Brute Ethics





Animal Ethics Encyclopedia

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Factory Farming

Farming evokes pastoral scenes of contented cattle and sheep grazing sun-blessed meadows. Such scenes once had reality but abruptly ended in the 20th century with the development of factory farming. Animals from factory farms supply most of the meat, dairy produce and eggs in our supermarkets today, yet few people know about their lives and what factory farms are like.

The Factory Farm

Factory farming is widespread, especially in the United States and western Europe, and increasing in eastern Europe and in many developing countries.

Ruth Harrison (1920 - 2000) used the term factory farm in her 1964 book Animal Machines: the new factory farming industry and it was in the 1960's that the term gained usage as a pejorative label.

Factory farms in the United States are called operations, not farms, so removed are they from traditional farming. Specifically they are called AFO's (animal feeding operations) and the biggest are called CAFO's (confined animal feeding operations). Other formal American expressions for factory farm are industrial farm and corporate farm. The formal but long-winded name for factory farming in Britain is intensive livestock husbandry. Factory farms are often big, but you can call any size of farm a factory farm depending on how it raises its animals.

Characteristics of Factory Farming

Before the rise of factory farms, traditional farms were owned or managed by a family. Traditional farms were numerous and diversified, growing and raising a mixture of crops and animals. Traditional farms have never been cruelty-free, but their livestock grazed pasture in moderate numbers, breathed fresh air in sunlight and in inclement weather sheltered on straw in barns.

From 1950 all this changed with the invasion of factory farms. Factory farms are often owned or highly influenced by corporations and their guiding principle is efficiency: producing the most produce and hence financial profit for the least expense. For the purpose of efficiency factory farms share many or all of these characteristics:

1. Industrial Scale:  vast numbers of animals.

Huge numbers of animals are crammed together on a factory farm to make efficient use of space, animal feed, labour and other resources. Dairy farms with over 2,000 cows, pig farms with over 10,000 pigs, broiler farms with over 100,000 hens are typical in the United States and not unusual in Western Europe and other industrialised countries.

2. Housing:  animals are restricted to small spaces.

Factory farms confine animals to tiny cages or crates (calves, pigs and fowl), or crowded into sheds (chickens and egg-laying hens, or packed into small plots of worn out land (beef cattle). Their housing prevents normal behaviour such that animals cannot exercise or interact properly with peers and may injure or kill one another.

3. Unnatural Groupings:  animals are combined in abnormal groups.

At one extreme tens of thousands of broiler chickens or beef cattle are confined together. At the other extreme animals are kept solitary in a crate, such as ducks, geese, pigs or calves. Kept in socially amorphous groups, animals cannot form stable societies and when kept in solitary they cannot socialise at all.

4. Medication:  animals are suffused with drugs and other agents.

Farmers routinely treat their animals with antibiotics to avert ill health and disease in the crowded conditions. Indiscriminate application of antibiotics increases the likelihood that a few bacteria will survive treatments and build up populations resistant to antibiotics. Drug-resistant bacteria might get into the human population (for example, through eating meat or drinking water contaminated with the bacteria), then the formerly effective antibiotics will be unable to prevent disease and save life. Farmers also treat animals with growth hormones to stimulate body growth for greater food production and this creates more problems.

5. Mutilation:  animals are commonly mutilated.

Conditions on factory farms are so severe that animals can injure and even cannibalise one another. Farmers try to suppress such behaviour by adapting the animals by mutilation to fit the factory farm. A mutilation removes or destroys part of an animal for non-healing purposes. Farmers give varied reasons for mutilating animals (see the Table, below); but the bottom line is that mutilations maintain the efficiency of the factory farming system.

Mutilation is an emotive but commonly used term and without a satisfactory alternative. Some authorities prefer surgical operation, but this is clinical rambling, does not convey the reality, or that farmhands (not surgeons) without special training most often carry out mutilations. Animals are usually mutilated without anaesthetic and suffer chronic as well as acute pain.

