Animals have always played an important role in agriculture. Not only do they provide us with food and fiber, but they also help to recycle nutrients and add to soil fertility. Over recent decades, however, the farming of animals has become increasingly separated from its natural existence on the land. Today, most farm animals in the United States are raised in confinement on huge industrialized systems that are more like factories than farms.
Today feedlots with 1,000 head or more of capacity comprise less than 5 percent of total feedlots but market 80-90 percent of fed cattle 1 - in fact the 10 largest cattle feeding operations in the US comprise approximately 30% of the total feedlot capacity. 2 In 1999 the top ten hog farms, all corporately owned, had an estimated 1.5 million sows and were responsible for 25-30% of the total pork production in the US. 3 In 2005 the top three hog companies owned 21% of all US sows in production. 4
In a recent survey of broiler farms only 0.4% of birds were produced by independent operations 5 - outside of the industrial broiler production contracts that dominate the industry. About 1.7 percent of operations were certified organic (1.4 percent of broilers), while a smaller fraction (0.44 percent of operations) reported that they produced free-range broilers. Factory farming is a major industry.
But why should this worry us? Well, concentrating animal production into very intensive units has severe implications for animal welfare. Every year, millions of animals that are raised for food experience terrible living conditions on industrialized or “factory” farms. 6 These factory farms are large, profit driven companies which view animals as units of production, rather than living creatures, and put efficiency and profits ahead of animal health and welfare.
While views differ about the degree of comfort and freedom that farm animals deserve, most people can agree on a minimum standard of cleanliness and space, and that animals should not needlessly suffer. Yet the reality is that the basic structure of industrial farms is at odds with the overall well-being of the animals they raise.
Industrial farms push for the maximum production from the animals regardless of the stress this places them under and the resultant shortening of their lifespan. 7 Confining as many animals indoors as possible might maximize efficiency and profits, but it also exposes the animals to high levels of toxins from decomposing manure and can create ideal conditions for diseases to spread. Feeding animals an unnatural diet rather than letting them graze and forage on open land simply adds to their health problems. To counteract these unhealthy conditions, factory farmed animals are given constant low doses of antibiotics which are contributing to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. They are also routinely treated with pesticides and other unhealthy additives, and can be given hormones solely to increase productivity.
Other common practices on factory farms, such as de-beaking chickens or the tail docking (cutting) of cows and piglets, are said to increase efficiency and safety, but they also cause discomfort, pain, and stress for the animals. Although these tactics may help “mechanize” the animals and can increase yields by causing less interference with production, this does not justify the resulting suffering. In every stage of development on a factory farm, animals suffer needless mutations and cramped, confined living conditions. Scientists have even linked animal stress to problems with food quality and safety. When an animal is subject to stress and pain, it is more prone to disease and can produce lower quality meat, milk, or eggs. 8
The First Year
Calves born into modern dairy production are usually removed from their mother (or dam) straight after birth. Male dairy calves are rarely raised for breeding. 9 They are often sent to auction or sold to calf dealers when they are only a few days old to be raised as veal. Some calves are slaughtered as “bob veal” at only a few days of age. Others are raised for four to five months on only milk, a diet that makes them anemic but produces the white meat color that the market demands. Veal calves are often raised in crates where they do not have enough space to groom themselves, move around, explore and interact socially. Although some states have now banned veal crates, groups of calves are still likely to be kept completely indoors on slatted flooring with no bedding and fed an inappropriate diet.
The heifers (young female cows) are usually raised as "replacement heifers" either on the same farm or sold to another dairy farm, where they will eventually take the place of older cows that have come to the end of their productive life. Heifer calves are usually raised in individual pens or hutches 10 for the first few months of life where they have limited space and no opportunity to interact with other calves.
