Farm animals are animals that are kept for agricultural purposes. This includes such domesticated animals as cows and chickens, and wild animals that are raised in confinement, including mink and fish. Animals are farmed for a variety of reasons. Most are raised to be killed. Meat from cattle, hogs, and chickens provides the bulk of protein in the American diet, while animals with beautiful fur are killed for their pelts. However, some farm animals are more useful and profitable alive. These animals produce something of value to humans, such as milk, eggs, wool, or honey, or are farmed for their skills, like horses, mules, and burros. Whatever the reason, the cultivation of farm animals is an enormous business.
Table 4.1 lists the top twenty-five moneymaking agricultural products in the United States during 2003. Seven are animals or animal products. In fact, farm animals and their byproducts accounted for about half (49.8%) of all agricultural income in the United States.
The number of animals involved is staggering. As of 2004, U.S. farms included:
8.8 billion chickens
264 million turkeys
103.6 million cattle
60.5 million hogs
7.65 million sheep
3.0 million mink, rabbits, etc.
2.5 million goats
In addition, there were millions of horses, quail, ducks, pheasants, fish, and honeybees and several hundred thousand geese, mules, burros, donkeys, and other farmed animals.
In 2004 more farm animals were living in the United States than there were humans on earth. The use and well-being of these animals is of major importance to people concerned with animal rights and welfare. Most animal rights activists abhor the idea that animals are commodities at all. Many believe that animals should not be used for any purpose, especially to feed humans. Welfarists focus their attention on the treatment of farmed animals—how they are housed, fed, transported, and slaughtered.
People in the American livestock business argue that farm animals are well treated. They point to the high productivity of the industry as proof. In other words, farm animals must be thriving because there are so many of them. The American Meat Institute (AMI) is a trade organization that represents the meat and poultry industry. On its Web site in 2005, the AMI summed up its viewpoint: "Healthy animals whose welfare is carefully respected result in safe, wholesome, high quality meat and poultry products." In January 2001 the AMI published a brochure entitled "Animal Welfare in the Meat Industry: A Commitment to Consumers and Livestock," in which it noted that livestock farmers practice humane animal care because it is ethical and results in calmer animals. In turn, calmer animals help make farms and meat plants safer working environments, resulting in higher quality meat. The link between humane animal treatment and high production of good-quality products is commonly cited by the livestock industry.
Critics argue that high productivity is an indicator of the efficiency of the overall system, not the welfare of individual animals. They have a long list of complaints about how farm animals are raised and slaughtered in the United States.
Farming animals is a very old and respected business. It feeds people and supplies products they want. Forcing farmers to radically change the way they treat animals might jeopardize the relatively cheap and plentiful supply of animal products that Americans enjoy. Would society
TABLE 4.1 Top 25 agricultural commodities, 2003 SOURCE: Adapted from "United States: Leading Commodities for Cash Receipts, 2003," in United States: Leading Commodities for Cash Receipts, 2003, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, August 5, 2004 http://www.ers.usda.gov/StateFacts/TopAgCommodities/TOP25US.txt (accessed February 5, 2005)
Value of receipts
Percent of total receipts
Livestock and products
Cattle and calves
Cane for sugar
tolerate this just for the sake of the animals? This is the ultimate question at the center of the farm animal debate. However, animal rights supporters, welfarists, and environmentalists point to evidence that the use of farm animals as a food source is an inefficient and in some ways harmful practice and argue that alternatives to the most common modern farming techniques would provide for a more sustainable and humane agricultural system.
Humans have been farming animals for thousands of years, dating back to when animals were first domesticated. The ability to keep and control animals allowed people to turn their focus away from hunting and toward building civilizations. It also changed the fundamental attitudes that humans had about animals. Domesticated animals lost the status that their ancestors had as independent free-roaming…
Animal products are used in many ways by modern society. People consume them and wear them and buy items every day that contain animal-derived components. According to the USDA, Americans consumed 193.8 pounds of meat per capita during 2003. From 1910 until the late 1930s meat consumption averaged about 100 pounds per person. After World War II Americans began consuming more meat. Annual per capit…
Farm animals have historically not been covered by animal welfare legislation. As a result, some practices relating to the treatment of farm animals are considered standard by farmers but may be thought of as cruel or inhumane by animal activists and other people. Such practices include culling, castration, dehorning, branding, and various forms of physical alteration. Culling means the rejection …
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 …
Cattle are bovines that descend from ancient animals called aurochs. They have complex four-compartment stomachs called rumens and eat vegetation. In nature, cattle swallow their food whole. Later the partially digested food, or cud, is regurgitated into their mouths for them to chew. "Chewing the cud" is a well-known cattle trait. The natural lifespan for cattle is twenty to twenty-…
Poultry are domesticated birds cultivated for their eggs or meat. This includes chickens, turkeys, geese, and ducks. Chickens are by far the most common type of poultry raised in the United States. The USDA estimated that there were 8.8 billion chickens living in the United States in 2004. Chickens were originally domesticated from wild Asian jungle fowl. In natural conditions chickens tend to liv…
Hogs and pigs are domesticated swine. A pig is a young swine that is not yet sexually mature. A young female hog is called a gilt. A female adult hog is called a sow. The generic term "hog" is generally used to refer to
all hogs. Hogs are curious and intelligent animals, supposedly smarter than dogs. They have very sensitive noses, which they use to root around the ground for their …
In 1900 approximately twenty million horses lived on U.S. farms. This number declined significantly over the next century. The USDA's agricultural census of 2002 found 3.6 million horses living on approximately half a million farms in the United States. The country's total horse inventory is somewhere around five million; however, this figure includes horses kept for racing, breeding…
Fish farming is accomplished in one of two ways. Producers use netted enclosures in near-offshore ocean waters or they build separate enclosures inland. The second method is considered more environmentally friendly because the farmed fish and their waste are separated from fish living in natural waters. In-ocean farms occasionally lose fish to the surrounding waters, and environmentalists fear tha…
Several other animal species are farmed for meat and other products in the United States, mainly sheep, goats, honeybees, rabbits, and bison. According to the USDA, there were around 6.3 million sheep on 73,814 U.S. farms in 2002. Just over 3.3 million sheep were slaughtered for food, producing 222 million pounds of meat. Lambs accounted for 95% of the slaughtered sheep. Most meat sold as lamb com…
The most strict animal rights activists are opposed to the farming of animals to produce products for human consumption and use. They often embrace a vegan lifestyle, in which no animal products are consumed or used. Others are vegetarians. Vegetarians do not eat meat, but may consume secondary products, such as milk or eggs. For example, lacto-vegetarians eat dairy products, while ovo-vegetarians…
Because humans consume so many animal products, there is a correlation between the health of farm animals and human health. Even people who do not have moral or philosophical problems with the treatment or consumption of livestock are concerned about some factory farming methods. One of the biggest concerns is the routine administration of low doses of antibiotics to farm animals to prevent them f…
Fur farming is a unique agricultural enterprise for two reasons. First of all, most of the animals involved are wild instead of domesticated. Second, the animals are raised and killed for their pelts only. The most popular fur animal is the mink. It takes about forty mink pelts to produce one fur coat. Mink are wild animals that are kept in cages on fur farms. They typically breed in the early spr…
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