Food & Water Watch compiled the data on the largest livestock farms from the USDA Census of Agriculture — a five-year survey of America’s farms — from 1997, 2002, 2007 and 2012. The Census of Agriculture collects and reports data from livestock operations for every county and state in the United States, including the number of operations (farms) and the number of livestock. The USDA also reports the distribution of the number of livestock on different sized farms by state and by county. For this map, Food & Water Watch analyzed only the number of livestock on the largest categories of operations for beef cattle, dairy cows, hogs, broilers (chicken) and layers (eggs). The Census of Agriculture is available online at


Food & Water Watch analyzed the county-level data for the USDA’s largest categories of farms based on the number of livestock — either the inventory of livestock on an operation or, in the case of broiler chickens, the annual number of birds sold. The livestock operations that were analyzed for the map and report have at least:

Beef cattle 500 or more beef cattle “on feed”
Dairy cows 500 or more dairy cows
Hogs 1,000 or more hogs
Broiler chickens (broilers) Annual sales of 500,000 or more broiler chickens
Egg-laying hens (layers) 100,000 or more egg-laying hens

“All Livestock” Calculation

Food & Water Watch compared the total number of livestock across different animal types — comparing chickens to cattle and hogs — by using the USDA definition of a “livestock unit,” which measures different kinds of livestock animals on the same scale based on their weight. A livestock unit is a comparison of 1,000 pounds of live weight based on the type of animal. One beef cattle is the equivalent of approximately two thirds of a dairy cow, eight hogs or four hundred chickens.[i]

The average livestock units per farm were calculated by dividing the total livestock units by the number of livestock operations. (This may slightly underestimate the size of livestock operations because some farms may raise more than one type of livestock, although it has become significantly less common for farms to have diversified livestock production.) Because the USDA did not report beef cattle on feed prior to 2002 (see below), the “all livestock” measurement covers only 2002 through 2012.

Livestock Density

The map displays the number of livestock on the largest operations in every county, by type of livestock, which is displayed on the density color scheme. The map displays five levels of livestock density, which reflect the 2007 distribution of the number of livestock by type and by county broken into four equal parts (quartiles). These levels are applied to the prior years and to 2012, which shows how livestock operations grew in size over the studied decade and a half.

Density Map Color All Livestock
(Animal Units)
Dairy Cows Beef Cattle
on Feed
Hogs Broiler Chickens Sold Egg-Laying Hens
Extreme Dark Red More than 13,200 More than 4,200 More than 17,400 More than 48,500 More than
2.75 million
More than
1.25 million
Severe Red 5,200–13,200 2,100–4,200 7,300–17,400 19,000–48,500 1 million–2.75 million 750,000-–1.25 million
High Orange 2,000–5,199 1,200–2,099 2,175–7,299 9,500–18,999 350,000–999,999 500,000–749,999
Moderate Light Orange Fewer than 2,000 Fewer than 1,200 Fewer than 2,175 Fewer than 9,500 Fewer than 350,000 Fewer than 500,000
None Yellow None None None None None None

Average Size

The average size of operations was calculated by dividing the number of livestock on the largest operations by the number of these large operations. The USDA Census of Agriculture does not disclose these figures if the number of operations in any one county is very low (about one or two operations) because doing so would effectively disclose private or proprietary information about a specific farm. For counties where the number of operations is reported but the number of livestock is not disclosed, Food & Water Watch calculated an average size of the county operations based on state figures.

In most cases, Food & Water Watch calculated a residual average within each state by subtracting the disclosed county livestock numbers from the state total livestock numbers (for the largest size category of each type of animal) and then dividing the remaining unaccounted for animals by the number of farms with undisclosed livestock numbers (total state livestock – disclosed county livestock numbers within that state / number of operations with undisclosed livestock numbers). This provides a close average for the number of livestock on operations that do not disclose the number of animals.

In some cases, the USDA does not disclose the state total for the largest-size category of livestock, but it does disclose the total number of livestock on operations of any size in the state. In this case, Food & Water Watch subtracted all of the disclosed livestock for the smaller size categories from the state total, leaving a remainder of uncounted animals in the largest size category, and then divided by the total number of large operations to get an average largest-size operation. For states that did not disclose animal numbers for smaller-size categories, Food & Water Watch used the median value (for example, using 150 for the 100–199 size range), and multiplied that by the number of operations to get a size category estimate before subtracting from the state total.

In a few cases, the USDA did not disclose the size of any operations in the state (if there are too few or if the few that do exist are dispersed among many counties) and did not disclose the livestock totals in the state. For states where operational size was not disclosed, Food & Water Watch used the threshold figure for the largest size of operations (500 for beef and dairy cattle and 1,000 for hogs) for the counties with operations.

Poultry operation sizes were not disclosed for any county, and these averages are calculated by dividing the total number of broilers or layers by the total number of farms (see below).

Slaughterhouses and Processing Plants

The map also shows the county location of the slaughter facilities and poultry processing plants for the top four beef, pork and poultry processing companies in the United States. The top four companies and their locations were taken from industry sources (Cattle Buyers Weekly, the National Pork Board and Watt PoultryUSA).[ii] The displayed location on our Factory Farm Map reflects only the county where the facilities are located; it does not reflect the exact geographic location of the facility. In counties where there is more than one slaughter or processing facility, the map display represents an even distribution of facilities. Again, this does not reflect the exact location of the plants.

Cattle on Feed

Until 2002, the USDA did not separately report the number of beef cattle operations that finish cattle on feed, which distinguishes feedlots from younger cattle on cow-calf, backgrounder and stocker operations that pasture their cattle or those that are entirely grass-fed and do not spend any time on a feedlot. The inventory of “cattle on feed” was a new item in the 2002 Census of Agriculture and refers to cattle being fattened on feedlots with grain prior to slaughter. The map and analysis does not display data for 1997 for cattle on feed, and, as a consequence, it cannot report total animal units for 1997 because there is no comparable information.

Broilers and Layers

The USDA’s Census of Agriculture does not report the number of chickens by county, but it does report state totals for broilers and layers. For broiler and layer operations, Food & Water Watch divided the total number of birds in each state by the number of operations and attributed the state average to every operation in the state. This necessarily is a less precise average than for some other livestock average size figures, but it does reflect the average in that state.

For broiler operations, the USDA does not report the number of birds on the farm by size class; it only reports the annual sales of broiler operations by size class. The largest category of broiler operations sold at least 500,000 broiler chickens. To determine the average size of these operations, Food & Water Watch divided the total state number of broilers sold on the largest operations by 5.5 (the number of flocks of broilers sold annually by typical operations), which generates the statewide broiler inventory. The statewide broiler inventory was divided by the number of broiler operations to calculate the average broiler inventory.

[i] Gollehon, Noel et al. USDA ERS. “Confined animal production and manure nutrients.” AIB-771. June 2001 at 8.
[ii] National Pork Board. “Pork Stats 2014.” 2014 at 22; Kay, Steve. “Top four U.S. beef packers’ plants.” Cattle Buyers Weekly. Updated August 2012; “Top Poultry Companies 2012 Rankings: Poultry Plants Directory.” WATT PoultryUSA. 2012.

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