CAFOs vs. Grass-Fed and Finished


Do you ever feel that your efforts are moving in a “one step forward – two steps back” rhythm? Recently, a few articles landed on our desks. Articles written about CAFOs and industrialized agriculture and articles written on the benefits of grass-fed animals. No one article covers it all and it is the ALL that is important to know.   

To offer you a briefing of what they are about, we combed through them and pulled out the low-lights and the highlights. Although the stories were written by professional journalists and scientists, and were mostly unbiased, we openly admit that we are biased.

“Sunny Side Down”

From South Dakota News Watch (3 part article): SPECIAL REPORT: Expansion of large ‘CAFO’ livestock farms causing division and concern across South Dakota

  • Despite a rising wave of grassroots opposition, South Dakota has seen a 15% increase in the development of livestock operations known as CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), with 18 new CAFOs put into production over the past 18 months. SD has 452 CAFOs.
  • What is a CAFO: Large CAFOs are farm operations that require a state permit and are subject to regular inspection once they reach 1,000 or more “animal units.” Based on weight, 1,000 animal units equates to either 700 dairy cows, 1,000 head of cattle, 2,500 adult hogs or 10,000 juvenile swine, 55,000 turkeys, 82,000 laying hens or 155,000 chickens.
  • CAFO Structure: Rather than feeding and holding animals in fenced fields, outdoor pens or open barns, the animals are kept in massive large barns that are segregated into smaller pens inside. Animals typically are not exposed to the sun or the elements, usually live on concrete slabs or metal slats, and sometimes stand almost shoulder-to-shoulder, especially as they age and grow closer to harvesting weight.
  • The vast majority of American livestock is now raised in CAFOs, with federal data showing that about 70% of cows, 98% of pigs and 99% of chickens and turkeys are produced in CAFOs each year.
  • There are 20,382 CAFOs in the United States. CAFOs can be found in all U.S. states except Alaska, Hawaii and Rhode Island.

  • Each time a new CAFO project is proposed, it invariably faces objections from some neighbors and environmentalists who raise concerns over human health risks, reduction of property values, animal treatment and antibiotic use, odors, and fears of potential contamination of air, land and waterways from high volumes of animal waste.
  • In the report, “Understanding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations and Their Impact on Communities,” which was sanctioned by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researchers found that 70% of antibiotics used annually in America were given to beef cattle, hogs and chickens in their feed at the time of the study. Half of those antibiotics used are the same as those used to treat human illnesses. They found strong evidence that antibiotics in animal feed are transferred to humans and leading to a growing number of antibiotic-resistant organisms. “This is a serious threat to human health because fewer options exist to help people overcome disease when infected with antibiotic-resistant pathogens. The antibiotics can also leech into groundwater or surface water.”
  • The farms emit high levels of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide that can harm humans, the research has shown. “The data is pretty good,” he said. “We found plenty of health effects on people working inside them, and we also found that when it comes to CAFOs, neighbors do suffer health effects.”
  • South Dakota, may follow the path of Iowa, the national leader in large hog farms where consistent odors, waterway pollution and fish kills have resulted from heavy CAFO development.
  • A 2016 analysis of state records in Illinois by the Chicago Tribune found that leaks and spills from hog CAFOs had killed more than 490,000 fish in 67 miles of rivers during a 10-year period.
  • This year, South Dakota started a new effort to provide a major financial incentive to county governments that approve new CAFO projects. Industry groups and some state officials say CAFOs provide new opportunities for existing farmers, create options for young farmers to get started and add significant financial value to the state’s largest industry.
  • “I do think we need more ag development in South Dakota,” Gov. Noem said in an interview with News Watch in September. “Anytime we can add value to the commodities and livestock that we raise here, it puts more money into South Dakota’s pocket and for those producers out there that are working so hard to feed the world.” *NOTE: 70% of our agricultural crops grown are grown to feed animals in confinement. Between 1995 and 2016, Noem’s family-owned Racota Valley Ranch in Hazel, S.D. cashed $3,704,415 million in government farm subsidies. In 2012 alone, they accepted $232,707 in subsidies.

Wild Idea Buffalo Company’s Position: The economic advantages pointed out in this article we know to be short lived. The true costs are hidden in government subsidies and often human and unrepairable environmental damages. These facts, along with treating animals in the most inhumane ways is flat out unacceptable to us.

