of cattle chooses to clump together in the shade (and they do) rather than scatter thru out the pasture that IMHO is different than cattle who are in a confined area with so many feet per animal. The risk of respiratory disease is much greater in feed yard cattle than in cattle on pasture or on the range – there are several well documented reasons for this including co mingling calves from different farms/ranches – these calves have different immunity to disease, different exposure to disease, different vaccination history, different feed and mineral programs, maybe pre weaned and pre conditioned (maybe not) etc – that is one of the reasons Anne goes to the lengths she does to minimize stress for her incoming calves

    • Rex

      Opinions that if we did not have CAFO’s, we would not have sick animals and we therefore would not need animal antibiiotics are common in the press. They are often repeated by anti-animal production people or by grass fed, freerange marketers.
      Unfortunately, I know of many closed herds, except for the bulls, with comprehensive vaccination programs and trace mineral programs and cattle in good condition that have suffered viral outbreaks followed by pneumonia while on pasture at a density of one pair per ten acres. The epidemics are usually 100% morbidity and occassionally ten percent mortality with additional calves suffering permanent lung damage.
      I believe the higher use of antibioitics in feed yards has a great deal to do with the improved ease of recognizing sick calves and being able to treat them as much as any other factor.

      • cowdoc lana

        First I do not believe that if we did not have CAFOs we would not have sick animals – as you alluded to that is bunk – but if we are dealing with beef animals (not dairy, not working oxen) the primary risk for infectious disease is co mingling of cattle and the primary (but not exclusive) way this happens is at feed yards.However, any time an animal from one herd enters another herd without sufficient quarantine time or when an animal is co-mingled or exposed to other animals (ie show, fair, sale, etc) there is the risk that the animal will develop an infectious respiratory disease.

        You say you know many closed herds except the bulls that have had issues – that is not a closed herd. A closed herd is one in which any animal that is co mingled with other animals (show, fair, sale etc) DOES NOT return to the home farm AND in which no purchased animals enter the farm. So if a herd buys bulls they are not a closed herd and that bull or bulls bring with them the same risks of respiratory and other diseases. I have worked on several wrecks (disease wise) where the bull was the problem – I have a closed herd – there are very few truly closed herds in either beef or dairy across the US

        I believe we can do a better job of setting feed yard calves up for success by using low stress weaning, low stress handling, proper vaccinations, bunk breaking, introducing feed, improved stockmanship – I don’t exactly know what your statement “I believe the higher use of antibioitics in feed yards has a great deal to do with the improved ease of recognizing sick calves” means but I believe that being able to read cattle, pick up on the subtle changes of animals that are sick (as prey animals, cattle do a great job hiding illness and in
        infirmity), being a good caretaker of one’s animals, being a good stockperson is the key to recognizing sick animals, not the higher use of antibiotics

  12. Rex

    In the areas north and south of Cozad, typical family ranches are 250 to 300 cows per family. That herd is grazed on 5000 to 6000 acres. Just getting to and from the pasture can take most of a day. As a consequence, cattle often get the focused attention of the rancher for a minute each, sometimes several days apart when he brings mineral and checks the windmill. Sometimes, the sick calves drift to the back when cattle are moved a distance to a new pasture. Compare this to the feedyard where the feedtruck comes every day (at least once), someone checks the water, someone just checks the cattle and at Will Feed the cattle are let out into the alley and back again. I think Anne is set up to have better success in idenitifying sick animals. She has more opportunities in a day. In addition, a sick animal is typically removed from the pen which makes finding the next sick animal easier. Those are my thoughts relative to “improved ease of recognizing sick calves”. Anne maximizes chances to succeed for herself and the cattle with her low stress techniques and stockmanship skills.

    if the sick animals are not recognized, they are not going to get antibiotics. This is especially true on a ranch that relies on pasture roping or trailing the cattle to a remote capture pen once a sick animal is found.

    • cowdoc lana

      Rex – not to be contrary but it is LANA not Lena.

      Perhaps I misinterpreted your statement (below):
      “I believe the higher use of antibioitics in feed yards has a great deal to do with the improved ease of recognizing sick calves and being able to treat them as much as any other factor.”

      I do not believe that the higher use of antibiotics has anything to do with improved ease of recognizing sick calves. What has to do with recognizing sick calves is looking at them and knowing what “normal is” and being able to recognize those subtle behavioral signs that a calf is “not right” – it is a skill that some people are born with but most need to learn and hone their skills constantly.

      A good pen rider and a good stock person can look at a pen or field or pasture of cows and knows if something “isn’t right” and then investigates. Of course it is easier if the space the animals are in is limited – but it has nothing to do “higher use of antibiotics”.

      There is ample research to support the notion that the beef animal most likely to be affected by respiratory infections are the feed yard cattle – this is why Anne spends so much time and effort acclimating and working with her new arrivals. This doesn’t mean that cattle in other situations do not get sick – but the risk is greatest for co mingled multi source calves transported to a feed yard

      • Rex

        Cowdoc Lana,
        First my apologies about the typo of your name.
        Several years ago our local chapter of Nebraska Cattlemen sponsored an evening seminar by Dr. Noffsinger. Two comments impressed me: one was a story of a calf that almost cut its foot off unloading and still walked without a limp to hide its vulnerability and the other was a comment that almost half the livers in slaughter houses show signs of disease damage.
        It seems to me that despite our best efforts, we are missing many diseased animals, and that the diseases are sometimes starting before the cattle see the feedyards. Dut to the additional stress, things can really escalate there.
        My wife is also a vet, with a passion for raising cattle from her ranching childhood. She rides the herd several times a week. About 10 years ago, she noticed that suddenly a significant number were droopy so we brought the entire herd in to run through the chute. We took temperatures on the first 100 head and found every one between 103 and 106. We weren’ t expecting more than a few extras, not a 100% sick. We are all now quite humble about our abiltiy to find sick animals despite our training, our experience, our skill or our passion.

  13. cowdoc lana

    Rex – no problem – I have spent much of my life telling people how to spell and pronounce my name – even had one professor tell me I was saying it wrong (really – it’s my name, was my Grandma’s name…) any how, I see (hear) what you are saying and actually think we are “singing the same tune” 🙂

    Cattle are exquisitely good at hiding illness and infirmity – thus the importance of good stock people, pen riders, caretakers etc people who know what “normal” looks like and can pick up when things aren’t quite right.

    I rotationally graze my cattle – so I see them at least twice a day – some time I will find a cow that “looks off” run her thru the chute and find nothing – thinking that we all have “off days” cattle probably do too, and chances are she is fine the next day – makes me think that if you interact with your cattle 2 or 3 times per day you will likely see things that “just happen” and don’t really mean the animal is sick. This of course is reaffirmed when she is “normal” the next day. On the other hand sometimes just the slightest change in behavior or posture indicates that there is a problem which you confirm when they are in the chute.

    So I think there is a lot we don’t know, probably a bit we miss and that we should always strive to do better – have a great day Rex – it is below freezing here but the sun is out!

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