Tag Archives: farming

Video of “Free Range” Hens

We have all seen video from inside the terrifying, “industry standard” chicken housing facilities, where hens are caged with 6-8 adult birds on floor space equivalent to a standard piece of typing paper.  This, however, is some of the first video I’ve seen from a “free range” facility, and I thought I would share.  This is still an astonishing number of chickens, but they all appear to have all their feathers, nobody is fighting and they can move, jump, extend their wings, and hunt bugs (if there’s a single bug left in those pastures after 50,000 chickens run through them).

(Recall that the USDA definition of “free range” only actually requires that chickens “have access to the outside”, so not all “free range” chickens live like this — for comparison, here is a video from a “free range” egg farm in Canada, which neither mentions nor shows the birds going outside.)

Didn’t Alfred Hitchcock make a movie about this?

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This Probably Could Have Been Said Better

In the unlikely event that anyone clicks on any of the links in my articles, you may have noticed that I don’t do a lot of linking to the traditional “animal rights” sites.  While I agree with (much of) their message, I do not always agree with their arguments (or their tactics), and, because their arguments are often badly expressed, I do not usually find them to be valid references.

An example wandered across my Facebook feed today, and I felt compelled to comment.  Understanding that I agree completely with the sentiment expressed by this video…I disagree with how it has chosen to convey its message.

The message is standard: “Dairy farming makes cows sad.  Don’t eat dairy.”  What puzzles me here is — where was this filmed?  The cow and calf pictured are absolutely clean.  The field they’re in is pristine, and, more suspicious, completely empty of other cows.  One polite worker gently herds the calf away, lifts it carefully, and puts it in a clean truck?  This is absolutely nothing like what you’d actually see in a factory farm.  (I’m skipping the terror footage here — let’s look at a (more or less) ideal example.  Here is Fair Oaks Farms, a multi-farm collective which gives public tours of some of its facilities — and which I have actually visited.  Its publicly viewable facilities (video includes shots of normal birthing area, which is separate from Fair Oaks’ heavily advertised “birthing barn“) are a pretty good example of a very clean factory farm.  The cows are in barns or small pens, not outdoor fields.)  Here is a document from Ohio State University about calving, picturing the standard environment for a calving cow: a stall.  Progressive Dairyman, an industry magazine, shows almost exclusively photos of stalled cattle.  Only lucky, pastured cows get to give birth in a quiet field — this is certainly not a factory farm environment.  (Is the point here that all farms are bad?  Are all farms bad?  What about those sanctuary farms where cows are kept in warm barns and not discarded when they get old?  Small family farms?  We’re edging perilously close to the “We must give up everything in order that animals can live free and unfettered” argument.)

Speaking of small family farms, where did Mercy for Animals get access to that cow and calf?  Did they film collaboratively with a dairy farmer (this is obviously not undercover footage) while he separated a calf from its mother (why did they support him doing this?), or did they separate someone’s pet cow and calf temporarily, just for a commercial?  Did they lie to a farmer and say they were filming for something else?  Why did they need to film this anyway?  It’s not like they don’t have already have much more relevant footage.  They have plenty of terrifying shots, from real farms, on their YouTube channel, including this much better example of the same argument, which uses actual dairy farm footage.

This is NOT meant to be an attack on Mercy for Animals, which is just trying to do the best they can, and is actually doing a very good job getting a lot of multilingual (good for them!) videos out there spreading an important message.  This is more a puzzled look at one of my least favorite trends in all pro-animal advertising (and many, many groups have made ads like this, not just MFA) — weird advertisements which trip over their own feet trying to make a point.  All Mercy for Animals had to do was air, say, this footage, with a voiceover: “Is a piece of cheese worth this?”  What’s with the unreal setup and scenery?

It occurs to me that probably this commercial has been “cleaned up” for wider public consumption, to try to reach the people who haven’t already been convinced that factory farming is bad, who don’t want to be convinced they should give up cheese, and who would normally stop watching the minute they see factory farm footage.  What a sad thought on its own — we are being steered away from showing the truth, because people instantly stop listening.  (Why?)

Second Livestock: The Virtual “Good Life” For Farmed Chickens

Yes, it’s a joke — at this point.  The nonexistent virtual reality “Second Livestock“, designed by ISU assistant professor Austin Stewart, brings up the idea of providing a virtual natural environment for conventionally farmed animals.  Rather than devote money, time, and space to actually giving the animals what they deserve, we can give them a virtual image of what they deserve.  They’ll believe they are running around and interacting with conspecifics, while in reality we can make their enclosures even smaller, since they won’t know they’re using them….

