Tag Archives: Animal Welfare

Organic: what it is.

26 Nov


I stumbled across this article some months ago about organic chicken production in Delaware.  This article is the perfect illustration of the organic livestock industry.  The reporting is inaccurate, the customers are confused and the big-ag companies are finding ways to exploit the organic market.

Lets get the problems with the reporting out of the way first.

Here’s the first photo from the story, complete with original caption.


Mark and Kathy Maloney raise organic chickens for Perdue at their Harrington farm. The chicken houses have windows and doors on the outside and perches and boxes on the inside//Photos by Maria DeForrest.

These are broiler chickens, chickens raised for meat.  They have no roost bars (they’re too big to roost properly) and no boxes (they don’t lay eggs, so no need for boxes).  While these inaccuracies may seem nitpicky, they do contribute to a false sense of “environmental enrichment” that belies the photo.

Indeed, the chicken shown in the above photo is probably not what anyone thinks of when they hear the word “organic”.  Later in the story the reporter briefly touches on the organic chicken’s outdoor access, noting that:

“On nice days the doors are open and the birds are allowed to go outside to peck around in the organically planted grass. Outside there are water troughs for drinks and overhangs to provide shade and shelter.”

Now if that first sentence has got you thinking of happy birds rollicking around on pasture, at least the photographer was kind enough to include a photo that will disabuse you of that notion.


Look right over this nice fella’s hand.  See those red blobs?  Those are the outdoor water “troughs” they just talked about, situated cozily in the shade and shelter of an overhang.  See the few little white blobs by his fingertips?  Those are the chickens.  All half-dozen of them.

Suddenly the pastoral fantasy of chickens who get to “peck around in the organically planted grass.” seems a bit absurd in this context.  Worse yet, I fear (though this is blurry-photo-based-speculation) that these chickens may have no actual access to grass at all.  The platforms below each overhang suggest to me that we’re looking at an organic barn with “porch” style outdoor access, which allows chickens outdoors only onto a small “porch” area which is either floored completely in wood/metal/concrete or bare dirt.  Sad to say, but this kind of spirit-of-the-law flouting is entirely common in most organic production.

So with reporting like this, is it any wonder that consumers are confused, even the well-informed ones who care about their food?


I Figured out the Barn!

10 Jun

I’m a very happy fellow these days.

You see, I’ve just solved a three-year old dilemma that’s been aggravating me every time I move cows or pigs around the barn.

And all it took was accidentally setting up this panel just so.


This makes absolutely no sense, I know, but bear with me as I explain in excruciating detail.

Our barn is an old (built in 1890) dairy barn.  This is a problem because, being a dairy barn, it is built for dairy cows.  Other farmers may understand my dilemma by now, but for those of you not so well versed in the nuances of livestock, I offer this by way of explanation.

Dairy cows are (generally) very docile. Historically, small dairies would fit their cows with halters or collars (where cowbells hang) that would allow the cows to be lead into their stall in the barn by the farmer.  Dairy cows must be milked several times per day, and it takes a pretty gentle animal to stand still and be milked by it’s primary predator.

If your cows are so docile that you can lead them exactly where you want them, then you don’t need much in the way of handling facilities (gates, chutes, alleys) to get them were you want them.

But the problem is that we don’t have any dairy cows.

Instead we have beef cattle and pigs.  These critters, bred for their meat, are decidedly less docile.  Technically speaking, they have much larger flight zones.  Whereas a dairy cow would let you approach and put on a halter, a beef cow will (at best) let you barely touch it’s nose before it turns and flees.  Some beef cattle, like those raised out west with little human contact, have flight zones that are best measured in football fields.

So, to make a long story short, with beef cattle and pigs one needs to have handling facilities that are up to the task of moving, sorting and confining small herds of skittish livestock.  These facilities should be more than a collection of gates, chutes and alleys too.  Any decent handling facility needs to “flow.”  That is to say, the livestock need to move through the handling facilities without a lot of yelling, crowding or other goofy intervention by the farmer.  Good flow leads to lower stress on the animals (and by extension lower stress on the farmer) which leads to better meat.

As I’ve noted before, there are tons of resources available about how to design handling facilities that are perfectly suited for moving livestock of all types.  Lots of these plans, especially the ones that Temple Grandin has come up with, should flow livestock through with minimal stress.

