Animal Welfare at Lick Skillet Farm
Animal Welfare Considerations of Pasture-Raised Meat and Poultry
In this article I offer an overview of the implications for animal welfare posed by grass-finished and pasture-raised meat and poultry, as compared to conventional, larger-scale production methods. I’ll discuss both the juvenile and adult phases of life for hogs, cattle, and chickens.
I am not comfortable slamming other peoples’ livelihoods, so you won’t hear me “trash-talking” conventional ag practices. I will identify differences in the daily lives of animals raised in the two systems, and let you draw your own conclusions. If anyone wants to clarify or critique, please comment; I will read and do my best to respond.
Recap of Animals’ Life Stages and Husbandry Methods
As stated in previous blogs, you should know that each animal has two phases of life – the juvenile, or growth stage, and the maturation, or “finishing stage.” For laying hens, it’s a bit different, but you get the picture – just as we do, animals start out as “children” and grow to adulthood, and therefore husbandry methods reflect this. So there are at least two scenarios that each animal will experience.
Let start with the juvenile stage of pigs. When a sow delivers piglets, we call that farrowing. Conventional farrowing requires a sow’s being kept indoors, on concrete, and separated from other pigs in a tight pen that prohibits her from turning around, for fear of her accidentally crushing piglets. Gestation periods are back-to-back – about 2.5 litters per year. She is fed a basic corn- and soy-based grain diet devoid of fresh ingredients. Her lifestyle does not include pig “pastimes,” i.e. exploring, rooting, socializing, smelling fresh scents on the wind, or, -- their favorite -- digging wallows for luxurious mud-baths!
Piglets are taken from their mothers at around 2 weeks or less, and then raised on concrete or metal slats, again without access to pasture or these pastime activities. There’s little chance to learn, explore, socialize, or express their curiosity and intellect (if you haven’t heard, pigs are smart!). Plus…still no mud-baths!
Our version of husbandry is different from day one. First off, there’s a break between litters to recuperate and gain back some weight. Mama hangs out with her sisters, socializing, until it is “her time.” By then, she’s chosen her favorite farrowing pen, and begun “nesting.” Our pens are roomy and comfortable (we have to work hard to ensure piglets don’t get squashed) and her sisters remain nearby. When babies come, a protective gate goes up so she can come and go while her brood is tucked safely inside and can’t wander off.
We watch them grow, and when she decides they’re ready, we remove the gate, and they follow her out onto pasture and learn to forage. Eventually they are weaned and leave the nursery to explore and socialize with their extended family. The “grown-ups” have unfettered access to fresh pasture every day, where they fulfill their pig nature. They dig up grubs and roots, eat everything they can get their snouts on, and of course, create their signature mud-bath wallows! There’s a safe, shady barn where they all can nap together. They can experience the world around them, and the changing of the seasons; they smell and hear each other and their humans, and enjoy daily back scratches from perching chickens!
Much of this also applies to cattle – that is, our smaller, pasture-based version of animal husbandry provides them more opportunity to achieve “cowness” than do conventional practices. But one difference is that pasture variety may be more important to grazers (cattle) than to foragers (pigs).
Conventional industry practice consists of 1) the cow-calf operation (what you see here in the southeast) and 2) the feedlot operation (generally located farther west – Nebraska and thereabouts – closer to grain production).
The former includes living on pasture, although the pasture itself (which remember is important to the cow) is often…less than inspiring. They are often overgrazed monocultures. Although technically what they are eating is “fresh,” it’s like an iceberg lettuce salad – boring and lacking nutrition…Nonetheless, the point is, a calf’s youth is typically pleasant. Predators are held at bay, mommy is close by, there are friends to be made, and there is room to frolic.
Later, at maturity, the calf’s circumstances change. Feedlots are gray, not green. Animals are confined in flat, featureless pens and fed a uniform grain ration, without opportunity to graze, explore, or make diet choices. This dietary shift, from fresh greens – the leafy part of a plant, to grains – its seed, fattens them more quickly. But they evolved to eat leaves, not seeds, and this change is so hard on their digestive systems and metabolic health it requires routine antibiotic feed supplements.
Lick Skillet skips the feedlot scenario entirely, and our pastures are a world apart from the norm. We advertise it elsewhere on our website, so I won’t go into detail, but basically our animals 1) never eat grain and 2) graze open pasture their entire lives. Additionally, we work to ensure pasture is not “boring old fescue,” but a diverse mix of grasses and forbs. Our cattle CHOOSE the nutrition they need. This might sound frivolous, but a cow’s whole body and brain is adapted to engage in this grazing activity, exploring plants and choosing what and how much to eat.
Chickens are a bit different, and I’m hoping to write an entire article on this (because they’re my favorite), so I’ll keep this brief. Conventional production confines the birds indoors, in a climate-controlled environment, with barely enough room to move, much less stretch, explore, socialize, and relax. They are however, safe from bad weather and predators. But this comes at a steep cost: these chickens, more so than hogs or cattle, experience intense crowding. A reference point: each chicken has about as much area as a sheet of paper. Although not as social as hogs and cattle, chicken are still social creatures (ever heard the phrase “pecking order”?) and this crowding is quite stressful and increases incidence of their injuring each other. They cannot roam, scratch and peck, explore, chase insects, take dust baths, or even run, much less fly or roost.
Lick Skillet birds are free to do all those things. Expressing their “chicken-ness” becomes so comical it’s amusing just to watch their antics. They chase bugs, dig, peck at random items, explore the pig lot, roost in completely ridiculous places, take dust baths, and hitch rides on pigs’ backs!
I’ve laid these differences out as accurately as I can. Perhaps the “self-fulfillment” of the animals they eat doesn’t really matter to some folks. But I’ve spent my life getting to know these creatures, and I understand their personalities, and I care whether they live stress-free lives and can express their innate behaviors. If you do too, then let me assure you that on our farm we do everything that we can to keep our animals happy.