“Something in the Air”

“In the Texas Panhandle, which produces a fifth of the U.S. beef supply, communities are being choked by fecal dust from nearby feedlots. The state’s regulatory agency isn’t doing anything about it—and it’s about to get a whole lot worse.”

“Lawrence Brorman eases his pickup through plowed farmland in Deaf Smith County, an impossibly flat stretch of the Texas Panhandle where cattle outnumber people 40 to 1. The 67-year-old farmer and rancher brings the vehicle to a stop at the field’s southern edge. Just across the fence line, Brorman eyes a mess of cattle standing sentinel upon a mound of dirt and compacted manure. They peer back at him, chewing cud, mooing, and, of course, pooping.

Though Brorman grazes 80 or so cattle on his land in Hereford, Deaf Smith’s county seat, the animals he’s currently staring down aren’t his. They’re held by Southwest Feedyard, one of the oldest cattle feedlots in the county. This place holds 45,000 head of cattle in bare-dirt pens for months at a time, fattening the animals on flaked corn before sending them to slaughter. It’s part of a vast constellation of feeding operations that dot the western Panhandle, which accounts for one-fifth of the entire U.S. beef supply. If you’ve ever eaten a hamburger, there’s a good chance the meat came from here.

Brorman rolls down the driver’s side window, and a rank odor wafts in from the Southwest feedlot. While good fences make good neighbors, they do nothing to stop the wind from sweeping up tiny fragments of dried manure from the feedlot surface and spreading them across Brorman’s farm. Some summer days, especially during droughts, the particles—which scientists call “fecal dust”—form dense plumes that blot out the sun. When the wind is high, a wall of dust churns through the town of 15,000, coating homes and businesses and limiting visibility on U.S. Highway 60 so severely that motorists must switch on their headlights well before sunset.”

Christopher Collins reports for the Texas Observer and FERN February 3, 2020.