Knowing that it’s not real(yet), it’s actually funny, especially the little chicken headsets.  But take a moment, and imagine what might happen if this became economically feasible, especially compared to actually providing a natural environment for farm animals.  (While that’s honestly unlikely, Stewart has said further development for actual implementation was an option he would consider.)  Picture dairy cows grazing on a virtual pasture, giving birth to virtual “calves” that could hang around for a bit before being “naturally weaned”, while in reality the calves are taken away at birth (and fitted with a headset and given a virtual “mother”).

Would it be ethical?  If the animal truly believed it had a wonderful — or at least a quasi-natural) life, is there a functional difference from it actually having a wonderful life?  Is this a viable replacement for real space, conspecifics, and interaction?  What if every animal had an amazing virtual life, filled with its species’ own version of wine, women, and song?  (Either way, I’m not sure that either option is adequate “payment” for being consumed as food in the end.)  The authors make a point (arguably, the whole point of the site) that some humans are already partially living in an environment like this one…is that a good thing?  A bad thing?  Just a thing?

No answers here, although my gut instinct tends to the “Are you kidding?” side of things.  I just thought this was funny-becoming-interesting and kind of chewy food for thought.

“Iron Maiden” Hog Farm In The News

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Photo by Kamuelaboy on Morguefile.

An article about a hog farm in Owensboro, Kentucky crossed my radar today, and pinged it for all the wrong reasons.  The farm, which is attempting to curb the spread of a rather horrible-sounding disease called porcine epidemic diarrhea, or PED, is in the news because its effort to protect its animals involves grinding up the intestines of dead piglets which have died from the disease and feeding the resulting “smoothie” to the adult sows.

The procedure, called “controlled exposure“, is actually standard practice.  It attempts to establish “herd immunity” in an infected farm by exposing all adult animals on the farm to the disease as quickly as possible.  (The virus has a mortality rate approaching 100% in suckling piglets, but most adult animals recover without incident.)  Since PED is an intestinal pathogen, adult animals are most easily infected by exposure to the “intestinal tract” of “infected neonatal piglets”, which should be “sacrificed” within the first six hours of clinical signs for “maximum viral content”.  Once they recover, the now-immune adult sows will pass on antibodies against the infection in their milk to future litters of piglets, keeping those piglets protected from the virus and giving the farm time to perform some serious hygienic measures and actually eradicate the virus.

Okay, so there might theoretically be a point to the farm’s actions.  (And note that the swine industry is not the only one that feeds dead animal parts to live ones, either as a medical treatment or as a standard feed additive.)  I do, however, note that this paper, from the site of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, recommends that adult pigs simply be exposed to the feces of that poor doomed first wave of sick piglets, as the feces of live piglets contains up to 10,000 times the viral load of the viscera of dead piglets and is therefore a much more effective infectious agent.  It is therefore not necessary to grind up the piglets or feed them to their own mothers.  And besides, in the words of the above paper, “Collecting viscera is time-consuming and provides unnecessary fodder for the scrutiny of public perceptions.”

photo via HSUS and Wikimedia Commons

Gestation crates.  Photo from HSUS, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Humane Society of the United States, which broke the original story, points out that keeping pigs in natural conditions is a more ideal way to prevent the spread of diseases such as PED than feeding dead animals to live ones.  (It also notes that feeding dead animals to live ones is against state law in any case, although I cannot find that reference online at the moment.)  The farm in question is a large factory farm and its sows are maintained in industry-standard gestation and/or farrowing crates, which are noted for providing just as much room as a pig needs to exist (not turn around, not move, just exist) and not an inch more, on the grounds of “protection” for the sows from each other, and for piglets from the vast and frightening bulk of their mother.  The sows spend their lives crammed shoulder to shoulder in steel frame boxes the exact length and width of their bodies, churning out litters of piglets.  This kind of atmosphere does not promote healthy, happy animals.

Which brings me to what pinged my radar: the name of the farm in question is Iron Maiden Hog FarmIron Maiden Hog Farm!  I am at a loss to think of a more classless name for a pig breeding operation.  I somehow cannot bring myself to believe the facility is named after the band, can you?

