In recent years a whole new genre of documentary has arisen. Vegucated, Food Inc, and other similar movies have painted a very ugly picture of the business of farming in America. Even Chipotle made a commercial that went viral with it’s message of sad wide-eyed animals living wretched lives to feed the masses. Added to that are far too many horrible-looking Youtube videos showing animal abuse and filthy-to-the-point-of-toxic conditions on big farms.
I am affected by these kinds of messages. I’m the kind of person who will spend 40 minutes trying to catch a scary spider (without touching it!) and toss it outside so I don’t have to hurt it. My mom still teases me because I cried for the coyote when I was a kid. I couldn’t help it. He just wanted so badly to catch that road runner and it must hurt so bad to be crushed by boulders and run over by trains every day of your life!
So… yeah… baby chicks sucked up by giant vacuum cleaners, cows standing with rotting hooves in their own manure and hens with their feet grown around the wires of cages… you can imagine how I reacted to that.
But, not for the first time, I started thinking about the farms around me. (click here to read What I Learned About GMOs From 9 Famers, A Monsanto Employee and A Whole Bunch of Reading) I live in rural Michigan. I’m not a farmer and don’t really have any experience at all with livestock beyond dogs, hermit crabs and goldfish. I’m in the village limits but have clear view of a wheat field from my living room window. Every single day I see fat, happy cows munching grass in pastures with their calves right along side them. I’ve seen huge, sturdy, well-ventilated chicken barns. I go to church with farmers who are some of the most loving and compassionate people I’ve ever known. I’ve watched how farm kids treat their pigs.
These animals do not appear unhappy or mistreated to me.
Time to do some research!
Please note: This post is just about the animals.
When I started reading I realized very quickly that this is a huge subject. Perhaps I will do another on the environmental effects of CAFOs, the differences in the nutritional qualities of meat, eggs and milk from animals raised under various conditions, or the economics involved in large-scale farming. Those are all important topics and they need to be discussed! The existence of CAFOs can’t really be argued for or against without including all of that. However, practically, that much information can’t be presented well in just one post. If you would like to know more right away, please refer to the “related posts” at the bottom of this article. I’ve tried to offer a wide variety to give a fair view of all sides of this topic.
The first thing I needed to sort out was the terminology. “Factory farms,” “Mega farms,” “family farms,” “local farms,” “CAFO,” “AFO”… good grief! How’s a person supposed to keep up with all of that?!
Here are a few simple definitions I found:
Factory farm: a farm in which animals are bred and fattened using modern industrial methods. (dictionary.com)
Megafarm: are those farms which plant, harvest, manufacture, and ship the finished product to the retailer which eliminates the middle man bringing savings to the consumer and larger profits to the producers. (glosbe.com)
CAFO (Concentrated (or “confined”) Animal Feeding Operation): used to designate larger livestock farms. Whether a farm is classified as a CAFO depends largely on; 1) the number of animals; and 2) the housing system. In Indiana, for example, farms that contain 1000 cattle, 2,500 adult pigs or 125,000 chickens housed indoors or on lots (cattle) would be classified as CAFOs. (Purdue University) Some US CAFOs have as many as 100,000 confined animals. (source)
Even though these terms see to be technically different from one another they are often used interchangeably by people, including the media.
How Prevalent Are Huge Farms in the US?
The term “family farm” is tossed around a lot. The vast majority (most estimates I read ranged between 92-99%) of US farms are family owned. Often, that means that siblings or cousins have inherited a farm and it is possible that one operation is supporting several families, all related to one another. Also, it is not uncommon for a family to hire help, even on a relatively small farm. It is a lot of work to take care of even a couple of dozen of animals. You would be hard pressed to find a farm of any size where the owners don’t identify themselves as “family farmers.”
Keep in mind, terms like “family” or “corporate” are emotionally evocative and that’s why advertisers and activists like to use them. To most people, family is warm and cozy and safe and wonderful. Corporations are cold and heartless and all about money. But, legally speaking, any business that is not publicly traded in which the majority ownership is held be people who are related to one another is a family business.
For the purpose of figuring out whether or not the animals producing our food are being well treated these terms aren’t terribly helpful and I will try to avoid them.
CAFOs comprise only about 5 percent of all U.S. animal operations, but produce more than 50 percent of our food animals. (source)
A CAFO can be a family owned or corporate owned farm.
Their benefit is pretty much entirely monetary, though there is some argument that there are environmental benefits to this more efficient way of feeding the animals (see “related reading,” below). The CDC has published a document that says, “When properly managed, located, and monitored, CAFOs can provide a low-cost source of meat, milk, and eggs, due to efficient feeding and housing of animals, increased facility size, and animal specialization. When CAFOs are proposed in a local area, it is usually argued that they will enhance the local economy and increase employment. The effects of using local materials, feed, and livestock are argued to ripple throughout the economy, and increased tax expenditures will lead to increase funds for schools and infrastructure.” (source)
These are the operations you are usually hearing about when people talk about “megafarms” or “factory farms.” One article describes the conditions on these huge lots like this: “…cows by the thousand live on concrete and rarely get to see the sun, where they never actually graze, where their lives are shortened by round-the-clock milking.” (source)
Obviously, no farmer, businessman, lawyer, lobbyist or politician is going to be quick to say, “Oh, yes! That’s exactly what goes on at every huge farm.” And it is unfair to lump all of these farms together. Just like there massive differences in the ways big retail corporations treat their employees and form their policies, so there are differences in the ways CAFOs are run.