Table: Some Mutilations in Factory Farming.
Mutilation Action Ostensible Purpose
Branding Permanently mark the hide of cattle. Identification.
Castration Remove the testicles of livestock. Prevent breeding, reduce aggression, improve taste of meat.
Declawing Remove the claws of poultry. Minimise injuring themselves.
Debeaking Cut off part of the beaks of poultry and fowl. Reduce injury when fighting.
Dehorning Cut off the horns of cattle, sheep and goats. Reduce injury when fighting.
Desnooding Pinch off the snood of turkeys. Minimise injuring themselves.
Detoeing Remove the toes of poultry and fowl. Reduce injuring themselves.
Disbudding Destroy the hornbuds on calves and young goats. Prevent growth of horns to reduce injury when fighting.
Dubbing Cut off the combs of poultry and fowl. Reduce injuring themselves.
Ear Notching Clip, tag or punch the ears of livestock. Identification.
Mulesing Strip off the skin from the hindquarters of sheep. Reduce risk of disease.
Pinioning Cut off the distal wing joint of poultry and fowl. Permanently prevents flight.
Ringing Insert a ring in the nose of pigs and cattle. Control movement.
Tail Docking Amputate the tail of sheep, pigs and dairy cows. Reduce risk of disease.
Teeth Cutting Cut/grind away all or most of the teeth of pigs and sheep. Reduce injury when fighting.
Tongue Amputation Cut off the tongue of calves. Prevent sucking problems.

6. Diet:  animals are fed unnatural food.

Factory farmed animals are a profitable means of disposing of garbage. Farmers feed them all sorts of rubbish, including plastic for fibre. Food animals tend to be herbivorous yet are fed millions of tonnes of by-products, parts of animals unsuitable for human consumption obtained from slaughterhouses. Feeding slaughterhouse waste to herbivores is now banned in some places because it might make the animals more likely to acquire contagious diseases that the animals from the slaughterhouse carried.

Scientists speculate that feeding cattle the remains of cows and sheep spread Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) or 'mad cow disease'. BSE, first detected in 1994, causes the brain to waste away and is lethal. People can catch BSE from infected cattle and several people have died from it (in humans it is called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or vCJD). Cost-savings govern animal feed; the health of food animals and the people who eat them are a belated thought.

7. Selective Breeding:  animals are bred as fast food-making machines.

The main aim of breeding factory farmed animals is to increase productivity. One way to do this is to make each animal bigger and grow faster. But bigger, faster-growing animals inherit severe problems. One problem is that bodies grow to big for legs to support. The legs of chickens and pigs in particular give way, the animals cannot walk, cannot get to food or water and slowly die. Breeding is forcing animals to ever extremes of disorders that the animals cannot cope with.

8. Environmental Impact:  massive numbers of concentrated animals cause pollution.

Just one example of an environmental problem besetting all types of factory farm is what to do with animal excrement. Feedlots are factory farms in the United States specialising in fattening cattle for slaughter. Each feedlot can hold hundreds of thousands of cattle crowded onto a relatively small area of land. Feedlots are called 'cattle cities' because in each feedlot the cattle produce as much excrement as a small city of people. Cattle void about nine tonnes (nine tons) of excrement per animal per year. Multiply that by 100,000 year after year! Sewage plants treat human waste before discharging it into the environment, but animal waste from any kind of factory farm goes untreated or is treated minimally. Consequently there is the danger of disease being carried to people and other animals from factory farms in contaminated water.

Benefits of Factory Farming

Supporters of factory farming claim three chief benefits for the system.

Plentiful Food
Thanks to factory farming there is more food around to day then ever before, at least where factory farming is practised.

Cheap Food
Factory farmed food costs less to produce per unit than traditionally farmed food and people demand low cost food.

Increased Trade
Industrialised agriculture makes so much food that it can make a profit by exporting surplus food to other countries. The United States, arch exponent of factory farming, exports much of its agricultural produce.

How Factory Farming Started

You could say factory farming began with chickens in the United States about the 1930's. The big American cities demanded a growing influx of eggs and meat. Some farmers realised that instead of raising relatively few hens outdoors they could raise large flocks of hens all year by keeping them indoors. Raising tens of thousands of hens in each of several sheds kept production costs per bird down and the new problems this style of farming brought with it were gradually overcome by inventing new farming methods.

The farmers specially bred two kinds of chicken: 'broilers' for meat production and egg-layers for egg production. Broilers thrived on cheap feed and the new egg-layers could lay more eggs then previously existing hens. Artificial incubators hatched eggs en masse taken from relatively few breeding hens to replenish broilers and egg-layers. Male chicks were unwanted (they cannot lay eggs and broiler hens taste better) so were killed and went into cheap food or fertilizer.

Large numbers of birds generate massive amounts of excrement but the farmers developed methods of eliminating waste without interrupting production. Farm hands, instead of clearing away waste periodically, mucked out waste from broiler sheds only after all the birds were sent to the slaughterhouse and before the next batch of broilers arrived. Instead of egg-layers running about freely, farmers confined them to cages with wire-mesh floors so that droppings fell through and farm workers could clear away the waste without moving the cages and stopping egg production.