Dairy calves usually have their horns removed. This is normally carried out when the calf is two to three months old, using a hot iron to burn the bud from which the horn grows – often without any pain relief. 11 Other common practices on dairy factory farms include tail docking, which involves the removal of approximately two-thirds of the tail. 12 This painful procedure is conducted without anesthetic and is undertaken to keep the cow from developing infections caused by constant exposure of the tail to manure. 13 Yet studies have shown that this process not only causes the animal a significant amount of pain and stress, 14 but that it has no animal health benefits. In fact, tail docking has been shown to moderately increase stress for cows because they can no longer use their tails to swat flies. For these reasons, the American Veterinary Medical Association officially opposes the routine tail docking of cattle. 15
Breeding and Growth
In the U.S., dairy cows have been bred to produce ever greater quantities of milk and evidence shows this practice has led to reproductive problems and a higher occurrence of disease. 16 In 1950, the average dairy cow produced almost 5,300 pounds of milk a year. Today, the typical cow today produces just under 20,000 pounds. 17 In order to artificially increase milk production some dairy cattle (estimated around 17% in 2007 18 ) are injected with rBGH or rBST, an artificial growth hormone. A United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) study found that as herd size increases, so does the percentage of operations that use this hormone, ranging from 9.1% of small operations to 42.7% of large operations. 13
Factory farmed dairy cattle are generally kept in one of three types of housing units for the duration of their productive lives: tie-stall barns, where they spend their life tethered by their neck to a stall; free-stall barns, where cattle are kept indoors and provided stalls for milking and rest; or dry lots, which is an area with no vegetation where the cattle are kept between trips to the milking barn. 19 In all of these situations, cows are kept in high concentrations and often suffer diseases of the feet from standing on concrete or in their own manure. 20 The high milk yield that modern cows produce often leads to significant levels of mastitis, 21 a painful udder disease. As they cannot graze, cattle are given feed which usually contains some straw and grass, but also added protein from "by-product feedstuffs" that can include meat and bone meal, an inappropriate food for herbivorous (vegetarian) cattle. The intensive living conditions, artificial growth hormones, over production of milk and the inappropriate diet all provide a perfect opportunity for disease and injury among the cattle.
The first year
Commercial beef cattle production in the United States can be generally categorized into three different phases. The “cow-calf” phase is where the farmer manages the cow during breeding, gestation and calving, to the point when calves are weaned at between 6–9 months of age weighing 400–700 pounds. The second is the “stocker” phase, where the weaned calves are managed for a period of 3–8 months, during which time they will gain an additional 200–400 pounds of weight. The final phase is often called the “feedlot” or finishing phase, where the calves are usually kept in very high numbers and fed a combination of forage and grain to achieve a final slaughter weight of 1,000-1,500 pounds. 22
Cow-calf operations are primarily tied to land suitable for grazing cattle. 13 However, while the mama cow lives mostly on pasture, and her calf is born on pasture, this doesn’t mean those calves lead a high welfare life. The vast majority of calves are sold at or shortly after weaning to go into large commercial feedlots. 23
Feedlot buyers want calves that are dehorned and castrated. These operations are usually carried out around 30 days before calves are moved. Pain relief is rarely used, but research shows that both operations are very painful at this age. The castration of older and heavier bulls causes significant pain and stress, whatever the method used. 24 Potential complications associated with castration include hemorrhage, excessive swelling (or edema), infection and poor wound healing – all highly likely to produce chronic pain. 13
Ruminants have evolved the ability to thrive on nutritionally poor grasses and other marginal plant materials which other animals cannot readily digest. But while it’s not necessarily harmful to occasionally feed ruminants small quantities of grain, when they are fed large quantities of grain they can suffer from serious diet and digestion-related problems, such as acidosis 25 (a serious form of bovine heart burn which can lead to diarrhea, ulcers, liver disease and general ill health) and “feedlot bloat.” 26
Feedlot bloat is a major cause of sudden death among cattle in feedlots today and is responsible for the unnecessary death of thousands of cattle each year. 27 Studies suggest that up to 32% percent 26 of all cattle raised on feedlots also suffer from liver abscesses. But rather than change diets to prevent cattle from being affected in the first place, feedlot managers choose to add antibiotics to diets to keep the cattle alive and to make sure they keep growing, despite the fact that they are suffering.
