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Tale of two farms

Pigs

Group housing
In 2007, John Kregel, a pig farmer in Garnerville, Iowa, built group housing—also known as large pens—to accommodate 3,000 of his 9,000 sows; the other 6,000 remain in gestation stalls. All are the same breed of Newshen pigs. “We saw what was happening in Europe with the animal welfare movement, so we converted to stay ahead of the curve,” Kregel says. “The public perceives this as a more humane practice.” He feels the stalls are better for the pigs in winter but his sows are adapting well to the pens.

  • Different types of group housing include these options: Free access stalls, trickle feeding, electronic sow feeding stations and deep-bedded pens.
  • Each electronic feeding station at Kregel’s farm accommodates 75 sows. The sows have a computer chip implanted in their ear that is read when they go in to feed; this assures they get a controlled amount of feed.
  • All the sows get a controlled dosage of antibiotics. It is very difficult and expensive to raise a healthy pig without antibiotics, Kregel maintains.
  • It cost Kregel $2,000 per animal to set up group housing, for a total of $5 million to $6 million. “It’s an even greater expense if you have to convert an existing building,” Kregel reports, “and there’s no recouping the cost. Right now, there’s no premium paid for animals that are in open pens.”
  • Pigs raised in pens are a little larger but they lose slightly more fetuses. There is no difference in quality, says Kregel. A smaller percentage of producers are raising pigs without antibiotics; hormone use is not allowed in any pork production.

Gestation stalls
Chris Chinn and her husband raise 1,500 sows in gestation stalls on their farm in Missouri. “Animal welfare is a top priority,” she noted on the panel “The Food Dialogues: A Look Behind the Menu at Where Food Comes From,” during the 2013 Restaurant Leadership Conference. “We raise the pigs inside to keep them safe from predators and bad weather, [it’s] easier to monitor and [they are] more accustomed to human interaction. As a result, they have less stress.”

  • Sows are housed in individual gestation stalls that are around 23 inches wide and 7½ feet long.
  • Each sow receives a feed ration designed for its size. “We work very closely with a vet and nutritionist,” Chinn says.
  • The vet makes regular visits; antibiotics are administered.
  • Pigs don’t sweat, so raising them in an uncontained outdoor space that isn’t climate controlled can be difficult.
  • It would cost the Chinns over $1 million to convert their operation to open or group housing—a sum that would put them out of business

Chickens

Houses
The large poultry companies favor chicken houses. They contract with small farmers as well as large factory farms.

  • Chicks are vaccinated with antibiotics and transferred from the hatchery to the farm immediately after hatching. Hormones and steroids are never given.
  • The chicks are placed on bedding made of wood shavings in a ventilated, temperature-controlled house that’s about 46 feet wide and 565 feet long. Each house holds about 25,000 chickens. “Chickens huddle together because they are flock animals,” says Yvonne Thaxton, director of the Center for Food Animal Wellbeing at the University of Arkansas. “It may look like they’re crowded, but there’s lots of open space in chicken houses.”
  • Brooks Edmondson, a chicken farmer in Maury, North Carolina who raises poultry for Sanderson Farms, has four chicken houses—the industry average—on his 1,200-acre farm. It took a $1 million investment to convert his tobacco farm to  3 Sons Poultry Farm.
  • Three staff veterinarians attend to the chickens; a flock supervisor trains the farmers and their workers in animal welfare practices such as adjusting the lighting and temperature, refreshing bedding and making sure the chickens have enough space. Third party audits are conducted regularly.
  • The chickens take about 49 days or seven weeks on a calibrated corn-soybean blend to grow to the six pounds Sanderson specs for foodservice. “I have an iPad in my tractor that alerts me to what’s happening in each of the houses, in terms of feed, temperature, etc.,” says Edmondson. “If anything goes wrong, I can immediately attend to it.”
  • The chicken manure is recycled to fertilize feed corn crops. Where the manure was used, the field yielded 62 more bushels, Edmondson reports.