One Possible Cause of Farm Worker Shortage

This is just an “interesting choice of photo” moment — but today I saw an article called “Want a Job?  Agriculture Industry Teeming With Them“.  What interests me is not so much the content of the article as the photo that USA Today chose to go along with it:

(Photo: Alvis Upitis, Getty Images file)

(Photo: Alvis Upitis, Getty Images file)

My original thought was “veal calves” — although the original photo source says “Holstein dairy calves” on a Wisconsin farm, and these do appear to be dairy calves.  There are theoretically good reasons to keep dairy calves this way; however, for a huge variety of reasons, this is not a location in which I’d personally be comfortable working.  Maybe that’s why there’s a shortage of workers?

(The shortage might also have something to do with the low paydangerous and unpleasant working conditions, and other problems, but those aren’t in the photo.)

From Pet to Plate: Guinea Pigs

Recent news articles have brought my attention to the farming of the guinea pig as an alternative meat animal.  Apparently it’s popular in South America, where it’s known as cuyes or cuy.  People eat them whole roasted, rather like tiny chickens, and the author of the NPR piece goes into entirely too much detail about eating the “fingery little hands”.  I am aware that humans will eat just about anything, so it’s not too much of a surprise that someone, somewhere, is eating guinea pig.

The guinea pig is supposed to be more “eco-friendly” than, say, beef — it’s more efficient at turning food into meat and it certainly takes up a lot less space.  Heifer International provides guinea pigs (amongst many other species) to people in developing countries to provide meat and income.  So there might be benefits to farming guinea pigs instead of cattle or pigs.

My immediate concern with the idea is this: it doesn’t really matter what animal you’re talking about — if you’re producing enough of them, they’re going to get factory farmed.  When you picture “guinea pig housing” right now, you’ve probably got a mental picture of something like this:

These are, of course, pet guinea pigs.  They’re in a pretty big space, with a couple of square feet per guinea pig.  Here, according to Google Images, anyway, is what “farmed” guinea pig housing looks like these days:

This is what it looks like when you move from “pet” to “farm” — much less space per animal, more animals in one room.  If guinea pig meat becomes popular, these little farms will want to — will need to, to keep up with demand — become even more “efficient”, cramming more animals in the same area.  What will an “efficient” guinea pig farming operation — capable of feeding several hundred thousand humans — look like?

One Cow Versus 100,000 Smaller Organisms

I once saw a cartoon which depicted vegetarianism in an unflattering light: it showed a closeup of the front of a combine harvester, before which fled an array of inoffensive woodland creatures, yelling things like “Where’s mama?!?” and “I don’t know, just run!”

Edit: found it.  It’s from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal:

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Agriculture is not without its damage to the environment, and to animals.  A field of wheat or corn is home to mice, rats, birds, rabbits, various insects, and a host of other creatures, at least some of which are inevitably ground up along with the harvestThis recent article on an Australian web site suggests that the many small lives we grind up to harvest a crop in an area of land outweigh the lives of the cows which would graze that land were it devoted to pasture.  (If you’re interested, this article wanders into the notion a little further.)

The presentation of the issue is somewhat simplistic: it assumes that only a few cows are raised in the hypothetical pasture (i.e., it’s not a feedlot, the American standard); that “pasture” is equivalent to unspoiled natural land; that all the wildlife in the field are killed by the plow; etc.  I think it’s a valid notion, but the solution to this issue is not to have everyone eat nothing but red meat.  The problem lies more with how we produce our food, and what methods we’ve adopted to produce that food cheaply, and less with exactly what food we are producing.  For example, we can certainly develop methods to raise and harvest crops more sustainably and with less “collateral damage”.

I don’t think we’re really able to exist, at all, without causing some damage to the world.  It’s in our nature as consumers of energy — it’s got to come from somewhere.  However, we can choose to minimize the amount of damage we cause, and try to choose the least damaging places to cause it.

When Did This Become Normal?

PigletToday’s water-cooler article (here passed around by the Huffington Post) concerns an undercover video from the group Mercy For Animals (whose web site is usually mercyforanimals.org, but right now it’s redirecting to walmartcruelty.com, which features the original video).  The video, taken at Christensen Farms — or, rather, at one of Christensen Farms’ many subsidiary farms — shows horrific, awful things: sows confined in tiny, body-sized crates, like those used for veal calves; pigs and piglets with untreated, open sores and wounds; piglets being “euthanized” by what the farm — and the industry — euphemistically refers to as “blunt trauma” — i.e., by being swung by their hind legs and slammed into the floor head-first; and newborn piglets having their tails docked — and being castrated — with dull clippers, and without anesthesia.