Respiratory diseases are another common problem among cattle on feedlots. As feedlots are barren environments, the cattle often stand in dirt lots. This creates a lot of dust – both from the soil itself and from dried manure on the surface. Studies have shown that dust particles in feedlots can stress the animals' respiratory systems, leading to an increased incidence of cattle pneumonia and making the cattle more susceptible to other bacterial and viral pathogens. Respiratory disease can account for up to 75% of all disease on the feedlot – and up to 71% of all cattle deaths. 29
Approximately 90% 30 of all feedlot cattle are also given hormone implants in order to increase their growth rates. Side effects can include increased aggressiveness, difficulty in handling, nervousness, rectal prolapse and ventral edema (swelling). 31
Once beef cattle have grown to an adequate size, or when dairy cows are no longer producing milk at an acceptable rate, they are taken to be slaughtered. In March 2009, the USDA finally banned the slaughter of so called downer-cattle (those too sick or lame to walk). 32 Before this ruling, USDA regulations stated that downer-cattle could be slaughtered for food if they passed the pre slaughter (ante-mortem) inspection at the slaughterhouse. As the downer cattle were unable to walk they were routinely pushed, prodded and shoved into the slaughterhouse by any means possible, causing much pain to the already suffering animals.
While slaughterhouses are required to meet USDA standards for cleanliness and humane treatment during slaughter, 33 they are also in the business of killing animals. So the faster the slaughter and butchering process, the more meat produced and the more money made. The pressure to slaughter animals quickly inevitably leads to mistakes that can often violate the USDA regulations and lead to the mistreatment of the animals. In some slaughterhouses up to 2000 cattle are slaughtered each day. 34 At this speed it is "nearly impossible to guarantee each is slaughtered within the regulations." 35 Cattle are also sometimes injured in the rush to move them from farm to truck to slaughter. In addition, slaughterhouses have been reported as regularly failing to completely stun animals before the slaughtering process begins. 36 This can result in cows being hung and bled while they are still conscious.
On a factory farm a sow (or mother pig) can spend her entire life in confinement. During pregnancy she is kept in a gestation stall too narrow for her to turn round. She may even be tethered to the stall. Around one to two weeks before giving birth, the sow is placed into a small farrowing crate, supposedly to prevent her from accidentally crushing her newborn piglets in the confined conditions. The crate completely limits her movement to either standing up or lying down, but still allows the piglets to feed. 37 Studies have found that this confinement causes the sow to behave abnormally and to become depressed and unreactive to stimuli which would normally elicit a response. 37 Research confirms that this abnormal behavior indicates that the sow is having difficulty in coping with her environment and that her welfare is poor. 38
The piglets' teeth and tails are routinely clipped shortly after birth. The practice of tail clipping or docking is done to prevent the piglets from biting each other’s tails, which can lead to secondary infections and even death. However, this phenomenon has only been observed in pigs in a factory farm environment. 38 Tail-biting is an indication of an inadequate environment and indicates that welfare is poor in the animal carrying out the biting. 39 As pigs use their tails to communicate the removal of most of the tail considerably impairs this natural behavior.