Unfortunately (as I’ve also noted before) the nice little diagrams and layouts they give bear little resemblance to centuries-old dairy barns.  So those of us who are rehabbing old barns are left out in the cold.  It’s easy to see what the best facilities should look like, but impossible to see how those facilities will fit in any preexisting structure.

Thus the three year conundrum: How to fit usable handling facilities in our existing barn?


Here’s what I was thinking about for the past three years.  Please excuse the fact that my hand-drawn barn layout isn’t quite to scale.  Either way we can see that following the traditional chutes & alleys approach is a complete train-wreck.  The biggest problem (#1) being that the straightest path to the holding/sorting pen is through a door that is smack-dab in the middle of a wall.  For humans this is not a big deal.  We know what a door is and how to approach one.  Livestock, on the other hand, are not big fans of doors and will go to great lengths to avoid them unless they’re placed in a corner.

Sure, you can more easily herd cattle through the second door back in the corner but there you will run into problem area #2, the big fat middle of everything that is too short, too wide and just too in-the-way to put a chute.  Even if you did manage to shoehorn a chute in the middle of all this mess you’d only create a bigger mess at point #3 where four of your hypothetical chutes collide into one epic mess.   Even if you did manage to build facilities like this it would ruin the everyday usefulness of the barn because you’d never be able to move through the barn without opening and closing a couple dozen gates.  That’s not something I’m interested in trying with a full bucket of feed in each hand.

And this all brings us back to the accidentally placed gate.

That one gate (placed diagonally across a “chute”) got me thinking about things a little bit differently.
What if there were no chutes?  What if we thought about funnels instead?


This layout solves nearly all the problems inherent in the barn’s original design.  First (#1) we can funnel the livestock into the far door where they will go into the barn of their own volition (with just a little bit of pressure from me).   Inside the barn we get to the first proper funnel (#2) that leads into the holding/sorting pen.  The beauty of this setup is that it works on the same principles as the vaunted Bud-Box.  The basic idea is that cattle like to turn around and go back out the way they came in.

Better yet, when they leave the holding/sorting pen, the way out is also a funnel (#3) which leads to an almost immediate release of the pressure that cattle experience from being in close confines.  Area #3 also doubles as a smaller sorting pen for the pigs.  Pigs, being smaller than cattle and having smaller flight zones, need a smaller sorting area.

As with anything on the farm, it may look good on paper, but the proof is in the pudding.  As such, I’m happy to report that I’ve now sorted cows and pigs through the barn with the new “funnels” setup and it works SO MUCH better than anything else I’ve ever tried.  Setting it all up is many times faster and easier than the old way, which is a lot easier on me.  The funnel approach is also much less stressful on the cattle.  There is hardly any balking at going in the barn, and even the most skittish cows will walk out of the barn instead of running (a sure sign of low stress).

Happy accident, happy cows, happy pigs, happy farmer.

Little Hoop House on the Prairie

9 May


Look!  We built that.

It’s really not so big of an accomplishment, having now built one I can assert that hoop houses are quite easy to build (relatively speaking).

So without further ado, here is the whole process.


We decided that we’d love to have a semi-mobile hoop house and that required building said hoop house on skids.  Here we’ve got a trio of 4″x6″x14′ timbers (pressure treated, of course) that make up one skid.

The hoop house is a 14′ wide, 36′ long contrapion that we bought from FarmTek.


The FarmTek kit is supposed to be anchored by pounding these big pipes into the ground.  Having chosen skids, this was obviously going to have to change.


We chose to drill some big holes (1.75″ holes to be exact) into, but not all the way through, the skids to accept the pipe.  There was just the small matter of cutting off most of the pipe to get rid of the bit that was supposed to go underground.


To make sure it all doesn’t come apart in a stiff breeze, the pipe is “pinned” to the skid with a nice big lag bolt.   The rest of it goes together pretty much according to the instructions.


After looking at the High Tunnel Hoop House Construction Guide [PDF] from University of Illinois Extension, I’m convinced that I could do another hoop house for cheaper, but the FarmTek kit was a pretty nice place to start for a beginner.


The Hoop House Construction Guide got me all adventurous and made me try out a roll-up side.  That ended up being a fantastic decision.


