what is the difference between intensive and extensive agricultural systems as they relate to livestock production?


Technology has become a dominant part of our everyday lives and our food production system is no exception. Accordingly, since the turn of the 20th century, the standard approach to production has shifted from extensive production to intensive production as businesses have opted to replace natural services with technology.

In this respect, intensive livestock production systems use higher amounts of labor and physical capital [e.g. machines] relative to the land area where production takes place. The physical capital and human labor aim to replace the need for free space, grazing area, and natural sources of water.

To replace natural inputs with technological alternatives, it is necessary to rely on inputs produced thousands of kilometers/miles away – a factor that maintains agricultural dependency on fossil fuels.

Animal feeding operations [AFOs] and concentrated animal feeding operations [CAFOs] are the most notorious examples of intensive livestock production systems. Within these operations, extremely large numbers of animals are produced within confined spaces.

According to a report commissioned by The National Association of Local Boards of Health, AFOs refer to operations that exclusively produce animals that are enclosed for a minimum of 45 days a year. A CAFO is an AFO that produces a particular number of animals at or above a particular concentration and the water supply comes in contact with the flow of animal waste products.

For example, CAFOs house a minimum of 1,000 beef cattle, 700 dairy cows, 2,500 pigs weighing a minimum of 55 pounds, 82,000 egg-laying chickens, or 125,000 broiler chickens. Staying in such tight quarters requires the heavy use of antibiotics, with 80% of all antibiotics used in the United States being used in agricultural operations.

Such practices are integral to industrialized agriculture.

Housing animals in such also create large amounts of concentrated waste, CO2, and methane which is damaging to local soil and water sources. Moreover, animal wastes have generally been reintegrated into the environment as manure. However, intensive meat and dairy production are typically monoculture operations which removes the opportunity for establishing a closed-farm system.

Contrastingly, extensive farming systems depend on the carrying capacity [soil fertility, terrain, water availability, etc.] of a given piece of land and often responds to the natural climate patterns of an area.  

It does not depend on a large amount of pesticides, fertilizers or other chemical inputs relative to the land area being farmed.  This is how most livestock production takes place in the world.  Herders are the classic example.


The main difference between the two types of agriculture is that extensive agriculture requires much more land for production and profitability than intensive production.  As such, extensive agriculture is often practiced where population densities are low and land is inexpensive.

The danger of intensive agriculture, apart from environmental degradation and animal welfare issues, is that prices can be depressed by overproduction when extensive tracts of land are used for production – despite the intense nature of agricultural practices.  

Low prices do not reflect the actual price of food production and can result in poor market results.  It can also be argued that because of the extremely low price of food, it is a resource that is taken for granted and often wasted – especially in the Western world.

In extensive production systems, if animals graze on public lands, a Tragedy of the Commons situation can arise if users abuse the public lands in their self-interest without considering the impact on the common good.


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