To counter the pernicious effects of crowding chickens into sheds with no sunlight or fresh air, farmers gave the chickens sulphur drugs to hold back contagious diseases and fed them vitamin D to compensate for loss of sunshine. They threw out ailing and dying chickens with the dead ones because trashing chickens was cheaper than providing them with medical treatment. Hens started injuring and cannibalising one another in their crowded sheds and to reduce this problem they were 'debeaked' - had the outer third of their beaks amputated. Finally, to keep labour costs down, farmers automated lighting, watering and feeding.

Thus, mass chicken and egg production of the 1930's set the pattern for the mass farming of pigs and cattle in the 1960's, bringing to bear the same tools of production: specialised breeding, indoor housing, excrement control, disease control, mutilation, environmental automation, and so on.


By-products - Parts of animals not consumed by people, like brains, guts and hair.

Debeaking - Cutting off part of the beak of a bird, often a third of the upper and lower beaks. Done to chickens, turkeys and ducks. Also called beak trimming.

Desnooding - Removing the snood of a turkey. The snood is the skin from the forehead lying over the upper beak. It is pinched off between finger and thumb.

Disbudding - Destroying the buds on top of the heads of dairy and beef calves and young goats to prevent the growth of their horns. May be done with a hot iron.

Downer - A farm animal who cannot walk any more.

Ear notching - Clipping, tagging or punching the ears of livestock, usually for identification.

Factory farm - A farm producing animals with maximum efficiency (biggest profits for smallest costs) at the price of cruelly treating the animals.

Mutilation - Cutting of bits of animals, such as beaks, claws and tails, for non-healing purposes.

Ringing - Inserting a ring through the nasal septum of pigs and cattle. A ring can be used to lead or tie up cattle and pigs and it stops pigs rooting up soil where rooting is not wanted.

Stereotypy - Unnatural repetitive behaviour, such as shaking the head back and forth or biting the bars of restraining cages, brought on by a lack of a stimulating environment.

Tail docking - Amputating a tail, often of sheep, pigs and sometimes dairy cows.

Teeth cutting - Cutting or grinding away all or most of the teeth of pigs and sheep.

Life of Factory Farmed Pigs

Free-living pigs in the wild maintain large home ranges with different places for sleeping, feeding, wallowing and nest building. They are social animals, sharing much of their range with each other and enjoy mutual grooming. But life for pigs on a factory farm is very different.

Most pig farmers confine pigs indoors. Sows are isolated in 'gestation' stalls (or crates) for the whole of their pregnancy of four months. A stall is so small and narrow that she can only stand or lie down; she cannot more forward, backward or turn around. She must lie on a floor made of slats, hard parallel strips with spaces between them for her exretia to drop through. Rows of sows isolated in their individual stalls fill dimmed sheds. Sows are constantly hungry, fed once every one or two days so as not to make them fat and unable to breed.

Pigs in stalls at a factory farm

Pigs in metal stalls at a factory farm. Courtesy Farm Sanctuary.

A week before they give birth sows move into similarly cramped 'farrowing' stalls. A sow's movements are as restricted as in her previous stall and she cannot attend her piglets or get away from their suckling demands when she needs respite. However, the piglets can move about to avoid her crushing them when she lies down and farm workers can get hold of the piglets without interference from the sow.

Piglets in the wild naturally stay with their mothers for three to four months. Piglets need to suckle, investigate surroundings from their mother's safe presence, play, run and root about. But farm workers remove them prematurely and put them in a barren pen with up to thirty other unfamiliar piglets. Crowded and bored they bite each others' tails and base of spine and sometimes kill each other. The common remedy is to cut off their teeth near the gum and amputate their tails, without anaesthetic. Six weeks later they are taken to 'fattening houses', dark sheds with slatted floors, and around five month of age they go to the slaughterhouse.

Farms keep a few boars for breeding. They are housed individually in stalls or kept in pens. Farmers release sows from their confinement and the boars re-impregnate them to begin another cycle. Sows naturally give birth to four or five piglets a year but factory farms bred them to have 10 to 12 piglets twice a year.

Sows suffer from many problems. Just three examples are that their legs cannot properly support their specially bred heavy torsos, causing painful joint problems. They may also suffer pneumonia brought on by breathing in the ammonia in their accumulating exretia. And they must endure injuries and lameness from standing on the slatted floors. Sows repeatedly shake their heads and chew the bars of their stalls (stereotypies) in frustration. Some pigs literally lay down and die; the pig industry calls this porcine stress syndrome.