The FarmTek kit pretty much leaves you to finish the ends of the hoop house as you will.  One end of ours got a big window, about 2’x6′.


The other end got the old screen door that used to grace the side of the farmhouse.


After a few days of waiting for the weather to cooperate (winds gusting to 40mph aren’t ideal conditions) we managed to get the greenhouse film stretched over the frame.


The film, which is really a fancy name for 6mil UV-stabilized plastic is held in place by this nifty stuff called “wiggle wire.”  Ripping down 1″ lumber for battens is certainly cheaper than using the aluminum channel and wiggle wire, but the wire gives you the ability to go back and fix any mistakes without ruining the greenhouse film, a hefty advantage to us hoop house n00bs.


No building would be complete without a little sharpie art by the flamboyantly-dressed artist-in-residence.


After skinning the ends with greenhouse film there wasn’t much to do but wait for the first order of chicks to come in.  Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait for long, having had only finished the hoop house a scant 24 hours before the chicks were due to arrive.


The next day, when the chicks arrived we got a crash course in solar radiation, thermo-regulation and the promise of a much less fossil-fuel-intensive manner of brooding chickens.

I quickly found out that the hoop house (with the window, door and roll-up side closed) is capable of reaching internal temperatures in excess of 120°F in the sun.  While chicks need some pretty stifilingly-warm temperatures to be comfortable, 120°F is too darn warm.  Thankfully the roll-up side makes a quick work of ventilating such a space.


The rest of the chick-comfort problem was solved by the addition of some additional shade via an old tarp hung in the big fat middle of everything. The big metal disc under the tarp is our propane brooder that keeps the chicks warm at night.  In it’s former location inside the barn, the propane brooder had to run all day as well. This year, thanks to all the free solar heat in the hoop house, the brooder never kicks on during the day.

All told the hoop house is working out well for a brooder, it just demands a fair bit of vigilance in getting the ventilation setup every morning when the sun comes out.  This already has us kicking around ideas about building a dedicated brooder-house sometime in the future, something with a little more thermal mass and insulation.  The hoop house (and a warm spring) have allowed us to start chicks over a month earlier than last year.  We’re always looking for ways to brood chicks earlier, because that means we can have chicken to sell earlier in the market season.


Chicken Coop Stocking Density

23 Jan


Stocking density: lower must be better, right?

Most of the certifying bodies that address “humane” livestock production, in this specific case the Humane Farm Animal Care, seem to coalesce around a stocking density of 1.5 ft2 per bird.  That’s just about exactly where our stocking density ended up this winter.

We’ve always stocked at a much lower density, last year stocking the same coop with only 140 birds for a stocking density of around 4.25 ft2 per bird.   More than doubling the stocking density made me a bit nervous.  We were expecting that the stress of the increased stocking density would lead to problems with the hens picking on each-other.  Ever heard of the term “henpecked”?  It’s a real thing and it can turn ugly, leading to hens that are lower on the “pecking order” to being bullied to death by their peers.  Sure we had lots of barley to feed them, which is supposed to counteract feather-picking and cannibalism, but the stocking density made us nervous.


And now here we are, in the cold heart of a Minnesota winter and the increased stocking density might be one of the best things we’ve ever done for the chickens.  Much to my surprise the chickens are dryer and warmer than they’ve ever been in the winter and we’ve yet to see any of our fears of cannibalism materialize. I’ve read that a chicken puts out about 10 watts of body heat.  Multiply that by 400 chickens and you’ve got quite a heat source. In practice, this means that our chicken coop stays around 30°F warmer than the outdoors at night.  In the daytime it can get as much as 40°F above ambient.  It has to get quite cold outside to make it drop below freezing inside the chicken coop.


In addition to the free heat, the few hundred extra warm bodies come with another benefit.  Once we got our waterer situation ironed out the litter in the chicken coop is a much better consistency with all the extra scratching that it’s being subjected to.  Friable.  That’s the technical term for the litter consistency that we’re after.  The tradeoff for this lovely litter is that we have to add more straw to counteract the increased manure content.  More straw and more manure means more frequent cleanout.  The real bummer is that our chicken coop has fairly low ceilings (7′ tops) that impose a fairly hard limit on the litter depth.  We can build up to about 12″ of litter before it starts to interfere with doors and cause me to hit my head on the ceiling.