What gets me is the quote from the Official Industry Representative:

“We have reviewed the video and have noted no exceptions to our company procedures or industry.” — Christensen Farms chief executive, Robert Christensen

And it’s entirely true.  There’s not a thing in that video that isn’t an official pork industry procedure.  Check it out — here’s the National Pork BoardSwine Care Handbook“:

  • “Stalls allow the sow to stand, lie, eat and drink, but may not allow them to turn around… Varying sizes of gestation stalls can be used without negatively affecting welfare… Sows may be penned in farrowing stalls from late gestation until weaning of the piglets.” (pg 8)
  • After birth, the following procedures may be performed on piglets: Clipping needle teeth; tail docking; ear notching; castration.  Note that only piglets older than 14 days of age “should” receive anesthetics for these procedures.  (pg 9-10)
  • Under Euthanasia, they recommend the National Pork Board booklet, “On Farm Euthanasia of Swine – Options for the Producer“, which describes “blunt trauma” as “effective”, but notes that some people find it “aesthetically objectionable”.  They also support “additional research on methods of neonatal euthanasia” — more ever-useful research into whether or not death is stressful.  (pg 31)
  • The general consensus seems to be that you have four options (pg 37) with a sick or injured pig: treat it (costs money); slaughter it for human consumption (you get paid normally for the carcass); cull it (“substandard slaughter”!) for pet food (you get less money for the carcass); or euthanize it (costs money, plus you have to dispose of the bits).  Which do you think most meat producers will choose?  Why pay to treat an injured animal when you can just kill it a little prematurely instead?

By not paying attention, we’ve created a space in which the things on that video are normal.  They are USDA-approved.  There are people who go to work every day, and cut the testicles out of squealing newborn piglets, and don’t think a thing of it, or, if they do, they don’t say anything for fear of being fired, because everyone else, especially the boss, is acting as though cutting the genitals off a conscious, unanesthetized piglet is appropriate behavior.

It’s possible to raise pigs in other ways.  You can keep farrowing sows on pasture.  You can use actual humane methods of euthanasia on culled piglets.  You can even use anesthetic for castration, or not castrate the piglets at all.  It’s just that it’s expensive to do it that way, and takes more time and effort, and that makes the meat cost more.  So, ironically, we, the consumers, are actually in control of this process: As long as we’re willing to buy cheap pork (and other meat; this stuff isn’t just happening to pigs), producers will keep making it this way.

Seeing About Seafood

Since I am both highly calorie-restricted and also doing my level best to avoid factory-farmed meat, it is extremely rare these days to open a menu and see more than one thing I can calorically and morally afford.  I find myself leaning towards seafood these days, for sources of low-calorie, lean protein which are unlikely to involve ghastly intensive farming practices, but of course anything purchased in a restaurant is suspect until investigated.

Today, I took a look at shrimp, which is delightfully low-calorie (when not coated with heavy sauce, or fried), and easily raised domestically, so I am unlikely to be decimating dwindling wild populations.  Shrimp “harvesting” is also reasonably fast and does not involve the inhumane slaughter methods common with large mammals.

Shrimp farming is popular and widespread, which of course invites unfortunate habits by shrimp farmers trying to increase the number of animals they can produce/sustain in an individual pond.  Certainly I cannot cover the entirety of “shrimp farming” in a bite-size blog post, but here is a basic overview of U.S. shrimp farming in .pdf form from Auburn University; here is a more in-depth description from Kentucky State University; and here is a formal collection of overall information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  Here’s one for the Gulf of Mexico from NASA.  For comparison, here is a (likely virus-free) .doc file from the Association  of Southeast Asian Nations (unfortunately with no date) describing shrimp farms in its member countries.

It’s hard to form a universal rule on store-bought or restaurant-purchased shrimp, since it’s coming from so many sources, but fortunately a lot of restaurants are wising up and at least giving lip service to sustainable (and reasonably kind) farming practices.  Here’s the info for Red Lobster, whose menu caused my initial investigation re: seafood.  Hmm, pretty vague on farming practices, but I like that they’ve teamed with an aquarium.  Purchasing the fish at a specialty grocery store is usually safer: here’s the info for Whole Foods Market, which both reassures me that they’re at least trying, and paints a terrifying picture of what some shrimp farms must be doing, in order for Whole Foods to require rules such as these.

Seafood as a whole is generally suspect due to overfishing and overfarming, but there are some good options out there.  Here’s some good advice on picking “kind” and healthy seafood from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, including the Seafood Watch app for Android and iPhone, which can be used to find local restaurants which have chosen to purchase their seafood sustainably.