Our infographic "Know the Difference," which highlights the main differences between pasture-based and industrial farming methods, has gained a lot of exposure. A few people have noted that the infographic is one-sided in favor of pasture-based farming, a bias which we aren’t afraid to admit. The Ethical Farming Fund’s vision is a world without factory farms, so naturally we wouldn’t favor industrial animal farming.
But one could argue that CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) have pros and that pasture-based farming has cons--in fact many people do make those arguments in defense of the omnipotent industrial livestock system. So let’s go over the main points made by those in favor of CAFOs. You’ll find that while the common arguments may contain a kernel of truth, they are not without holes.
Please note that in addressing these counterarguments, we generally leave out the ethical dilemma of CAFOs, because that is a blanket argument that (while immensely important to us) doesn’t carry the same weight with everyone. Here goes:
“Pastured animals need lots of land, whereas CAFOs can raise many more animals on less land.”
The Kernel of Truth: As far as where the animals are living, CAFOs require less space per animal. If a single cow got everything it needed from pasture, it would need a lot more space than if its feed were brought to it.
The Hole in the Argument: This argument suggests that CAFOs are more space-efficient than pastures, which is leaving out a big part of the equation: growing and transporting the feed for the CAFO. Animal feed (for cows, chickens, pigs, etc) mainly consists of corn and soy, two of America’s biggest crops. Corn currently occupies almost 89 million acres in the US (1), soy a little over 84 million (2). And most of that crop isn’t even for human consumption. More than a third of our corn crop is for animal feed and about 40% is for ethanol production (3). Because corn and soy are annuals (meaning they must be planted every year), a plot of land devoted to either one will produce only one harvest each year. If this same plot were in pasture form, it could feed a herd of cattle for many months of the year, even more so if the cattle are rotationally grazed.*
These sheep on Burns Angus Farm graze on the pasture, without the need for grain to be grown, fertilized, treated with pesticide, harvested and transported to the animals. What you see is what you get.
“... And while we’re talking about land, pasture farming is not necessarily better for the environment; it’s actually one of the biggest causes of deforestation in the Amazon.”
The Kernel: Yes, cattle ranching is one of the biggest drivers of deforestation in the Amazon (4).
The Hole: So is soy (5). More to the point, these ranchers in the Amazon are not good examples of pasture-based farming. The principles that drive a farmer to return his/her animal to pasture include environmental conservation, among other things. These ranchers in the Amazon are driven by one thing: profit. If feeding the cows corn in CAFOs were cheaper for them, like it is for Big Ag in the US, rest assured they would be feeding them corn and keeping them in cages. On the other hand, a well-managed pasture is better for the environment than CAFOs, cornfields, and most vegetable farms, because pastures utilize perennial plants (which are better for the soil than annuals), do not require tilling (which destroys topsoil), and are minimally invasive to the natural ecosystem (unlike the construction and maintenance of a factory farm).
“Pastured animals are not necessarily happy or healthy."
The Kernel: I will not deny this. I have been to confinement operations where the livestock were very healthy, and more or less comfortable. And I am sure there are pasture-based farms where the pasture is not of a high enough quality to sufficiently nourish the animals, or where the animals are uncomfortable and/or abused. "Grass-fed" is not necessarily synonymous with "happy." It is impossible to argue otherwise.
The Hole: This does not make up for the fact that in most cases, the situation is the reverse. Farmers that choose to put their animals outside and feed them a more natural diet normally have the animal's best interests in mind. Pastured animals and heritage breeds grow much more slowly than grain-fed livestock in industrial production. Why else would these farmers choose a farming practice that as much as doubles the time it takes them to make a profit? CAFOs, on the other hand, are focused on getting the most product for as little input as possible.
"Animals confined indoors are safer.”
The Kernel: Animals confined indoors are essentially invulnerable to natural predators (like coyotes, foxes, birds of prey), and avoid the natural elements of cold, wind and sun.