Let There Be Light!

6 Jan


Little by little we’re making our barn into a better place to work. We’ve put up enough gates and doors to make it possible to work cattle and pigs inside, but there was one lingering problem.

A problem that becomes quite evident every year in the dark days of winter.  There just isn’t enough light! As it turns out, a 50′ x 50′ structure needs more than four 60-watt light bulbs.

More light helps the critters see where they’re going, which means they’ll be calmer when they’re being moved around the barn.  We pretty firmly believe that calm animals taste better, so better light equals better beef!


In that spirit we installed three big fluorescent fixtures in the “alleyways” of the barn where we frequently move animals through.  And they’re T8 fixtures to boot, so more light with less energy!


Out in the “lean-to” on the side of the barn the light situation was pretty dire.  One 100w bulb for the entire space.  That usually means that the cows balk at the mere mention of going in the barn.  Being prey animals, cows have a pretty strong desire to stay out of crowded spaces where they can’t see well.  Heck, if my Auroch ancestors had been hunted for eons, I’m pretty sure I’d prefer wide-open well-lit places too.


A couple of light fixtures and 45w CFL bulbs later and there’s a serviceable level of light in the barn. Not to mention the few bits of really terrible wiring that were redone to get the lights in…


Piglet Processing

4 Nov


We weaned the last summer litter of piglets today.


I thought I’d take the opportunity to explain a bit of what we currently do to process our piglets in their first few months of life here on the farm.

For the first 72 hours of their lives, the piglets are left alone with their mother in a pen inside the barn.  We’ve discovered that the less we interfere, the better things go for everyone.  I’m thinking real hard about moving the farrowings out of the barn if at all possible next year.  The barn remains a fairly high-traffic area, and the sows can get a bit riled-up when too many people or (especially) dogs are moving through the barn in those first few days.

Anyway, the first bit of necessary trauma in the piglets lives comes during their third day.  That’s the day that we do the bulk of the piglet processing.  We first remove the sow, leading her away to a separate pen to be fed.  The piglets are then “ranked” by physical appearance (gilts first, then boars) and given a corresponding number.  A litter of ten piglets would be numbers 1-10.

The piglets are then ear-notched and weighed. The ear-notching is a permanent ID for each pig.  One ear is the litter number, the other is the pig’s number within the litter.  This notching will never wear off or fade away, which is a big benefit with pigs who can quickly manage to tear-out or wear off most other kinds of ear tags.

I also record the number of teats on each piglet.  While you may have heard the saying “As useless as tits on a boar.” the number of teats on any pig (boars included) is actually pretty important.  Teat numbers are very heritable [PDF], and directly correlated to litter size or fecundity.  If we want to keep any piglets as breeding stock when they get older we’re going to want the pigs with the most even-numbered teats possible.  Odd numbered teats usually mean that 1-3 of those teats aren’t really going to do their job, so they’re to be avoided.

The last bit of trauma on day three is limited to the boars of the litter.  This is the point at which we turn them from boars into barrows.

That’s right, they get the ‘ol snip-snip.

So after 15 minutes of trauma, we’ve got one subjective and two objective assessments of each piglet, plus they’re all permanently ID’d and (if necessary) emasculated.

The piglets are then reunited with their mother and put out in a paddock with any other lactating sows who’s litters are within a week’s age.  The piglets then get to lead a pretty drama-free life for the next 57 days.


At 60 days we do the next bit of piglet processing.

We typically “catch” the piglets while they’re eating in a creep-feeding area away from their sow.  After a good physical barrier is in place between the piglets and sow, we get to work grabbing piglets.  At this point the piglets are significantly harder to catch.  They weigh between 18-50lbs. and they really don’t want anything to do with people (unless those people are offering food).  The piglets are caught, weighed and they all get a new nose piercing.


At 60 days the piglets are usually too heavy for us to use our tabletop scale.  We use the tabletop scale at 3 days, but it maxes out at 40lbs, so I have to “borrow” my wife’s bathroom scale for the second piglet weigh-in.  You may notice that the scale is quite a bit off in it’s calibration.  I intentionally set it so that when I step on the scale (without a piglet) it shows an even 200lbs.  When I grab a piglet, anything over 200lbs is the weight of the piglet.


