I think everyone would prefer to buy food from animals that led happy lives. And yet, the vast majority of meat that Americans buy is produced in the inherently cruel factory farm model. If improving animal welfare standards is as simple as opting for humanely raised animal products, why isn't everyone doing just that? Simple—humanely raised food is considerably more expensive than industrially produced food.
Most small farms raising their animals humanely are not trying to gouge their customers with hip-sounding marketing terms like "pasture-raised." So what are you paying all that extra money for? As it turns out, a lot. Ethical farming practices are inherently more costly than industrial in many ways.
Stocking Density: Space Per Animal
In the industrial concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), stocking density is maximized to squeeze revenue from every inch of space, often to a detriment. High stocking densities cause constant stress to animals, fomenting disease, violence, and even cannibalism, effectively lowering productivity. To remedy this, industrial operations feed antibiotics to stave off illness and to boost growth. They also de-beak birds and tail-dock pigs to reduce the damage they can do to each other.
On a pasture-based farm, minimizing stress is prioritized, and is achieved almost single-handedly by giving the animals more room. These farms also utilize a smaller proportion of their property at any given moment, regularly moving their animals to an area that hasn't been grazed in a while. This method of rotational grazing has a number of benefits for animal health and for the environment, but naturally, the inherent need for more space per animal means that a farmer makes less revenue from their property than if they stocked more densely.
Finishing Time: Birth to Slaughter
Industrial meat producers turn a profit more quickly than pasture-based farms, because—thanks to fattening feeds, growth-boosting antibiotics and hormones*, and highly productive breeds—they can slaughter animals at a younger age. I toured a broiler (meat chicken) facility that had reduced their hatch-to-slaughter time to under six weeks, even lower than the industrial standard of just under 7 weeks.
In a more humane operation, animals take longer, mainly because their diet is healthier and they get more exercise. Chickens on pasture tend to take at least eight weeks, and raising 100% grass-fed beef that is of high eating quality can easily take two years (compared to about 14 months for the feedlot steer), depending on the climate and weather.
The cattle at Pittsburgher Highland Farm are lean and slow-growing. The smaller cow looks like a calf, but he's actually about a year old and still has a ways to go before being ready for market.
All this means a longer product life cycle for the farmer, and thus less revenue per animal in a given time period.
Animal Feed: Fattening or Nutritious?
CAFOs cut costs (and corners) when it comes to feed, offering a menu that might include slaughterhouse by-products (e.g., feather meal and processed feces) and food waste from commercial bakeries and confectioneries (e.g., Skittles). Neither provides much in the way of nutrient density.
Ethical animal farmers consider the natural diet of the animal. In some cases, they actually spend less on feed: grass-fed beef and lamb graze at no extra cost to the farmer as long as the grass is green. Omnivorous species (poultry and hogs) supplement their grain ration with the many natural food sources available on pasture, which arguably saves on daily feed costs. But, because this diet is healthier and less fattening, the animal takes longer to finish, so overall feed costs are greater. On top of that, small farms may spring for non-GMO, organic, or some other premium feed to suit the values of their customer base.
Footprints Farm turkeys stray from the non-GMO grain trough to hunt and forage.
Labor Hours: The Personal Touch
The examples of mechanized animal management are many, beyond just automatic feeding and watering systems. CAFOs increase laying hens’ egg productivity by manipulating barn lighting and temperature. If the hens live in battery cages, their eggs are deposited onto conveyor belts, eliminating the need to gather eggs by hand. Dairy cows spend months at a time connected to automatic milking machines, rather than being herded in and out of the milking parlor multiple times per day. Pigs in group housing are implanted with RFID chips that tell computerized feeders how much to dispense. Pig facilities are also equipped with slatted floors, through which feces falls and is pumped out of the building and into manure lagoons. Each of these technological advances either increases productivity (and thus, revenue) or decreases labor costs (increasing profit margin) by minimizing the need for human interaction with the animals.
Meanwhile, on the ethical farm, farmer-animal interaction is non-negotiable, and the bonds farmers form with their livestock are quantifiable. Dairy cows, for example, that are called by their names produce more milk than those without names. Pigs and goats are particularly predisposed to bond with humans and come to enjoy human affection, even from strangers.
Kevin Jarosinski of Jarosinski Farms checks in on his animals multiple times per day.
How does this affect the price of your food? Whereas a conventional livestock manager can oversee hundreds of head of livestock from an office computer, the lower animal-to-farmer ratio of the ethical farm, typically staffed entirely by the family, limits the number of animals the farm can raise, but means more hours of personal care and attention go into each product they sell.
Livestock Breeds: Prioritizing High Production vs. Flavor and Quality of Life
Today’s industrial operations tend to use breeds whose genetics have been honed over decades to increase productivity. At the beginning of the 20th century, the average cow produced 2,902 pounds of milk per year. Today, the average cow produces 19,951 pounds per year, almost a seven-fold increase. (1) We’ve also gotten meat chickens to more than twice the weight in less than half the time over the past nine decades. Although a victory for efficiency, this narrow breeding protocol often precipitates unexpected problems.
