Say No to CAFOs. Say Yes to Pasture-fed.

Confined animal feeding operations or CAFOs are a type of factory farming. Like many other oxymorons – plastic glasses, working holiday, unbiased opinion, virtual reality, original copies – there are existential problems with the idea of factory farming. They can be dangerous to both the environment and the animals, and may not be particularly good for the consumer either.

The basic idea of a CAFO is to keep as many animals as can managed in as small an area as possible and feed them until they are ready to butcher. It is associated with cattle raising but also used for chickens, ducks, turkeys, swine and even horses.

The concept of the CAFO was devised as a way of increasing the efficiency of a farm. A farmer can produce more beef (for example) more quickly and ostensibly at a lower cost via a CAFO than via a traditional livestock raising method, which would allow the animal to spend at least part of its life out to pasture.

According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Web site, there are seven medium-sized (200-700 animals) and three large (more than 700 animals) CAFOs in Tompkins County heavily concentrated in the north and east of the county. In neighboring southern Cayuga County there are five medium and nine large operations. In the middle of Seneca County there three medium and two large, in northern Tioga (that is, in the Cayuga Lake drainage) there are two medium and 1 large, and in Schuyler County five medium-sized CAFOs. Of the 611 factory farms in New York state, about 37 of them are within an hour of Ithaca.

To put it bluntly, there are better ways of raising animals. The idea of driving the cost of meat down is linked to the idea that it is necessary to a healthful diet to eat a lot of it all the time. Not so.
Because the animals live in such close proximity to one another and, all too often, a muddy, manure-fouled morass, they are subject to disease and are therefore frequently dosed with antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals. A growing body of research suggests that eating meat laced with this stuff is simply not good for you. Recently, video footage at Westland Hallmark Meat Company showed that sometimes it isn’t very good for cows either.

When you keep hundreds or thousands of animals in a confined area and feed them, they defecate in a confined area. What was formerly regarded as a “non-point source” of pollution becomes something more like a point source. When manure is generated by grazing cows it is spread over acres onto vegetation that ideally absorbs the nitrogen and phosphorus compounds in it before it runs off into streams. Coliform bacteria are also more likely to be less concentrated. The Community Science Institute recently announced that much of the phosphorus overloading the southern portion of Cayuga Lake is running off of agricultural land into Fall Creek. If CAFOs are part of the problem (something that can be investigated), then they are a less mandatory part of the landscape than sewage treatment plants, another phosphorus source.

CAFOs are not the only profitable way to raise animals. It is becoming more and more obvious that consumers are willing to pay the additional money to buy the meat of grass-fed (not even necessarily organic) livestock. Because of the higher cost you are likely to eat less of it, less often and live a healthier existence. We will also not have to pay all the “hidden” costs of CAFO-raised meat: the environmental remediation and the health-care expenses, both obvious ones – obesity and cholesterol problems – and the murkier ones – the incompletely understood effects on human health of animal growth hormones, antibiotics and other supplements.

Let’s use the land as if it were land, not just a factory floor.

8 responses to “Say No to CAFOs. Say Yes to Pasture-fed.

  1. I agree. There is actually a grass-fed, humane treatment ranch in Montana called La Cense that is encouraging people to join the grass-fed revolution, while they make people aware of the differences between cows that are grass-fed and cows that are put in CAFOs. I guess the hope is that eventually consumer demand for healthier more humanely raised beef, will be strong enough to push an elimination of CAFO’s.

    To see what La Cense is up to with their grass-fed revolution and enter their contest to win a year’s worth of their grass-fed beef and a freezer to put it in, go to:

  2. Laurie Winkelman, Ph.D. Student, Cornell University

    As a relatively new member of the rural and agricultural Finger Lakes area (I moved here in January 2007), it was rather disheartening for me to read the editorial opinion printed in the April 30, 2008 issue of the Dryden Courier, published by Finger Lakes Community Newspapers titled “Say No to CAFOs, Say Yes to Pasture-Fed Animals”. The writer incorrectly used the acronym CAFO, calling them confined animal feeding operations, when the correct terminology would be concentrated animal feeding operations. Word usage aside, I would like to share how the dairy industry really operates to provide consumers with safe and nutritious dairy products.

    I was raised on a dairy farm in southeast Wisconsin, and my family still milks 130 cows there, along with the heifers and young animals. Our cows live in a free stall barn, where each cow has free access to water, food, and a comfortable place to lay down. We clean the barns two times per day to provide a clean environment for the cows to live in and use best management practices for handling manure and preventing pollution.

    Larger-scale dairy farms are required to follow detailed manure recycling and nutrient management plans, and these plans are continuously updated to reflect new technologies. Every farm must abide by clean water laws. Farmers protect the water on and near their farms through a variety of practices to minimize potential runoff from their operations. Some farms even used new technologies to convert manure into methane-rich biogas, which is a renewable fuel that can be used to generate electricity. Most dairy farmers live and work on their farms, so it is important to them to protect the land, water, and air for their families, surrounding communities, and future generations.

    The perceived environmental benefits touted by pasture-fed and organic food production are non-existent when science is used to actually determine the effects on the environment. Research from Cornell University has shown that pasture-fed dairy cows leave a larger carbon footprint and produce more greenhouse gases than conventionally fed dairy cows per unit of milk produced. Similar results have been shown when comparing conventional and organic farms in the United Kingdom and the European Union. Additionally, to produce the same amount of milk on pasture, it requires more cows – which equates to more manure and emissions.