What about the other 50% of food animals?
Purdue University tells us there are about 60,000 dairy farms in the US. The average number of cows on those farms is 135. They are usually milked twice a day.
That is a VERY different story that the one presented in the accounts, above!
I went in search of information directly from farmers and found two things.
1) Many farmers hesitate to go on the record.
I already knew that from my GMO post, but it was confirmed with this. There is so much misinformation out there, and so many extremists, on both ends of the spectrum, looking to create a buzz that a lot of farmers just want to distance themselves from the whole mess. They’ve grown up caring for the earth and caring for their livestock and they just want to do their job without anyone accusing them of horrible crimes and bad ethics.
2) Farmers depend on healthy, happy animals.
Without good animals, livestock farming quickly becomes obsolete and unprofitable. Many of the things that may appear inhumane to those with no real knowledge of livestock are actually the very things the animals need.
Here are a few examples of what I mean by that:
Wanda at Minnesota Farm Living was a huge help to me. She raises pigs on a farm that any non-farmer would consider large-scale, though her farm is not nearly the size of a CAFO. She shared this with me:
How we Raise our Pigs
Our pigs are raised indoors. This is the best environment for them for a number of reasons.
- Our Minnesota winters are brutal. We have temperatures in the winter that go well below zero, windy, snow and blizzards. With them inside, they don’t know when we have a wind chill warning or a blizzard. They are warm and content.
- We are able to control their environment better. With the winter cold extremes, we get extremes the other way in the summer. We can have hot and humid weather. Pigs will sunburn. Inside, they avoid the sun, we can provide them fans and water drippers to help them keep cool. Pigs don’t sweat so heat bothers them.
- We don’t have to worry about predators when they are housed indoors.
- Disease prevention. Pigs are susceptible to disease and it is easily transmitted. Disease can be transmitted by air, birds and rodents. Pigs housed indoors are protected better in regards to disease transmission because barns don’t have birds and rodents can be controlled. Some of the barns have an air filtering system which would help prevent disease transmission by air.
- The pig genetics that we use are not designed to be housed in a free-range system. They are a very lean hog and would not thrive in a free-range system. It’s also the type of hog our meat packer requires us to raise for them. We have a contract with them and can’t change the genetics if we are selling the hogs to them. Selling local is really not an option for us either. We raise about 4400 pigs per year and we are considered a small farmer.
We take many steps to keep our hogs as healthy as possible. We work closely with a veterinarian, who develops a health care plan for us. This health care plan includes a comprehensive vaccination program. We also work with an animal nutritionist who develops the hogs feed plan. The hogs are on 8 different rations (our name for recipe) all dependent on the nutritional needs of each stage of pig growth. The pigs eat better than I or my family does.
As a hog farmer, we cannot sell pigs that are not healthy. We sell to Hormel and they will NOT take any sick or injured hogs. If we do have a sick or injured animal, we have to sell them at a secondary market where we receive significantly less money. We also cannot sell any animals with antibiotic residue. We only give pigs antibiotics when they need it. Our veterinarian gives us a prescription for an antibiotic once he determines what bacteria they have. Again, there is no advantage to us giving pigs more antibiotics than they need. It costs money, which we have to pay for. We don’t set our selling prices – we can’t add an additional price for any extra expenses we incur (such as antibiotics). The bottom line is we raise pigs to be as healthy as possible for the least amount of cost.
It is illegal to give pigs hormones.
Forgot one little thing – my family eats the same pork we sell.
How clean are pig farms? Here’s a video depicting the massive 60+ hour cleanings that take place at Wanda’s farm and others like it.
In her post, “Animal Cruelty is NOT the Price We Pay For Cheap Meat” she discusses another factor behind the decision to keep pigs indoors: “…when we had pigs earlier in our life, they went after each and they did kill and ate their young and they were outside. Pigs have a social hierarchy where they establish a pecking order. This pecking order is part of their natural behaviors because they need to determine a “boss sow”. And, unfortunately, these behaviors can involve attacking each other. Sows have actually died on our farm because another sow killed it and this happened when they were living outside.”
Another increadibly enlightening read was “Sometimes We Are Mean To Our Cows” at “Adventures by Dairy Carrie.”
Have you ever seen one of those horrible videos of cows being jabbed with electric cattle prods, slapped, yelled at and even hefted back onto their feet with a fork lift? It’s aweful to see! It makes you feel sad. Beyond that, you have to wonder, “if that cow is so sick it can’t stand, will its meat make me sick, too?”
