Why Do Animals Live on Factory Farms?

Do animals live on factory farms? Do these farming practices result in animal abuse and environmental degradation? Is it safe to live close to a factory farm? We have had many questions about factory farming and concentrated animal feeding operations, so we reached out to Amy Schmidt, PhD, PE, Assistant Professor & Livestock Bioenvironmental Engineer, University of Nebraska. Dr. Schmidt explains that large-scale and small-scale systems each have their own distinct advantages and disadvantages and no single system is perfect.

Is it true that most farm animals in today’s food system are confined in factory farms? How many head of cattle, chickens or pigs are housed together on the typical farm?

Dr. Amy Schmidt: “First of all, let’s talk about the term ‘factory farm.’ I think it is a very misused and inaccurate term, and I will tell you why after I tell you this story.

I recently asked a member of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) to explain the term ‘factory farm’ to me. (FYI, she had no idea who I was.) She began by telling me that, ‘First, these huge corporations come in and start buying all of the land where they want to raise animals. And the local farmers can’t afford to compete with the corporation, so they sell them their land and have to quit farming and that’s really sad.’ (And I would agree…if that were true.) She then went on to say, ‘And, so once the corporations have taken all this land from family farmers, they build these huge buildings and then they shove all the animals in there and the owner just pushes a button to deliver feed and water…and there is no human interaction at all. And when you drive down the highway and smell something awful, it’s them. It’s factory farms and it’s horrible.’ Oh, my! That does sound horrible! Why is anyone allowed to raise animals that way just to produce hamburgers and eggs and bacon?!

Well, here’s the deal: that’s not at all what happens in real life. Corporations aren’t buying up all the farmland and pushing farm families off the land. If anything, they are providing a way for families who love living on the farm and raising livestock to continue doing this on a large enough scale to make a living at it. Say you grew up in a family that raised pigs, cattle, and crops. Maybe Mom and Dad farmed and when you and your siblings grew up, you wanted to keep farming but it wasn’t profitable for you all to just work for your parents. You needed to start a farm of your own. So, together, you all decided that Mom and Dad will just keep sows on their farm, but they’ll buy more sows so they can produce more piglets. And then you and your siblings could each build farms where you take those piglets and raise them to market weight. And since we’re all working together, we should create a business that ties our operations together, an LLC, perhaps. This is how a lot of ‘corporate’ farms were created. Does that make them bad? Or does it just make common sense? How is that different from kids starting their own grocery stores and creating a ‘chain’ by opening their own stores under the business structure that their parents started 30 years ago? Farms and ranches shouldn’t be thought of any differently than other types of businesses. They have to diversify ag opportunities to be able to generate a profit so that they can continue to produce food, fiber, and fuel. If they are not able to generate a profit, it is no longer feasible to stay in business. This may mean selling to someone who will use the land, equipment, livestock, etc. to grow their own existing business, or it may mean adding to their operation to expand and remain profitable.

We really need to get away from the idea of pitting ‘factory farmers’ against ‘family farmers’ because a family that builds a profitable farming business to support multiple generations is eventually going to be labeled a ‘factory farm’ just because of their size. Every aspect of our economy grows based on scales of production. We don’t all have a desire to raise our own food. But, thankfully, there are people who enjoy this and because they are able to scale their operation up to produce more food in a way that is profitable, we all benefit from that. And according to the American Farm Bureau, 97% of farms are family owned!

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Now, for the real answer to the question!

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that there are 450,000 AFOs in the U.S. and about 15% of these are CAFOs.

So, what is a ‘CAFO’ versus an ‘AFO?’ The acronym CAFO stands for ‘concentrated animal feeding operation.’ To be a CAFO, an operation must first be an AFO, or an ‘animal feeding operation.’ An AFO is simply defined as an agricultural operation where animals are confined for at least 45 days in a 12-month period to an area where vegetation is not sustained during the normal growing season. So, by this definition, a backyard chicken coop with a few hens housed inside a structure is technically an AFO. Now, for an AFO to be a small CAFO, the operation needs to confine at least 300 ‘animal units,’ which equates to 300 beef cattle or about 200 mature dairy cows or 750 mature pigs, etc. So, it doesn’t take very many animals to go from being an AFO to a small CAFO!