Pasture or free range
Pastured chickens eat about 20 percent of their diet from grass, bugs, weeds and seeds that they forage in fresh pasture, supplemented by 80 percent corn-soybean feed. Free-range chickens may be pasture-raised but that’s not always the case. USDA standards allow any poultry with access to the outside—even a small slab of concrete for just a few hours per day—to be labeled free range. The remaining time, they are kept in chicken houses. Before paying more for free-range chickens, make sure the supplier is following the stricter standards of pastured production.

  • Day-old chicks are set up in an enclosed brooder, where they remain for two to three weeks. The brooder protects against predators and provides bedding, heat, and access to water and feed.
  • The chicks are then moved to pasture pens, usually surrounded by electric net fencing. The pens should allow each bird approximately 1.5 square feet of space to accommodate the chickens as they grow to maturity.
  • A day-range system is another alternative; this requires about .66 square feet per bird, as the chickens move between a permanent sheltered area or coop and the pasture.
  • Some farmers use a chicken tractor or movable coop instead of building a shelter. This allows them to move the flock easily and often to fresh pasture. The birds are confined for relatively longer periods of time and the tractors are designed for smaller flocks.
  • Pasture raising birds is attractive to smaller farmers since the entry costs are lower. The chickens are ready to process at 56 days or 8 weeks. As a general rule, they are not administered antibiotics. 

Cattle

Grass fed
According to the Cattlemen’s Beef Association, all cattle spend most of their lives grazing on pasture until they grow large enough for finishing. At about 12 to 16 months of age, the weaned calves are either sent to a feedlot to be finished on grain for four months and harvested, or they continue to graze and are marketed as grass-fed beef. Scott Stone raises 700 head of cattle for both markets at his family-owned Yolo Land and Cattle Company in California’s Sacramento Valley.

  • “We try to create a low-stress environment when herding the cattle—no yelling or fast movement,” says Stone. “This way, they get used to human contact so it’s easy to move them.” A cow that gets too aggressive is removed from the herd.
  • Grazing areas range up to 2,500 acres and are rotational.
  • Sick calves are administered antibiotics, but Stone does not vaccinate across the board. Only antibiotic-free cattle are marketed as “naturally raised”; those that have received antibiotics can be sold to other processors.
  • Grass-fed cattle are more expensive to produce; it takes them 20 to 26 months to reach processing weight, while a grain-finished cow can be harvested at 16 to 20 months. The extra feeding time and care adds to the expense.
  • Stone harvests his grass-fed cattle on a small scale, using a Temple Grandin-recommended design, including hydraulic chutes. “Although we employ humane practices, we don’t use a certified humane label on our beef. We would have to spend too large an amount of money to get certification,” says Stone. As it is, the beef sells for more than $6 per pound, most of it purchased directly by consumers.

Feedlot
Producers who finish calves in feedlots have the option of using growth-promoting hormones. Tom Fanning operates a feedlot in northwestern Oklahoma, finishing up to 28,000 cattle at any one time on 700 acres. Fourteen employees look after the cows.

  • When the calves arrive, they are counted, weighed, vaccinated and taken to the pen. The 30,000-square-foot pens accommodate about 100 head of cattle. “We give the calves enough space so they can lay down,” says Fanning, “but cows are herding animals and they tend to stick close together. That’s how they feel most comfortable.”
  • Each pen holds one or two water tanks and feed troughs; the latter affords 18 inches of space for each calf to feed. Fresh dirt in the pens is built into raised beds so the cows don’t have to walk through the mud to feed and get water.
  • A GPS locator is positioned on the pen; when the feed truck comes in, a signal is sent from a computer as to what kind and how much feed to deposit at each pen. “We try to manage each cow individually, feeding about 12 different types of ration, depending on the growing phase,” Fanning explains. At first, grass, hay and alfalfa is the main diet, then corn is added gradually. “Technology has helped us improve quality control.”
  • At Fanning’s feedlot, calves are given monthly checkups and different protocols depending on where they came from. The cattle get a hormonal implant to help them convert feed more efficiently and maintain weight gain. 

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