The piglets all get a ring in their nose through the septum. The ring keeps the pigs from rooting up our pastures too much.  With a ring through their septum, the pigs can still root but it does limit the really deep rooting that they tend to do.

After weighing and ringing the piglets are then weaned.  This is the point at which they are separated from their mothers and begin their lives as feeder pigs.

I’ve been thinking about keeping a gilt from one of the last two litters to replace one of our Large Black sows who was sent to the butcher shop.  I have two good candidates.

Candidate #1 –

Litter of 13, 8 weaned. (2nd parity)

14 teats

4.8lbs at 3 days

51lbs at 60 days


Candidate #2 –

Litter of 12, 10 weaned. (1st parity)

14 teats

2.92lbs at 3 days

18lbs at 60 days


Do I choose the fast grower or the good mother?

Pigs just wanna have fun

24 Apr

Chicken Tenderloin. Gimme a break.

11 Sep

So here recently I’ve been watching more TV than I normally do (none) and like everyone else who watches TV, I’m barraged by a bunch of stupid ads.

But the one that really gets me lately is this gem.

What’s not to like, you ask?

I mean sure, antibiotic-free chicken, fed no animal by-products, raised in a certified humane facility. That’s all great, especially coming as a selling-point from a big fast-food chain.

But what really gets my goat is this bit.

“They might not know that they’re called ‘tenders’ because they come from the tenderloin of the breast. It’s not a strip or a finger, it’s a true tenderloin, hand-trimmed and cooked to order.”


Are we as a culture so distanced from our food that our food purveyors can expect us not to understand that “Tenderloin of the breast” is a complete contradiction in terms?

Now I realize that many folks haven’t grown up around a farm, or in a family of hunters.  But the vast majority of us can understand English, and have at least a minimal grasp of anatomy.

Tenderloin. – hmm, and where is the loin exactly?  Oh yeah, down there.

Breast. – from what I can recall, those are mostly on the upper half of things.


So to reiterate what english already did for us, there is no such thing as the “tenderloin of the breast” they’re on opposite sides of the animal!

Oh boy.


Corporations, Universities, and the Future of Conventional Agriculture

18 Jun

I happened across this article the other day which details a report by the group Food & Water Watch on the connection between corporate money and Land-Grant University research.  I have at least some familiarity with this relationship, as I currently live less than 2 miles from both “Monsanto Place” and “Monsanto Auditorium” at the University of Missouri.  That’s about $3 million in corporate donations within walking distance.

As I’ve discussed before, some of the research coming out of land-grant universities these days is appalling, and they know it.  While I think it’s helpful to point these shenanigans out to the public, I don’t spend too much of my time or energy on them.

Sure conventional ag as we know it may be causing problems, but conventional ag is necessary to feed our growing population; and fortunately for us (sort of) the damage is largely self-limiting.

Don’t believe me?  Lets take a look at the current trends in fossil fuels, water use, antibiotics, animal welfare, and herbicides.

Fossil Fuels: We all realize that fossil fuel prices are going nowhere but up.  And anyone who’s heard of Hubbert’s Peak can tell you that the trend is unlikely to letup.  There is a reason that the big equipment manufacturers are all competing to make more fuel-efficient tractors.

Water Use: Some of the biggest produce growing regions of the US are in quite arid climate zones. The sames goes for a lot of the grain-producing plains states which draw from the Ogallala Aquifer which is being rapidly depleted. Farmers in these regions are rapidly switching to new water-saving technologies just to stay in business.

“Only the highly efficient water users will survive and those are the growers getting on the train and going to drip systems or center pivots.”

Antibiotics: So the big problem with routine sub-theraputic antibiotic use in farm animals is that we’re seeing increased antibiotic resistance both in the animals and in people. The UDSA admits that using antibiotics in animal agriculture is causing problems.

“I believe it is more helpful to acknowledge that antibiotic use in animals contributes to the problem and that prudent antibiotic use should be encouraged in all sectors. The agricultural community must accept part of the responsibility.”

Combine the increasing consumer pressure for antibiotic-free meat with the increasing cost of antibiotics as more bacteria evolve resistance to the cheap ones, and we’re all going to see fewer antibiotics on the farm in the future.