Growth and Development
After weaning, the piglets are separated from their mother and confined in pens with concrete or slatted floors. Pigs have a strong natural desire to root or dig in the dirt and straw. 38 Scientists have found that if the piglets are unable to perform this natural behavior it can adversely affect their welfare and they can often show visible signs of stress and aggression, 40 such as tail-biting. Concrete floors have also been linked to skeletal deformities of the feet, while the poorly ventilated confines have resulted in frequent lung damage and pneumonia among factory farmed pigs, with 40–80% of pigs showing lesions in the lungs at slaughter. 41
The stress and mistreatment pigs experience during transport, combined with illness and injury from the poor housing conditions, often results in many deaths on the way to the slaughterhouse. 42
Broilers (chickens raised for meat production) have been bred to grow muscle at a rate faster than ever. In the 1940s it took 14 weeks for a broiler to reach slaughter weight. 43 Today, it only takes around 39 days. 44 However, this fast rate of muscle growth is often not matched by bone growth and can result in serious deformities, the loss of the ability to walk, and death. 45
Factory farmed broiler chickens are kept indoors in large sheds which contain thousands of birds. They have very little space to move around. The National Chicken Council Guidelines 46 only require 0.6 to 0.7 sq. ft. per bird – at most an area slightly bigger than a sheet of letter paper. Leg health and walking ability are good indicators of overall welfare levels in poultry and researchers have found that walking ability becomes increasingly poor in response to increased density – and therefore reduced space. 47 Factory farms also use artificial lighting to prevent the birds from sleeping more than a few hours a day – if they are sleeping, they aren’t eating and industry wants them to eat and grow as fast as possible. This continuous lighting increases physiological stress, 48 increases leg problems, and can even lead to death. 49
Electrical stunning is the most universally utilized method for immobilizing poultry prior to slaughter. 50 The problem with this method is that the level of electrical current may only physically immobilize the bird, but may not prevent the perception of pain or stress. 50 In addition, for birds to be electrically stunned they must first be hung upside down in metal shackles. Poultry do not have a muscular diaphragm so when birds are hung upside down for the purpose of shackling their abdominal organs press on their hearts. In addition, compression of the leg bones of poultry by metal shackles is an extremely painful procedure. 51 The use of controlled atmosphere slaughter, where gas such as argon is used to slaughter the birds, is a much more humane method of slaughter 52 but as yet has not been widely adopted by industry.
Only 3.7% of the 281 million laying hens in the US are cage free 53 and the vast majority of the birds in cages have only about 67–76 sq. inches each to live in – or about two thirds of the size of a piece of letter sized paper. Scientists examined the average space a hen requires to carry out her basic needs 54 and found that turning requires an average space of 198 sq. inches, stretching wings 138 sq. inches and flapping wings 290 sq. inches. These figures are all far greater than the actual space that each bird is given in a cage.
Because of this high density, and the limited ability to forage, chickens often display aggression and can peck each other to death. In order to prevent this it is common practice in factory farms to sear off as much as half the chickens' beak when they are still chicks. 55 This has been shown to be traumatic 56 to the bird and can cause severe and lasting pain. 57 Like any factory farming system, the closely confined conditions provide a perfect breeding ground for disease and the birds are routinely treated with low dose antibiotics to prevent any outbreaks.
Molting is a natural process where birds stop laying and shed and re-grow their feathers. Once they have molted they start to lay eggs again. Different birds in the flock can molt at different times and take longer or shorter times to go through molt. Industrial egg laying operations don’t like this variability and so to control molt they essentially starve the birds for up to two weeks to induce and manage the molting process. In 1999 an estimated 75 to 80% of hens in the US underwent forced molting. 58 Even though the industry body United Egg Producers (UEP) condemns the use of starvation methods to induce molting in their Animal Husbandry Guidelines 59 it still goes on.