Life of Factory Farmed Dairy Cows

Millions of dairy cows worldwide produce millions of tonnes of milk for people every year. Around 40 litres of milk per cow per day is not uncommon; about ten times as much as a calf needs.

Cows must make milk all the time to be economic. But cows only produce milk when pregnant and only then for six to eight months of the year when they suckle their calf. Therefore to make a cow produce milk all the time she must be made continually pregnant and each of her calves is taken from her within a day or two after birth. The milk then goes to the supermarket.

Conception for most cows is mechanical and artificial. There is no mating; an artificial inseminator operator does the job. Many cows do not even give birth to their own offspring. They are surrogates impregnated with the fertilized eggs of other cows considered of higher quality.

Cows live close together on factory farms, so they get regular doses of antibiotics to minimise the likelihood of disease spreading. Nevertheless, cows bear numerous afflictions. One of the most common is mastitis. It is an infection of the udder causing inflammation and walking problems and spread by unsanitary housing and milking machines.

Living so close together, cows have their horns cut off to minimise injuring each other. Some dairy farms also amputate half or more of their cows' tails (tail docking), ostensibly to keep the cows and their milk clean. A tight rubber ring is slipped around the tail, it constricts the blood supply, the tail withers and eventually drops away or is cut off with shears.

Cows can live for 20 years but at the factory farm they soon become exhausted, infertile or lame. After only four or so calvings they are sent for slaughter.

Cows on organic farms are marginally better off than cows at factory farms. But organic farmers must still make their cows bear calves and they remove them soon after birth. So organic milk is not necessarily 'cow-friendly'.

Life of Factory Farmed Calves

What happens to the calves of milking cows? Female calves may join a dairy herd as future milkers. But the millions of male dairy calves are largely unwanted surplus and most die from disease or neglect and many are shot. Some male calves go to slaughterhouses for rendering into commodities. Rennet, an enzyme that digests milk in the stomach, is extracted from them to make cheese hard. Other parts of the calves are made into items like pies, gloves and shoes. The bits no one wants are ground up and spread on food crops as fertilizer.

Veal Calves
Some male dairy calves, in the US about three-quarters of a million a year, go to the veal trade. Veal is the meat of male calves less than six months old. The veal trade requires tender, light coloured meat and veal farms house and feed their calves to produce this effect.

Veal calves at the factory farm live in veal crates. Each crate is so small and narrow that a calf can only get up or lie down and cannot turn around. The head of each calf is made to stick permanently out of his crate for ease of feeding, either by tethering or yoking the calf's head between a couple of bars. Alternatively, a few veal calves may share a small, crowded pen, each calf permanently tethered and with just enough room to lie down. Calves in their crates or pens are massed side by side in a shed or barn darkened to pacify them.

Calves in veal crates at a factory farm

Calves in veal crates at a factory farm. Courtesy Farm Sanctuary.

Dosed with antibiotics to prevent disease and hormones to make them grow, the calves are castrated to control aggression and make their meat tastier. Their tails are cut off as a matter of course to prevent injury. Some factory farms feed their calves grain or other solid food, plus milk, while at other factory farms they get just milk. The calves' diet, like their medication and housing, is intended to increase their weight and keep their muscles pale and tender.

Calves are crated for about five months. They have no exercise, no social contact, no light of day, and no proper diet. At the end of their growing period they are barely able to walk when they go to the slaughter house. Veal crates are widely used in the United States. Britain legally banned veal crates from 1990 and the European Union banned them from 2007.

Beef Calves
Some male calves from suitable strains of dairy cows join calves from other sources to be fattened as beef. These calves in the US are massed at feedlots where they have to adjust to new social groupings and copious dust or mud mixed with excrement. Weakened from the stress of transport many soon collapse and die from Bovine Respiratory Disease, called in the feedlot business 'shipping fever'.

The livestock industry calls collapsed animals who are too sick or injured to walk downers. Downers are frequently ignored by operators, get trampled on by other animals, cannot get to food and water and eventually die. Eventually they are dragged away with ropes or chains, or tipped barely alive by forklift onto a heap of already dead animals. About half a million downers die annually in the US according to the US Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Feedlot factory farm

A feedlot in California. Cattle as far as the eye can see. Courtesy Farm Sanctuary.

A hundred years ago beef cattle were slaughtered at four to five years of age. Today they are fattened so quickly that they are slaughtered not long out of calfhood, at about three months over one year age.

Life of Other Factory Farmed Animals

Chickens in industrialised countries are factory farmed by the billion for eggs and broiler meat.

