The modern, industrialized way in which we produce meat, dairy and other animal products has turned animals into units of production rather than being seen as sentient beings. Many animals raised for food or fiber are subject to inhumane treatment and living conditions. Fortunately, consumer pressure is beginning to turn the tide and leading to real improvements in some areas of farm animal welfare.

What Is Farm Animal Welfare?

Animals have played a critical role in agriculture throughout human history, providing us with labor, fiber and food and enriching the soil with their waste. Animals and crops have always been in a symbiotic relationship with one another; now, however, rather than viewing animals as sentient beings and part of the large interdependent systems, we have come to view animals as units of production. Their health and welfare are not considered as being fundamentally connected to the health of the whole; the main concern is only for the final product. To maximize efficiency and profits, operators of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), also known as factory farms, and the companies they are accountable to generally prioritize rapid growth and production over animal health and welfare.

People approach animal welfare from many different perspectives: some choose not to consume animal products at all, while others do so in keeping with a set of ethical standards. These varying ideas generally converge around diminishing as much as possible (if not eliminating) the pain and suffering that animals experience in the production process. A 2015 Gallup poll found that 94 percent of Americans believe that animals should have some protection from harm and exploitation, including 32 percent who believe they should have the same rights as humans.

In animal agriculture, there is a broad range of animal treatment, ranging from CAFOs with the lowest animal welfare standards to confinement operations that have more humane practices, to pasture-based farms, which have a range of practices.

The Worst Farm Animal Welfare Practices

Some of the worst farm animal welfare practices in CAFOs include very crowded facilities, routine amputations and inhumane slaughter techniques. Besides the animal discomfort and health issues that can arise under such conditions, they can cause symptoms that have consequences higher up the food chain as well; animals subject to stress and pain are more prone to disease and produce lower quality meat, milk or eggs. 3 Dairy cows are sometimes tethered in a barn for long periods, unable to take more than a few steps, side to side. Female hogs, known as sows, are confined to gestation crates shortly before giving birth and while nursing. These are cages only slightly larger than their bodies, not big enough inside for the animals to turn around. The system was developed to keep sows from accidentally crushing piglets; however, research is showing that sows kept in other systems do not have significantly higher piglet mortality rates.

Antibiotics and other drugs are used, in part, to control diseases in these overcrowded, unhealthy conditions. Antibiotics have been used in livestock feed since the 1940s, when studies showed that the drugs caused animals to grow faster and put on weight more efficiently, increasing meat producers’ profits. 78

 

Terms to Know: Physical Manipulations
Forced Molting
Withdrawing food or water from laying hens in order to cease their egg production but then increases egg production and quality in subsequent layings. This controversial practice is banned in the EU but ubiquitous in the US.

Chickens, owing to their small size, are perhaps manipulated more than any other animal in the industrial system. Many layers undergo forced molting. Molting is when chickens stop laying eggs, and shed and re-grow their feathers before beginning to lay again. The most common way to force molting is to withhold food and sometimes water for seven days or up to two weeks. Forced molting is uncommon in Canada and prohibited in the European Union, and United Egg Producers (an industry group) condemns the practice; yet 75 to 80 percent of US hens are subject to the procedure. 910 The vast majority of broiler chickens are subject to some form of nearly continuous very low lighting, which can cause abnormal development and various health problems. 11

Industrially raised animals are bred for rapid growth and maximum production. In the 1940s, a broiler chicken reached slaughter weight in 14 weeks; today it takes just five and a half weeks, or around 40 days. 1213

Broiler chickens grow so quickly that their legs often cannot support their weight by the time they are harvested. 14 Layer hens and dairy cows are pushed to such high output that they end up exhausted after just a few years. In 1950, the average dairy cow produced almost 5,300 pounds of milk a year; today, she produces nearly 20,000 pounds. 1617 For beef and other species, transport conditions before arriving at the slaughterhouse can be stressful, even resulting in death, and many facilities deny animals access to food or water while they wait, which can be for days. 18 Additionally, pre-slaughter stunning technology must be well-maintained and operated by trained workers; without these variables, stunning procedures regularly fail to render animals fully unconscious. 19

