Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Is this inhumane?

Sow in a gestation crate
Photo from
clstal's flickr stream

No, really. I'm seriously asking that question. It's not a rhetorical jumping off point for me or others to express their indignation.

See, the Humane Society of the United States, among other animal rights groups, is circulating a petition to get enough signatures to add a ballot measure in California that would ban the use of gestation crates, battery cages and veal crates in hog, egg and veal production, respectively. Being that I'm not a hog farmer, a manager of a laying hen operation, animal behaviorist, large animal veterinarian, etc., I honestly don't know if this is a good thing or not. But I *am* a consumer of all those things (well, maybe not veal), I have an irrational love for farmers and I vote, so I wonder about the merits or drawbacks of these management systems.

Hens in a battery cage
Photo from clstal's flickr stream

But as it turns out, it seems damn near impossible to get a well reasoned and impartial exposition of the issue. Virtually all the material on the pro side is from hysterical, Chicken Little PETA fascists who, you get the feeling, would inveigh in the most strident tones against anything hinting at people using animals for anything other than cuddling...or something. The pro side is basically non-existent, at least on Google (perhaps less so at a diner in Iowa, but I can't get to that from my computer). So I turned to the American Farm Bureau's blog to try to find a real, live conventional hog farmer to ask. In response to my request for more information, I got this nuclear blast of rhetoric.

I find this all unfortunate because this issue could in fact land on a ballot next year, and 36 and a half million Californians could conceivably be called upon to vote on it. And aside from that, we all eat and we have an ever-increasing number of opportunities to vote for or against a particular farming method with our dollars. It would be nice if we could all make an informed decision, both at the polling station and the supermarket. Wouldn't it?


Crystal (clstal) said...


Well-written post! I can't say that I have much knowledge about gestation crates, even though I was able to take a picture of a few of em.

This is what I remember of the presentation - they're controversial, not popular with consumers and laws are being passed in farming-light states because people aren't familiar with farming.

What's the problem, why not just house em in group pens like the sows awaiting breeding?

Several reasons, apparently: cleanliness - far easier to keep clean if the poop is all pointing in one direction. Moving animals around is stressful (stressed animals are bad from everyone perspective; from a production perspective, they don't gain as fast, from a welfare perspective it's viewed as ethically undesirable) and to keep those group cages clean more moving around would be required.

Knowing what each animal eats is possible - knowing one is off feed before the animal looses a bunch of weight is better for the animal as well as the producer. Also, pigs are relatively aggressive and have strict social hierarchies - crating alone means all animals have access to food and water... in group pens, some pigs control access to the water(we saw this while standing there for 5min, so I tend to believe it's true) - it's also apparently far worse when there's food available, which there wasn't when we were watching.

Also, this aggressive social posturing tends to leave marks on the other pigs in the cage - cuts on the sides of some animals, bitten tails, etc.

OTOH, there's the ethical question - how likely is it that these animals, given a choice in the matter, would choose to stay alone in a crate they can't turn around in?

I don't know the answer to that question.

What I *would* advise is seeing working, reputable farm (though don't take pictures before asking permission - unfortunately, the "animal rights" people have given anyone else interested in questioning the status quo a bad name) and coming to your own conclusions.

A note on the battery cage. As these cages were set up, they seemed reasonable. However, this is unusually expansive because it's a research flock kept by the vet school, not a true production flock. According to the tour guide, normally each cage would have housed multiple birds. I haven't seen these conditions but imagine them to be... cramped.


Kei said...

Thank you for posting such an exhaustive reply, and thank you for reading!

It seems as though the real issue is the stocking density and the characteristics that are selected for in breeding, and the confinement systems are symptomatic.
I'm really vexed by this issue b/c on the one hand, I don't think we should treat animals as if all they are nothing aside from a future meal; and on the other hand, is it really incumbent upon the public, who has far less experience and knowledge of the needs of livestock than the people who raise them, to pass unnecessary and possibly harmful laws from a position of ignorance?

5th Generation Farmer said...


I visited the AFBF blog and I don't think their answer to your question was full of rhetoric, it was fact. Crystal's comments were correct. By housing animals alone, farmers can better monitor their health and feed intake. Animals have the opportunity to water and feed without fighting other animals for it. Moving our hogs around stresses them, hogs are lazy animals by nature and as long as they have food and water, they are content to lay around all day. When in a group housing setting, the hogs will fight and there is always a bully on the block who eats more and drinks more, starving out the other hogs in the group. They also fight, which can lead to sores that get infected. By housing these animals alone, they do not have to compete for food or water, and the farmers are better able to monitor the animal's health. These barns are also much cleaner, which is better for the animal. The climate is computer controlled which allows for the animals to be comfortable year round, which is very humane.

If these animals were housed together in groups, there would be a high death loss due to stress and fighting, and several starved animals due to the "bully" hogging all the feed. That doesn't seem very humane to me.

My family has raised animals both ways and we prefer gestation stalls because it is more humane for our animals and less stressful for them as well. Our animals are content and comfortable, and well cared for. Our animals well being is our top priority. Our animals live better than many people do. Our animals don't have to worry about the weather or being attacked by wild animals. They have safe shelter and plenty of food, both necessities for life. I know many humans who can't say they have this, and many children who are abused and neglected, now that is not HUMANE!

Kei said...

5th Generation Farmer,

Thanks for your thoughtful response. That is basically what I was looking for - a straightforward explanation of why you would choose to raise the animals in one way or the other. The AFB response I got to my comment touched on those points, but the overall emphasis was on making the impression that animal welfare groups are going to bring about Armegeddon in American agriculture. Which is simply impossible. Even if these groups do get more media hype, the fact remains that something like 98% of the public still eats meat, for one.