When raising animals in confinement (inside structures or fenced areas where the stocking density does not allow for vegetation to grow on the soil surface), science-based engineering design standards dictate how much space must be allotted for each animal. In terms of the number of animals housed together on larger-scale farms, it is common for swine buildings to house 1,000 to 2,400 animals in a single structure, typically in pens of about 20 animals each. Broiler chicken houses can house up to around 50,000 birds in a single structure. Dairy cattle housed in freestall barns may number up to 1,000 cows in a single barn, while open lot dairy operations (common in arid regions) may contain a few thousand animals on a site. In all of these settings, a farm may contain multiple buildings. With beef cattle, feedlots are typically used for ‘finishing’ the cattle, or growing the animals to market weight. Pens of feedlot cattle typically contain anywhere from 20 to 100 cattle per pen, depending upon the size of the whole feedlot operation. Again, larger feedlots can contain a few hundred to several thousand animals.

One important thing to remember is that, as the size of the operation increases, the number of people working on the farm also increases. While it is easy to assume that larger facilities result in less intense management of the animals, this simply is not the case. On the contrary, larger operations usually result in more specialized animal husbandry skills by employees and less of the ‘jack-of-all-trades’ type management scenario typical of smaller operations. Neither model is less acceptable than the other, and each has their unique benefits.”

Is housing animals in CAFOs really in the animal’s best interest? Do the animals receive proper care?

Dr. Amy Schmidt: “Regardless of the size of the operation, confining animals inside a facility or in a feedlot situation has the advantage of allowing the animals’ caretaker(s) to closely monitor animal health and well-being. As I mentioned in my earlier discussion of the HSUS member’s definition of ‘factory farms,’ there is a misconception that animals housed in buildings have no human interaction and that feed is delivered by ‘pushing a button.’ While it is true that feed is delivered automatically via mechanical conveyance, it is untrue that animal caretakers rarely enter the facilities to monitor the health and well-being of their animals. Animals are monitored by caretakers multiple times per day, ill or at-risk animals are moved to ‘hospital’ pens for up-close monitoring and treatment, and aggressive animals are separated to prevent injury to other animals and the human caregivers. These are all benefits of livestock housing systems or feedlots for cattle. While free-range or pastured livestock production is certainly an acceptable practice, it does have some disadvantages. One distinct disadvantage of pasture livestock is that animals may be poorly protected from heat, cold, and other inclement weather. Swine, poultry, and dairy animals raised inside structures enjoy a regulated environment free from bitter cold, extreme heat, sunburn, predatory animals, and other hazards – as well as some soil-borne diseases.

Some may argue that disease is more prevalent in confined animal systems than ‘free-range’ or ‘pastured’ systems. A concern with pastured pigs, in particular, is the potential for exposure to parasites and microorganisms that confined pigs are protected from. For instance, the incidence of trichinosis in pigs has seen a significant decline in the past few decades as swine production has moved indoors. However, with the increased popularity of pastured swine production in recent years, sporadic cases of trichinosis have been reported due to these animals being exposed to wild reservoir hosts. Is this a reason to stop producing pigs on pastures? Not necessarily, since proper preparation of pork during cooking is key to preventing human illness from this parasite. But it is clear that each system has its distinct advantages and disadvantages and no single system is perfect.”

Does housing animals in CAFOs result in animal abuse?

Dr. Amy Schmidt: Abuse is a terrible thing; whether it’s abuse of a helpless animal or a helpless person, it’s simply unacceptable. Just as the vast majority of people don’t abuse their children or spouses, the majority of livestock producers don’t abuse their animals. We need to realize that there are people in all facets of society that don’t fit the social norm; people who do things that mainstream society finds completely unacceptable. I feel like it is very inappropriate to suggest that confining animals on CAFOs leads to animal abuse. Just as providing proper care and nutrition to plants helps them grow and produce to their greatest potential, proper care and nutrition of animals produces the most profitable and highest quality product. Therefore, it is in the best interest of all agricultural producers – livestock or crop, confinement or pasture-based – to provide the highest quality care possible to maximize the productivity and profitability of their operation. Livestock producers quickly disapprove of acts of abuse by other livestock producers; it is a matter of right and wrong, and the acts of a select few are not relevant to an entire industry.”

