What Is a Farm?
The farming of livestock has changed dramatically over the past century. Many people think of a farm as a rural collection of barns and fields run by one farming family. In reality, some farms are massive industrial-type facilities owned and operated by large corporations. These are called factory farms. Although they make up a small percentage of American farms, they handle a large percentage of the animals killed for food in the United States.
Breakdown of livestock farms, by type of livestock, 2002
SOURCE: Adapted from "Table 59. Summary by North American Industry Classification System: 2002," in 2002 Census of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2004, http://www.nass.usda.gov/census/census02/volume1/us/st99_1_059_059.pdf (accessed March 17, 2005)
In its most recent Census of Agriculture (2002), the USDA defined a farm as an establishment that produces or sells $1,000 or more of agricultural products during a year. According to the 2002 census, there were more than 2.1 million farms in the United States, just over half of which produced livestock. The breakdown by animal type is shown in Figure 4.3. Cattle farms, ranches, and feedlots accounted for 69% of the total. Far fewer farms were engaged in raising swine, poultry, sheep, goats, aquatic animals (such as fish), and other animals. The "other" category includes specialty animals, such as fur-bearing animals, honeybees, bison, llamas, snakes, and worms.
Consolidation of Agricultural Businesses
In 2002 approximately 90% of all farms were owned and operated by individuals and families. Only 3.5% were owned by corporations, but many small farms operate under contract to corporations. The farmers may sign away ownership of their animals and be paid to raise them to a contracted age or weight. Then the animals are turned over to the companies for finishing or slaughtering.
Agribusiness underwent much consolidation between the 1950s and 1990s. For example, according to the research company Mintel, only three companies controlled nearly 80% of the U.S. cattle slaughter/packing market in 2002: Tyson Foods Inc., Cargill Meat Solutions Corp., and Swift and Company.
Many corporations have vertically integrated their operations. In other words, they not only own facilities that raise animals, but they also own the facilities that produce feed for them and the facilities that slaughter and process them. Economies of scale—that is, larger volumes—allow corporations to spend less on each of these steps than small farmers do.
How Factory Farms Work
The most visible symbol of factory farming is the animal feeding operation (AFO) or concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO). By federal definition, an AFO is a facility that "congregates animals, feed, manure and urine, dead animals, and production operations on a small area of land." The difference between an AFO and a CAFO is based in part on how many animals are involved. Both feature highly concentrated confinement areas with no pasture or grazing land.
In this way, the animals can be housed, fed, medicated, and processed with utmost efficiency. Every aspect of animal life and behavior is controlled to ensure that productivity and profits are maximized. The animals are kept in the smallest space possible and fed the cheapest food that will quickly and effectively fatten them up. Breeding facilities ensure a constant supply of replacements.
Modern technology is employed whenever it is economically feasible. Females are artificially inseminated rather than mated. Pregnancies are spaced close together to increase production. Mothers and offspring are separated quickly to keep the process moving. Antibiotics, hormones, and growth-enhancing drugs are administered to ensure rapid growth and to prevent deadly diseases. Slaughterhouses are run like assembly lines with an emphasis on speed and meat quantity.
The Pros and Cons
The overwhelming advantage of the factory farming system to society is economic—satisfaction of the demand for meat at acceptable prices. Factory farming provides the United States with a continuous and relatively inexpensive meat supply. On the other hand, animal rights activists blame the factory farming system for many animal abuses. They believe that the industry's emphasis on profits, efficiency, and productivity has contributed greatly to inhumane treatment and sloppy slaughtering of farm animals.
There is no doubt that industrial methods have changed the way in which farmers and animals interact. Traditionally, farmers had a lot of personal interaction with their animals during feeding and handling. While this did not change the ultimate usage of the animals, many people believe that it built a bond that led farmers to care
Number of cattle and beef cow operations, 1989–2004
SOURCE: "Number of All Cattle and Beef Cow Operations, United States, 1989–2004," in Agricultural Charts & Maps: Cattle: January Inventory, U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, January 31, 2005, http://www.usda.gov/nass/aggraphs/acbc_ops.htm (accessed February 7, 2005)
more about the welfare of individual animals. Certainly sick or injured animals were more likely to be noticed and cared for in this system. Many small farms, particularly in communities that use traditional methods (such as Amish farms) still achieve this level of human-animal contact.
By contrast, factory farms are almost entirely automated. For example, on most chicken farms the food is dispensed by machines, and the eggs are collected on conveyor belts. The chickens rarely see people until they are gathered by human handlers into crates for their journey to the slaughterhouse. Such automation in modern animal husbandry saves money by reducing labor costs and increasing efficiency.
Factory farming is increasingly being criticized for adverse effects on the environment. AFOs and CAFOs produce huge amounts of manure and droppings. According to information available on its Web site in 2005, the Sierra Club says that factory farms produce 2.7 trillion pounds of waste each year. Traditionally, small farms have recycled manure by spreading it on their crops for fertilizer. But this is not practical for large industrial operations. Most of them collect and store the waste in open lagoons or concrete cisterns. Runoff into streams, rivers, and lakes can kill fish and contaminate human drinking water supplies. Factory farms, particularly those raising hogs, are also considered a hazard to air quality and are notorious for their odor problems.