As awareness grows about the way factory farms create an environment where animals are treated as "factory parts," more consumers are demanding changes in the way we farm and for the better treatment of animals. In response, some large food service enterprises like fast food giants McDonald’s and Wendy’s have started to introduce better standards of animal welfare, with improved requirements at slaughter from their meat suppliers. For example, since 1999 McDonald’s Corporation called for a significant reduction or the complete elimination of electric prods to move cattle. Both Wendy’s and McDonald’s have also introduced auditing to assess the success of stunning procedures for the meat processing plants that supply them with beef in order to improve the rate of successful first stun attempts. This means more cattle are stunned (knocked unconscious) before slaughter so that when they are bled they do not suffer. But while consumer demand has encouraged certain beef processors to introduce significant and rapid improvements in the treatment and slaughter of their cattle, much more can still be done to improve the situation. 60
Improving animal welfare in today’s industrial agriculture system will undoubtedly require widespread changes in the attitudes of farm owners, managers and workers. Yet better basic training and greater attention to the needs of the animals could help to make animals more comfortable and content. Many practices considered to be more humane to animals are also beneficial for the farmer and the consumer. For example, animals tend to be healthier in higher welfare systems, which can lead to reduced expenditure on veterinary medicines and lower mortality rates. The provision of straw and/or additional space for finishing pigs can result in improved growth rates. 61 Similarly, when compared with high yielding dairy cows, lower yielding but healthier cows are more fertile and longer lived, which can mean better margins for the farmer due to lower heifer replacement costs and a higher sale prices for the calves and cull cows. 61
Perhaps the most important action that consumers can take to improve the standards of animal welfare in farming is to buy from local, independent farms and small scale, sustainable family farms that provide their animals with good food and housing, promote general health and allow them to carry out their natural behaviors like rooting, pecking, and grazing. 62 Meeting the farmer and visiting their farm will give you a good idea of how their animals live. By supporting sustainable farming, consumers can vote with their dollars for a higher standard of treatment and quality of life for farm animals.
Several organizations have developed standards and a label that guarantees the humane treatment of animals. One of the best known is the Animal Welfare Approved program and food label, which promotes the well-being of animals and a sustainable future for family farms. The aim is to “unite conscious consumers with farmers who raise their animals with compassion”. The Animal Welfare Approved standards are the most rigorous and progressive animal care requirements in the nation, and it is the only program which requires farmers to raise their animals outdoors, on pasture or range. Continuously ranked as the “most stringent” of all third-party certifiers by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), Animal Welfare Approved systems benefit farmers, animals and consumers alike with the simple philosophy that our own best interests are intrinsically linked to animals and to the environment we share. 63
Finding humanely-raised meat, dairy and eggs can take a little effort. People often think that buying organic is a good first step; however, organic standards do not adequately cover animal welfare issues. In addition there are many labels claims that seem to deliver welfare, for example “cage free”, “free range” or “pasture raised” that do not necessarily mean what you would expect. For more information on labeling see the Animal Welfare Approved Labeling Guide.
Therefore, it is important to know your farmer or local butcher, and to ask them how the animals were raised and if they were slaughtered humanely. If you can, visit the farm and judge the conditions for yourself. Visit the online Eat Well Guide to find farms, stores and restaurants near you.
Search out companies and brands that follow very strict animal welfare guidelines.
Look for the Animal Welfare Approved label to ensure the products were produced on family farms where the animals were allowed to behave naturally and socialize freely. You can search the Animal Welfare Approved database for your nearest outlet here.
In the 1960s, the US Congress received more letters from citizens concerned with animal welfare issues than letters concerning civil rights and the Vietnam War. 65
Due to inappropriate breeding strategies that favor growth over bird welfare, 90% of broiler chickens have trouble walking. 66
Ammonia and other gases from manure can irritate animals' lungs. One study of 34,000 pigs found that 65% of the animals had "pneumonia-like lesions" in their lungs. 67
Farm animals are regulated under the USDA’s Animal Welfare Act (AWA) only when used in biomedical research, testing, teaching and exhibition – not when they are farmed for food and fiber production. 68
Do animals really feel pain from tail-docking and debeaking?
Research conducted by USDA Agricultural Research Service immunologist Susan Eicher and neuroscientist Heng-wei Cheng indicates that behavioral and physiological signs suggest that the practice of tail docking causes animals to suffer from chronic pain. 69 Additional research has shown that inhumane practices like trimming birds' beaks is acutely painful, 70 can cause lasting pain, 71 and that the process is too stressful to be condoned. 72