Does housing animals in CAFOs contribute to environmental degradation?

Dr. Amy Schmidt: “One might argue that collecting the manure from livestock in a centralized location – like a deep pit or lagoon – results in environmental degradation because eventually that manure must be hauled to fields for land application. While it is true that this concentrated manure source is a potential environmental risk if not properly contained and utilized, strict environmental and engineering standards are designed to ensure proper containment and utilization of this manure product. Human error – not inadequate design – is the most likely culprit when a manure discharge occurs on an animal feeding operation. And human error occurs on all sizes of operations!

On the contrary, pastured livestock operations are typically not regulated, which means that there is no regulatory restriction on allowing animals to stand in streams or other water bodies that can be contaminated with the animals’ manure. And there is no regulatory requirement for maintaining records of nutrient management planning, soil nutrient monitoring, ground and surface water quality monitoring, etc. on these operations that are not regulated by a permit. Again, I am of the opinion that size is not the issue when it comes to debating the impact of livestock production systems on the environment. Personal responsibility, appropriate use of design standards and recommended management practices, as well as diligent management and record-keeping practices, are important components of managing potential environmental risks from livestock production systems, regardless of operation size.”

Does housing animals in CAFOs harm the people who live in and around the facilities?

Dr. Amy Schmidt: “This a tough question to answer. A lot of the data we have is very objective or based on observational studies rather than designed experiments. In other words, people who live near CAFOs are asked about their health status, or community health data is compared to CAFO proximity and used to draw conclusions. While this data can show results that appear concerning, they do not necessarily provide proof of cause and effect. The problem is, it’s not really possible to design a statistically sound study where one group of people is required to live within a specified distance of a CAFO for their whole life and another group is kept completely free of exposure to CAFOs or any other potential environmental contaminant source, so that after a lifetime of living under these two scenarios, the health status of the two groups can be compared and results can be attributed only to CAFO exposure. I would argue this goes for a waste treatment plant, a nuclear power plant, or any other large facility – there may be risk associated with all of them over a long time period.

What we do know is that some people report a greater incidence of respiratory issues, headaches, and other ailments because they live near a livestock operation. On the contrary, there are a lot of people living near these types of operations who report no ill effects. We also know that shallow ground water near agricultural production land can be higher in nitrates and other contaminants due to manure, commercial fertilizer, and chemical uses. But changes to agricultural management practices over the past couple of decades have begun to improve surface and ground water quality. And, as mentioned earlier, containing the waste products from confined animal systems and following strict regulatory and science-based management recommendations when applying these manure products to land is key to ensuring that environmental and social risks are minimized.

We also know that some people simply do not want to live where they can see or smell a livestock facility. And that’s easy to understand. I personally don’t want to live where I can see or smell smog from a major city. I’ll take the smell of a pig farm or feedlot over the exhaust from city buses any day of the week! But, it’s very difficult to conclude whether the effects reported by people living near livestock farms are a result of exposure to contaminants or an artifact of predisposed opposition to the facility. This is definitely an area where research needs remain.”

Are CAFOs necessary? What would our food system look like if we didn’t have them?

Dr. Amy Schmidt: “Several factors have helped move agricultural production towards a larger scale over time. The increase in equipment size and capability (tractors, for instance), relatively inexpensive electricity and other power sources, and standard semi trailer sizes capable of hauling a specific number of animals or gallons of milk all have driven agriculture’s growth and economies of scale, and will continue to do so.

I think that if every person who chooses to eat meat, dairy, and eggs would commit to raising their own meat animals, dairy cow(s), and poultry, we could eliminate all CAFOs from the U.S. But, how realistic is that? I personally don’t have the time, land, or above all, the desire, to raise a pig, a steer, a dairy cow, and a handful of chickens! But I love to eat meat, dairy, and egg products, so I’m thankful that there are people willing to produce more than their fair share of these products so that I have access to the products without having to grow them myself. My personal opinion is that as long as people like me exist, CAFOs will continue to be a valuable component of our food production system worldwide. On top of that, a growing world population that is becoming more affluent, and therefore more able to afford meat animal protein sources, will continue to make large-scale animal production profitable and essential!”

20130712-AMS-LSC-0475” by USDA is licensed by CC BY