In the case of poultry, there is evidence that the common method of electrical stunning may physically immobilize the bird, but not prevent the perception of pain. 20 In addition, birds must be hung upside down for stunning, which causes compression of their hearts and leg pain. 2324 Confinement hog barns generally have grated concrete or metal floors, which do not allow the animals to express their natural rooting and wallowing behaviors, leading to stress and aggression. Virtually all animals in confinement live directly in large quantities of their own manure, or very close to where it is collected and stored; the ammonia and other gases emitted by the waste can be toxic to animal health, causing respiratory and skin ailments.

However, standards vary by industry, company and buyer; with increasing consumer awareness of animal welfare in CAFOs, pressure both at the ballot box and in the grocery aisle have made some significant changes and improved on some of the worst practices. As long as the confinement model is the dominant way of raising animals, it is worth advocating for improved animal treatment within that model, as well as for increased support for pastured production.

Profitability of More Sustainable Practices

Animals tend to be healthier in systems with higher farm animal welfare standards, which can lead to reduced veterinary spending and lower mortality rates. The provision of straw and additional space for finishing pigs can result in improved growth rates. 25 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 higher sale prices for calves and cull cows. 26

 

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Better Farm Animal Welfare Practices

With layers, consumer demand has led to commitments from many suppliers — and legal requirements from some states, like California — to switch to all cage-free eggs, though, like any change in large-scale agriculture, it will be complicated and will not happen overnight – and the definition of “cage-free” is still up for debate. Many suppliers have also committed to selling pork produced without gestation crates as well, and the practice has been banned in Florida and Arizona. Instead of small cages and crates, broiler chicken and hogs would be kept in group pens with more room to move around – but CAFO farmers point out that in those conditions, with more space but still in confinement, animals are more likely to become aggressive towards each other. As an alternative, some hog farmers use a practice of group housing called the deep bedded system; far fewer animals live in a large barn with a floor of deeply bedded straw, which allows them to dig and nest. This system is far more humane than a standard confinement operation.

For two decades, in the dairy industry, many cows were regularly injected with an artificial growth hormone known as rBST or rBGH to increase milk production. This practice requires cows to be milked three times per day and also increases rates of mastitis in animals. Due to widespread consumer pressure, the practice is being phased out, as retailers like Walmart pledged not to sell milk produced with the hormone. USDA reports that its use dropped from over 17 percent in 2007 to about 14 percent in 2014. 27

What You Can Do

Buying animal products from local, independent, sustainable family farms that raise their animals on pasture is a good way to support an alternative system of food production that values farm animal welfare.

Previous page photo by teamfoto/Adobe Stock. 

Hide References

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  3. Dawkins, Mary Stamp and Hardie, Sylvia. “Space needs of laying hens.” British Poultry Science, 30, 413-416 (1989).  Retrieved March 17, 2017, from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00071668908417163#preview
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  17. Tomaselli, Paige M. “Detailed Discussion of International Comparative Animal Cruelty Laws.” Animal Legal and Historical Center, Michigan State University College of Law, 2003. Retrieved March 3, 2017, from https://www.animallaw.info/articles/ddusicacl.htm#IVC1 
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  26. Ibid.
  27. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. “Highlights of Dairy 2007 Part I: Reference of Dairy Cattle Health and Management Practices in the United States, 2007.” USDA, October 2007. Retrieved from https://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_health/nahms/dairy/downloads/dairy07/Dairy07_is_PartI_Highlights.pdf
  28. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. “Dairy 2014: Dairy Cattle Management Practices in the United States, 2014.” USDA, February 2016. Retrieved March 3, 2017, from https://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_health/nahms/dairy/downloads/dairy14/Dairy14_dr_PartI.pdf