“Sunny Side Up”

From The Atlantic: What America Lost When It Lost the Bison

  • Bison do not “surf the green wave”.
  • Green Wave Surfing: “Green wave surfing is the progression of spring green-up from low to high elevations or latitudes that dictates the pace of herbivore migrations worldwide. Animals move in sync with the wave because young vegetation provides the best forage.”
  • Many herbivores partake in seeking out the greenest, most nutritious plants during the spring. Interestingly enough, bison “somewhat” participate in this migratory pattern, but mostly, they provide a key role in making it possible for other animals to ride this wave of spring greenery.
  • “…bison graze so intensely that they freeze plants in early spring for weeks at a time, preventing them from maturing and forcing them to continuously produce young shoots.
  • Other North American mammals like mule deer can’t do this, because they travel in small-enough groups that plants can still outgrow the effects of their grazing. “Bison, however, gather in the thousands. By moving in synchrony, they don’t have to surf the green wave. Uniquely, they can also create it.”
  • “Bison actions change the landscape. In areas where bison graze, plants contain 50 to 90 percent more nutrients by the end of the summer. This not only provides extra nourishment for other grazers, but prolongs the growing season of the plants themselves. And by trimming back the plant cover in one year, bison allow more sunlight to fall on the next year’s greenery, accelerating its growth.”
  • This plays a significant role on the landscape – the bison become a sort of engineer in enhancing that spring growth – in fact, a bison’s influence on a plant’s timing weighs heavier than weather and other variables of environmental effects, and the more bison herds grow, the healthier and more prosperous the landscape.
  • Simply put, bison are necessary for North America – their role is key in the health of not just the earth, but for other species, including the human species.
  • “It’s not enough to preserve bison numbers without also conserving bison behavior. If the animals exist, but aren’t allowed to migrate, there will still be a bison-shaped hole in the world.”

Wild Idea Buffalo Company’s Position: Wild Idea’s bison and affiliated herds graze over large landscapes and are given up to 35 acres per animal to move freely. This also promotes a healthy ecosystem, loaded with species diversity. Collectively, we are positively impacting over 300,000 acres of grasslands.  

From Dave Asprey: Don’t Give Up Meat For The Planet. Grass-Fed Beef Is the Better Answer to Climate Change

  • Factory-farmed meat is wrecking your health and the planet. Feedlots contribute to soil erosion, water pollution, fossil fuel consumption and poor air quality.
  • When grass-fed/finished animals have room to graze they improve land use, nutrient and manure management, and promote soil health. Those benefits reduce the overall carbon footprint.
  • Grass-fed meat is more ethical, sustainable, and nutrient dense. It contains more antioxidants, omega 3s, trace minerals and vitamins.
  • The answer to climate change isn’t to stop eating meat, but to start eating grass-fed/finished meat (and we would add, humanely field harvested too).

Wild Idea Buffalo Company’s Position: At Wild Idea, all of our bison herds roam on large landscapes 365 days a year. In addition, any animal harvested for food is harvested humanely on the prairie where they graze. At WIBC we have a saying, "Eat meat, less of it, but of a higher more sustainable quality." There are ranchers out there doing things right and they (we) need your support. *NOTE: 90% of all the bison raised for food are finished in CAFOs or feed-lots.

As one farmer put it in the South Dakota News Watch piece: “Growth of large livestock operations that produce cheap meat is being driven by consumers. This is what we’re getting pushed into doing; we’re not driving our own market, it’s demand. You tell us what you want us to do when you make a purchase at the grocery store.” 

If you are interested in reading the full articles, they can be found by clicking on the article title.

We thank you for your time, your concern, and your support.


  • Posted on by Grant Price

    70% of cows? For meat it has to be above 90.

    Are they including dairy cows??

  • Posted on by Margaret Graham

    Thank you for compiling this informatiom. I was so gratified to read in the 7th paragraph the information petaining to antibiotics in the feed. As an RN who practiced for years this has been my position for a very long time as I witnessed the increase in antibiotic allergys occur and knew the “increased use of antibiotics by doctors” wasn’t true. When I would write in response to articles on animal feed I most always got the “song and dance” about it being such a minimal amount that it “was safe for human consumption” No response to the question of “cummulative effect of the antibiotics, hormones, etc. in the human body over a long period of time.” This article needs to be widely published!! I love meat and feel very fortunate to be able to purchase it from the individual producer or from the stores that are beginning to carry the grass fed beef more often now.

  • Posted on by Susan

    All the information provided is useful, but the problem remains: the American diet thinks it needs LOTS of meat, and most people can’t or won’t afford to eat meat that is responsibly and ethically raised and slaughtered. This is a first-world issue that is ruining the whole world.
    One issue that I think you failed to mention in all the very good analysis you provided is what a good carbon sink native prairie grasses are – almost as good as a tropical rain forest; not quite as good as a boreal forest – and by allowing bison to help restore a more natural prairie ecosystem, range feeding bison also help with climate change.

  • Posted on by Theresa L Anderson


  • Posted on by Chris and Kim

    We are 100%! We are 100% behind Wild Idea. And our red meat purchases are 100% Wild Idea Buffalo. It is healthy, it is delicious and the way you harvest is absolutely humane and respectful. We no longer feel any urge to go out for a burger or steak, as we have the best here thanks to WIB. Everyone who has dined at our table couldn’t agree more. Keep on doing it right WIB! Next order from SC will be coming soon.

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