Intensive livestock production systems are those that use higher amounts of labor and capital relative to the land area. The best-known examples are animal feeding operations [AFOs] and concentrated animal feeding operations [CAFOs] which house large numbers of animals in small spaces. This method of production is an integral part of industrialized agriculture.
AFOs and CAFOs are dependent on inputs that were likely produced thousands of kilometers/miles away which increases demand for fossil fuels.
They also create large amounts of concentrated waste, CO2, and methane which is damaging to the environment. 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.
In contrast, extensive farming systems are dependent 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.