The Hole: Pasture animals may be more vulnerable to natural predators (they do, after all, live in nature), but these farmers protect their livestock with moveable chicken coops, electric fencing, and guard animals. While we're on the subject of predators, let's not forget about nature's biggest predator: humans. In CAFOs, animals suffer a number of painful procedures, all in the name of keeping them safe... from each other. Chicks have their beaks "trimmed," piglets have their tails "docked," all because the animals are so stressed that they might attack each other. And those are just standard procedures, unlike the harm suffered in factory farms caused by neglect or by violent individuals. The bottom line is that keeping farm animals inside does not make them safer, especially from disease. Perhaps those animals are not getting sick, not because they are in a clean environment, but because they are being fed antibiotics regardless of whether they need them. But that does not make them invincible against disease. For more specific evidence, a recent study suggests that pastured birds are much less vulnerable to Avian flu, a disease which is causing big problems for industrial poultry farms across the country (6). One of the reasons mentioned is, not antibiotics, but a low-stress environment. Yes, maintaining a low-stress environment turns out to be better for the animal's health than keeping them inside, away from sunlight, fresh air, and scary wind.
These "chicken tractors" at Heritage Farm keep the animals safe from predators, but also allow them to stretch their wings outside.
“Pasture is seasonal. They can only be outside for so long.”
The Kernel: In the winter, many animals have to be taken off the pasture because the grass is covered in snow.
The Hole: This is not so much an advantage of industrial farming as it is a weakness of some pasture farms: chickens cannot be raised outside in the winter, for example. So for some farmers, it means they have to make most of their money in the warm months. But there are plenty of cow farms where the animals are kept on pasture year-round. They may be fed hay to supplement what they can still graze on in the winter. Many pasture farmers practice “stockpiling,” which is growing the grass tall enough for it to withstand several inches of snow.
These antibiotic-free chickens on Jarosinski Farm are housed in a shelter that is designed to allow fresh air, sunlight, and insects, which the chickens find delicious. They also have a lot more space than the average cage-free bird, which helps to minimize stress. This housing environment allows the farm to maintain a steady income from eggs, even in the winter.
“Industrial farming is cheaper. Pastured meat is too expensive for everyone to afford.”
We call this the “Feed the World” argument. I’ve taken several trips to confinement operations, where we would always wrap up the tour with a conversation, inevitably ending with the elephant in the room: animal welfare. The answer of the makeshift tour guide was somewhere along these lines: The population is growing, and people want to eat meat. We have to feed the world.
The Kernel: Industrial meat costs less money per pound for the consumer.
The Hole: Two of the big reasons that conventional meat is so cheap is 1.) cheap feed and 2.) vertical integration. Feeding industrial-raised livestock is cheap for several reasons. One is that many industrial animals are fed food wastes (think kitchen scraps from big food processing companies). Another is crop subsidies, which allow industrial livestock farmers to feed their animals at an unfairly low cost. (Although, 100% grass-fed cattle and lamb farmers spend almost nothing on feed.) Vertical integration means that because a meat company, like Tyson, owns every stage of the process of chicken production (all the way from the chicken breeders to the vendor that sells the meat to the grocery store), they save a lot of money by not having to buy day-old chicks or sacrifice the mark-up from the slaughter facility. While most of these savings go into the pockets of Big Ag leaders, these savings are also what allows them to beat everyone else’s chicken prices. Yes, grass-fed beef is more costly per pound, and there’s a reason for that. It’s not necessarily that the farmers are trying to swindle you for a pound of hamburger meat. As mentioned earlier, animals on pasture, as well as heritage breeds, take a lot longer to reach finishing condition, when they are ready for slaughter. For heritage chicken or pig farmers, for example, it means they need to spend more on feed.
Here’s a question for you: How do you define expensive? Factory farmed meat, dairy and eggs may be less costly for the consumer, but this convenience is not without externalities: unsafe working conditions, pollution of water, air and land, antibiotic-resistant bacteria in our bodies, all of which are causing expensive problems for human populations (7). You’re paying one way or the other.
Pasture-raised pigs, like these ones at Heritage Farm, take longer to mature than industrial-raised pigs.
So what are the advantages of CAFOs? I honestly cannot think of any that make industrial livestock farming a more desirable choice over pasture-based farming. I will not claim this is an exhaustive list of the arguments made in favor of CAFO farming, but these are statements I’ve heard time and again from proponents of industrial agriculture, CAFO employees, and even some particularly argumentative vegetarians. You probably have heard these arguments yourself. But we’ve now debunked the idea that industrial livestock farming is the best option. We can’t have a do-over, but we can change the future of the system.
* Rotational grazing is the practice of strategically rotating cows through pasture that has been sectioned into “paddocks.” The goal is for cows to be eating the grass at its most nutritional stage of growth, and then moving the cows to another paddock to allow the first to regenerate. This practice has the effect of increasing the number of cows that can be raised on a given area of land.