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Being a good guy doesn’t always pay June 21, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
Tags: , , , ,

Livestock farmers often feel under the gun to prove to a wary public that they aren’t all sadistic animal abusers. But they don’t always understand why. Paraphrasing the statements of several farmers I’ve met, their reasoning goes something like this: “I have to treat my animals well. If I didn’t do the right thing by my animals, they wouldn’t produce. If they weren’t productive, I’d be out of business.” Dan Koster, a conventional pig farmer in Illinois whom I visited a year ago, added a bewildered lament that the public just didn’t get it – “That story doesn’t fly anymore, and I don’t know why, because it’s a fact.”

Is it a fact? Can we trust that business incentives, which motivate farmers to prize (depending on the species) fast growth, good muscling, or prolific milk production, thereby motivate them to treat their animals well? Or are there ways to trick nature – to systematically get away with treating animals poorly yet still get the goods that we are after in the end?

A year of research has led me to believe that the link between what used to be called “good animal husbandry” and financial success, while it probably existed a couple of generations ago, has been severed. Yes, studies still show that, for example, dairy cows whose milkers call them by name outproduce dairy cows whose milkers don’t give them such personal attention. But this higher productivity, while economically beneficial, isn’t ultimately enough to tilt the financial scales in favor of animal welfare, for two reasons. First, in many cases animals no longer need to have high welfare to be productive. Second, even when high welfare leads to high productivity, providing the conditions for it may be so costly that the expense outweighs the dollars gained.

First things first: indeed, fifty years ago, it was generally the case that you had to give animals minimally decent treatment to ensure their productivity. Since then, the widespread use of antibiotics (in all species and breeds) and growth hormones (in dairy herds) has conveniently eliminated the need to do so. True, antibiotics don’t solve all problems, but they do allow you to get away with a lot more foot infections, open sores, and respiratory diseases than you used to. So, rather than having to prevent these scourges by providing animals with, say, natural flooring, fresh air, and space to move freely, you can stuff them in concrete pens breathing ammonia-saturated air and they’ll still grow like weeds. And you’ll come out ahead financially, because antibiotics cost less than welfare-friendly amenities like spacious pens, straw for the floor, and trained workers experienced in animal care.

Secondly, the productivity of the animals in your herd is only one financial consideration, which must be weighed against other financial considerations to achieve the highest profit. In some livestock specialties, it is more profitable to have a slightly less productive herd than to invest in the infrastructure required to raise a more productive herd. The broiler chicken industry is a case in point. The cost of each egg or baby chicken is negligible relative to some of the other costs borne by chicken producers. Huge barns and modern ventilation systems, for example, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and labor costs are also relatively high. Therefore, the most cost-effective arrangement is to crowd as many birds as possible into each building, and spend as little human time as possible looking after them, even though doing so will cause more birds to grow sick and die before they can be sold. A few dead birds, though they reduce the productivity of the flock, represent just pennies of unrecouped costs compared to the vast sums of money that investing in better buildings and people would require.

So no, farmers don’t have to treat their animals well to make them productive, and no, the animals don’t have to be maximally productive for the farmer to be maximally profitable. We consumers cannot rely on financial incentives to align the interests of farmers with the interests of the animals they keep. Instead, we have to do a little legwork to find the farmers, or brands, or certifications, we can trust to do more than race to the low-cost bottom; and we have to be willing to pay a premium for them to do it.



1. Putting an old saw to rest « From Animal To Meat - August 6, 2012

[…] I’ve said before, that logic may have worked before farmers started routinely administering antibiotics and hormones […]

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