    Finally, when cows on pasture leave a ‘plotch’ of manure, the cows don’t consider the time of year, weather, or place where they leave their mark. With conventional manure handling systems, dairy farms can use best management practices to apply manure as fertilizer only when the weather and conditions are appropriate to prevent non-point source pollution.

    The bottom-line is that dairy farmers care for their cows and the environment, regardless of how many cows they care for or how many acres they manage. We in the dairy industry are dedicated to providing you with safe, high quality dairy products.

  3. Bill Chaisson

    The acronym CAFO stands for either “concentrated” or “confined” animal feeding operation, depending on the state. New York (and Wisconsin) used “concentrated” and Oregon, for example, uses “confined”. Since the animals are, in fact, both confined and concentrated, the distinction amounts to nothing.

    As for “every farmer must abide by clean water laws”: every citizen must abide by all sort of laws, and some citizens do not abide by them. Sometimes the rules are very difficult to abide by. There is much evidence that where a large number of animals are kept in a small area run-off to streams is carrying excessive nitrogen compounds, phosphorus, coliform bacteria and other pollutants that lower water quality and encourage eutrophication. The Fall Creek drainage in Dryden is one such location, according to data from the Community Science Institute.

    Of course, sewage treatment plants and malfunctioning septic systems do this too.

    It is my understanding that the purpose of CAFOs is to raise more cows more cheaply so that you can get more milk at a lower price per cow. It is also my understanding that it is necessary to get more milk at a lower price because the price of milk has been kept artificially low by the federal government.

    This is ostensibly to “protect” the consumer. In fact, it simply drives the farms to cost-cutting measures associated with factory farming in a on-going effort to keep the farm solvent.

    One certainly hopes that the carbon footprint of CAFO cows is smaller because there is a heck of lot more of them. We don’t need that many cows. Our diets are far too heavy in meat and dairy products. There is nothing wrong with eating meat and dairy, but the health problems associated with eating too much of those things are costing Americans a lot in medical bills.

    And the American diet is presently being exported around the world.

    The need for factory farming in its extremity is artificial, driven by a corporate culture interested in selling product and with no interest in farming, good land use practice or safeguarding the environment. Farmers and regulators are forced to come up with regulations and practices in response to a market over which they have no control.

  4. Laurie Winkelman, Ph.D. Student, Cornell University

    The term CAFO is just a label for farms that have a certain amount of animals that are housed indoors for more than 45 days out of the year. Which, in New York and many states with frigid winters, means that even ‘pasture’ dairy operations with the minimum amount of animals are going to be considered CAFOs.

    When farms get larger, there are efficiencies of scale that allow for better care of the animals and the environment. In addition, it provides a living wage for the farmer and gives them the opportunity to spend time with their families. Growing up on my family’s farm, we never got to take vacations or spend money on the luxuries that our non-farming friends and neighbors did. While I wouldn’t trade my upbringing for anything, it is unreasonable to ask farmers to put their blood, sweat, and tears into a business, only to barely make ends meet and never have time with their families.

    I would encourage anyone here to go and visit one of the large dairies in the area and witness first hand how well the cows and the environment are cared for. I would gladly arrange a trip to a local dairy to show you that larger does not equate to worse.

    No one forces people to purchase dairy products at the store. People choose dairy products because they enjoy the taste and it is nutritious. There is no corporate scam involved in people’s food choices…and most “factory” farms are family-owned.

  5. Bill Chaisson

    Family farms, under the current model, show signs of going extinct:
    “Only 30 percent of the nation’s 2.1 million farms will pass to a second generation, and less than 10 percent will reach a third generation.”
    Source: Legacy by Design: Succession Planning for Agribusiness Owners,” Kevin Spafford
    Quoted at

    Saying that no one forces people to purchase dairy products is basically saying that advertising and public service announcements are pointless. If so, then I’m sure that Madison Avenue would like to know.

    I wonder why the “Got Milk?” campaign spawned so many imitations?

    Consumption of whole milk has actually declined through the 20th century and the consumption has not been entirely replaced by consumption of lower fat milk. Instead people are eating more products that are made with milk (like cheese) or “milk solids,” which are in a lot of snack foods.

  6. Laurie Winkelman

    1. All food production has an environmental impact. The goal is to produce food with the smallest environmental impact as possible per unit of food production. The carbon footprint of dairy production in the early 1940s was 300% greater than it is today per unit of milk.

    2. The “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” put out by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) calls for increased consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grain foods, AND dairy products within caloric recommendations.

  7. Bill Chaisson

    Very few people would cut all dairy products out of their diets (in Ithaca you might meet more vegans than you did in Wisconsin). The problem is one of balance.

    In the course of my reporting on the menus of local public schools, the food service directors report that the children will not eat whole grain foods, fruits or vegetables. They throw them out or refuse to take them at all. They then go to the nearest dispensing machine and buy a muffin or a packet of cheese doodles, or get a slice of pizza on their way home.

    Is the way Americans eat the fault of farmers? Of course not. Can farmers do anything about it? Not really.

    Should the American public encourage their legislators, school boards and administrators to get food manufacturers to mend their ways? Ideally, yes.

    Why? It would be better for our health and for the environment. And it would change the demands made on all types of farmers.

    I would be interested to read the reference about pre-WW II dairy farming. Could you cite it please? Thank you.

  8. Laurie Winkelman

    The work about changes in the environmental impact of dairy over time is being published by Dr. Dale Bauman’s group at Cornell. I know he would be willing to share (what he can) with you about the work and data. I received the information from him through personal communication. His contact information is available through Cornell’s website (, search ‘people’) if you would like to contact him personally.

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