Animal Welfare: A 2003 Gallup Poll found that 96% of Americans say that animals deserve at least some protection from harm and exploitation.  A solid 62% majority support passing strict laws concerning the treatment of farm animals. Consumers are capable of living with a background-level of cognitive dissonance in their lives (eating factory-farmed meat, while thinking it’s unethical to do so) but as soon as something pops up in the news, and brings the issue to the forefront we see action like California’s Prop 2, or Missouri’s Prop B. We also get distribution-side changes, where big buyers like McDonald’s demand changes in their suppliers practices.  I think that 20 years down the road animal ag is going to look a lot “kinder and gentler” than it does today.

Herbicides:  Discriminate herbicides, and the genetic-engineering that allows them have, for all their faults, both reduced total herbicide usage, and increased productivity. Unfortunately, this effect will not be long-lived.  There are more and more multiple-herbicide-resistant “superweeds” sprouting in fields all over the world. Much like antibiotic-resistant bacteria, herbicide-resistant weeds will continue to to out-evolve our chemical defenses until the herbicides are either too expensive, or cause too much consumer concern; like Dow Chemicals’ new “Agent Orange Corn.”

“Most important, weed biotypes already exist that are resistant to these herbicides; Thus, it would be naive to expect any of these new weed-control tools to solve all of our current weed-resistance problems.”

Considering all of these factors, I think that the conventional farms of the future will look a heck of a lot more like what’s going on at the Rodale Institute, and the land-grant universities would be wise to get ahead of the curve by investing in similar research.


Radio Rant

20 Mar

On yesterdays Intersection program on KBIA, our local public radio station, there was an interesting discussion of farm and food controversies.  The program centered around Chipotle’s “Back to the Start” ad that has been all over every food and farm blog in existence.

Now, when I say it was an “interesting” discussion, I mean that in the way that cable news programs, parasitic wasps and liver disease are interesting: Nauseating.

Four panelists.  One family-farmer who’s quite a fan of modern production methods, One big-ag oriented radio talker, and one vegan animal-rights activist.  Oh, and that other guy, who didn’t really talk or contribute much. (at least on the radio edit that I heard)

*I have since listened to parts of the online version that I linked to above, and Wes Jamison’s contribution is excellent and provides the sorely-needed middle of an otherwise un-listenable argument among the extremes. *

Add in a heaping spoonful of false-choices, straw-men and other logical fallacies, and you’ve got yourself some infuriating radio.


On one hand you’ve got Chinn and Adams arguing that keeping pigs in gestation crates is neccessary to keep them comfortable, out of the extreme weather, and safe from “wolves.”  I kid you not on that last one,  Adams actually raised the menacing specter of wolves. (If the absurdity of this needs explaining, wolves do not exist in the wild in Missouri)

On the other hand, you’ve got Freidreich arguing that the only way that animals can have a nice peaceful life is if we don’t eat them after they are dead.

So here’s the thing that was missing from the conversation: there is a middle road between the two extremes.  It is entirely possible that we can raise animals with an absolute minimum of suffering and still eat them when they die.  This practice involves carefully examining our agricultural methods, and skillfully applying changes.  We have to have the ability to realize when we are treating the problem, or treating the symptom.

Our modern agricultural practices are one of the worlds greatest exercises in investing untold resources into treating symptoms, and ignoring the actual problem.

Need to produce more cows?  Simple, buy some more cows, and buy some grain to feed them.  Then buy some wormer, antibiotics and hormones to treat the symptoms that come up when you take them off the grass diet that they have evolved to eat.  Go ahead and buy a nice big tractor to scoop out all that manure, and a spreader to spread it over your fields.  Better yet, go get a loan to build a liquid manure retention pond, and a center-pivot irrigation system to spray it on your field. It’s a lot less work that way.  All the sudden you’ve got oodles of well-meaning farmers up to their eyeballs in debt, who are using tons of money, fuel and equipment to “solve” the symptoms that cattle have taken care of naturally by themselves for tens of thousands of years before we were around to care for them.

I start off being angry with the folks like Chinn and Adams, but I end up just sorta feeling sorry for them.  They’re naturally defensive about the practices that their industries have told them are right and neccessary.  Rightfully so, but that doesn’t change the fact that without embracing the criticism from folks like Freidreich we’d risk losing our compassion for our animals altogether.