Carrie explains what non-farmers may not understand.
“A down cow is a cow that is sick or injured and is laying down and can’t or won’t get up.
A down cow can be down for about a million reasons. It can be something like she hurt her leg and doesn’t want to put weight on it to get up. It can be because she just had a calf and during delivery she pinched a nerve. A cow can be down because after calving she has a calcium imbalance that needs to be corrected. There are lots of reasons for a cow to go down.
A cow is a big animal, I think we can all agree on that right? When a cow lays down for long periods of time all of her weight rests on her legs. Her legs start to lose circulation, as they lose circulation they become weak. A cow needs strong legs to lift her hefty frame up.The longer a cow is down the lesser her chances of ever getting back up become. It doesn’t matter what caused the cow to go down in the first place, a down cow that doesn’t get up becomes a dead cow. (emphasis mine.)
Do you know what this post made me think of, when I first read it?
Just a day or two before I had been leaving the grocery store with my children. I had my hands full. The cart was overflowing. I was carrying items in addition to pushing it. I was trying to keep my two-year-old from running off into the parking lot. My nine-year-old just wouldn’t GO. She had been whining and begging and complaining, lagging and dragging for the entire trip. I just needed to get everyone into the car before I dropped all the groceries or the toddler escaped or… you get the picture.
I raised my voice to get her attention and said, “You need to come on, right now! No more talking. Just go!”
A man walking by, who didn’t know us and had absolutely no idea what the situation was reprimanded me for yelling at her.
When you don’t understand everything about a situation, it’s easy to mis-interpret what’s happening.
So what did I learn from researching “mega farms” and “happy animals?”
Well, in this Hippie Mama’s opinion it breaks down like this:
The animals raised in CAFOs are probably not the happiest animals in the land. To me, CAFOs seem like the livestock equivalent of puppy mills. Some are better than others. A few might not be totally awful. Some are down right Hellish. None of them are ideal. There are laws in place to protect the animals and the consumers (to some extent) but the laws are not always enforced as they should be.
When you factor in a lot of the other issues I mentioned at the very beginning of this article, one has to question the wisdom of these massive-scale operations. Perhaps they have their place in feeding a world with a population of 7 billion and growing.
My own inclination is to say that perhaps we need to eat less meat and waste less food and become wiser and less selfish about food distribution and the use of all of our resources in general. All of that is a whole other can of worms.
The animals raised by pretty much any farmer you will ever meet, even if their farm seems quite big to you, are probably raised in conditions more like these:
The image, above, is from “The Dairy Mom,” who describes her cows’ living conditions like this:
“Our cows live in large, comfortable freestall barns with individual beds. Fans keep them cool in the summer and curtains/doors can be rolled down to enclose the barn keeping the animals warm in the winter. They have free-choice fresh water to drink and nutritious food to eat. They can move about to eat, drink, rest and socialize whenever they like. They are healthy, comfortable and content in this calm environment which was created especially to meet their needs.”
I follow the blogs of a lot of farmers. This week, as the midwest has seen some very extreme winter weather my Facebook feed has been a constant stream of comments about multiple trips into the snow to bring warm water to the poultry, standing out in sub-zero temperatures to add extra insulation to barns and chicken coops, working to clear snow away from feeding areas and getting up and heading out into the dark to check on animals in the barns to be sure that they are safe and reasonably comfortable (even when doing so is potentially risky and certainly uncomfortable for the farmer).
These animals are being tended to with kindness and compassion for the duration of their lives.
If you ever see a farmer who is not treating their animals decently there are steps you can take. SeeItStopIt.org is a place where you can report animal abuse. Many local humane shelters will also have information on steps that can be taken. 211 can give you the contact information for those organizations in your area.
If you are concerned about where your meat is coming from, do your research. Ask your butcher. Buy local. It is almost always the case (though there are exceptions to every rule) that buying closer to home is better for the buyer, the producer and the earth.
If you are really and truly appalled at the very idea of an animal being raised for no reason other than to be slaughtered there is no humane answer to your quandary other than pure veganism. If that’s your choice, I salute you. I understand where you are coming from and have considered that path for myself though, at this time, it’s not the choice that is right for my family.
That said… what about all those animals? Farm animals have been domesticated and selectively bred for thousands of years. A modern dairy cow is no more fit to live in the wild than a Yorkshire Terrier is fit to run with the wolves. And, like it or not, most current research agrees that humans thrive best on a diet that contains at least some animal products.
As in all things, I strongly encourage you to do your own research and try not to get caught up in the rhetoric. Animal activists want to tug at your heartstrings and they are very good at what they do. Big business wants to tug at your purse strings and they, too, are very good at what they do. Between them are tens of thousands of farmers who just want to offer you a quality product. Try to keep in mind that sanity often lies in the middle ground.
Are you, too, seeking to save the earth, promote world peace and raise productive citizens without expending too much effort?
If we work on our goals together, they may be a little easier to achieve!