The Cornish Cross chicken, for example, was bred to grow breast meat as quickly as possible over its short life, but at about two months of age, its legs (deformed by intensive breeding) struggle to carry its top-heavy body. While not necessarily an animal welfare issue if the bird is slaughtered before this time, chickens do not reach reproductive age for four months, resulting in a cruel existence for the breeding flock. (2)
The productivity of modern breeds is such an advantage that small farms may raise modern breeds, too, although the lineage may not have been as intensively bred. But ethical farmers often deviate from the array of industrial breeds in favor of livestock with better weather hardiness, flavor, and/or temperament. In doing so, they sacrifice animal productivity, be it finishing weight, eggs, or gallons of milk.
By far the most expensive breeds to raise are those classified as heritage. The “heritage breed” category is specific and technical, including only pre-industrial breeds. Although not all slow-growing breeds are heritage, slow growth is a signature characteristic of heritage breed animals, which means they are inherently more expensive for the farmer to raise, not to mention the premium price of buying the animals in the first place.
Auburn Meadow Farm breeds and raises American Milking Devon cattle, a lineage first brought to the Americas in 1623.
Vertical Integration: Absorbing the Middlemen
As a universal principle, not one specific to agriculture, any company that controls more than one stage of production reduces middlemen costs. A large meat producer may control the feed cultivation, the breeders and hatcheries, the feeder facilities, the processing plant, the commercial kitchen, and the brand that is stamped on the final product, with cost savings every step of the way.
Small farms, on the other hand, typically just raise the animals and sell directly to their customers, with little in the way of fancy packaging. They also buy feed and pay processors to slaughter, butcher, freeze and package the product. Some buy animals every year, rather than breeding their own. Each stage is accompanied by an additional cost to the farmer, and thus a bit more per pound that the farmer must charge and share with the local businesses they depend on.
Economies of Scale: Mass Production of Food
An industry is considered highly consolidated when four companies control at least 40% of the market. When it comes to beef, the top four companies control 83.5%. Such centralized production is accompanied by economies of scale, meaning production costs shrink as the production rate grows. Mass producers can implement assembly lines to speed production, order inputs (such as feed and medicine) in larger volumes for reduced prices, and reduce mileage by employing larger trucks that can carry more product.
Small farms cannot achieve these advantages, purely because of their small scale. They must buy feed and supplies in smaller quantities and they most likely deliver the food themselves, which means tasks at the farm are being delayed. These higher costs preclude them from competing with mass-produced food.
Externalities: Passing The Buck
Falsely touted as efficient, large-scale, intensive food production actually produces a number of negative externalities, which are the effects of an activity whose costs are absorbed by the community, rather than the entity causing them.
Agriculture in general hastens the decline in biodiversity across the globe, as habitats are destroyed to make room for food production. Manure lagoons belch methane into the atmosphere and pollute waterways when they overflow or leak. Over-application of fertilizers and pesticides on monocultures (such as the expansive fields of GMO corn) are yet another source of pollution. CAFOs feed their animals low doses of antibiotics, a practice that fosters antibiotic-resistant bacteria. (In 2013, 72% of medically important antimicrobials on the market were bought by the livestock sector, and in the same year, 23,000 American died from antibiotic-resistant infections.) All of these concerns are production costs incurred by food producers, but borne by the affected communities, who are often defenseless against the industry's political power to deflect the ever-growing tab.
It is precisely because these costs can legally be passed on to the community that industrial food producers can offer such low price points for their food. If they were held responsible for cleaning up waterways, or sequestering methane from the atmosphere, or researching better antibiotic technology for humans, industrially produced food would be significantly more expensive.
While companies aren’t obligated to hold the best interests of the community or the planet, that’s exactly what ethical farms are doing. These farmers don’t need to pump animal waste into manure lagoons, and they don’t need to apply synthetic fertilizer, because their animals naturally and directly fertilize the fields. They also typically refrain from spraying pesticides, because a healthy population of insects is important to a healthy pasture. And you’ll be hard-pressed to find a farmer that administers antibiotics to otherwise healthy animals. These farmers are considering the impact of their farming practices, rather than taking shortcuts that negatively affect society. Naturally, their production costs are higher.
The robust pasture at Burns Angus Farm is a healthy ecosystem all to itself, existing in symbiosis with the cattle.
Small, ethical farms are fighting an uphill battle on many fronts. They are putting profit second to their animals and the environment. They are sacrificing revenue to give their animals more space, better health and quality of life, and more attention. If you want food that is produced in a way that prioritizes animal welfare, the planet, and your health, it's well worth the extra cost.
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*Added hormones are illegal in poultry and swine production.
1: Niman, N. H. (2014). Defending beef: The case for sustainable meat production. Chelsea Green Publishing.
2: Grandin, T., & Johnson, C. (2010). Animals make us human: Creating the best life for animals. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.