Ducks and geese are turned into pate, see Foie Gras.

Sheep generally graze open land, so people do not think of them as factory farmed, but they also suffer from mass production, including mutilation and lack of care (see Wool).

Fish are factory farmed, about 38 million tonnes (38 million tons) annually worldwide (see Fishing - Farming). If the fish weigh one kilogram each on average, this would be 38,000,000,000 fish per year.


Animal Holocaust
The animal rights activist Henry Spira said factory farming accounts for 95 percent of all animal suffering. Certainly, the factory farming industry and its supporters are creating the greatest suffering and death of domesticated animals in human history, an animal holocaust.

Toleration for Cruelty
Factory farms create grim lives for their inmates and generate questions about how far society is willing to exploit animals. Factory farming prompts the question of how people can tolerate the production of animals under such conditions: the drugs, mutilations, confinement, pollution, hazard to human health, and not least the inhumanity to the animals themselves. Unfortunately, factory farming is acceptable to most people because of their ignorance about what really happens to farm animals. Factory farming is hidden from view and the people who know about it wrongly accept it as inevitable and unchangeable.

Rights & the Five Freedoms
How far has humanity the moral right so thoroughly to dominate animal life, and so cruelly? Factory farmed animals are sentient creatures, individuals with unique personalities and the urge to survive. Yet they are treated only as units of output. Surely even the most heartless people might agree that animals who give their lives for human benefit deserve some rights or minimum protection from suffering. The Five Freedoms provide a minimum setting of basic welfare: freedom from hunger, thirst, discomfort, pain, injury, disease, fear and distress and the freedom to express normal behaviour. But factory farmers show the degree of their regard for animal life by honouring the Five Freedoms in the breach.

Mutilating factory farmed animals is routine, widespread and epitomises the factory farming system. Mutilations benefit only the operators and are the manifest mark of a bad farming system.

Animals respond to living in factory farms by developing abnormal behaviours, such as stereotypies, pigs biting each other's tails and hens pecking each other. The 'solution' is to try to fit the animals to the system, rather than the other way around, by cutting off the bits that cause offence. But beaks, tails, horns and teeth are indispensable parts of animals for animals. A cow's horns, for example, are important for maintaining her position in the herd hierarchy and her tail communicates her mood to others. Cut off parts of animals and the animals are forced to cope with their loss, adding more stress to their lives.

Deep Ecology
Society's practical rebuttal of Deep Ecology is clearly shown by it's support for factory farming. Factory farming has a materialistic, anthropocentric, consumer-oriented attitude to animals. It is part of the fibre of shallow ecology: using nature's resources for unregulated human growth, relying on technological solutions to fix socio-economic problems. Factory farming would have no part to play in a truly caring, moral society that is expanding the circle. The very presence of factory farming in our society shows us how far we are from such a moral state.

Our Choice
We are each responsible for our own actions not to be cruel and as far as possible not to cause suffering. Factory farms are a human invention and we have a choice to patronise or distain them, accept them as they are or try to moderate the harm they do. The system itself, of course, needs abandoning; this is what the factory farmed animals are telling us.

For & Against: argue your case

Public Demand for Food
  • Claim: Only by the production of food on an industrial scale can we meet the growing demand for food in today's world.

  • Claim: Factory farming is not necessary. An alternative is human birth control to cut the number of mouths to feed and local small farms with ecologically sustainable agriculture.

  • Factory Farmed Animals Thrive
  • Claim: Animals kept in intensive systems, like veal calves and fowl for foie gras, cannot be suffering because they thrive and gain weight.

  • Claim: The animals 'thrive' because the system is geared to force animals to feed and grow. Animals who fall sick are quietly thrown out.

  • Mutilations
  • Claim: Factory farm operators and vets can best decide about surgical issues, such as tail docking, debeaking and claw removal.

  • Claim: Operators are biased and vets serve the system that pays them. The issue of mutilations must be open to influence from impartial opinion across the public spectrum.

  • Housing
  • Claim: Crating or tethering veal calves is a necessary process that allows them to receive individual feeding, care and attention, and helps prevent the spread of disease by limiting inter-calf contact.

  • Claim: This housing regime is purely for raising calves conveniently and profitably. It has no consideration for calves, who are housed and handled much as automatons.

  • Treatment
  • Claim: Farm hands on factory farms can attend the animals more closely than animals wandering about on traditional farms, so that sick animals are treated faster.

  • Claim: Workers on factory farms are swamped by numbers of animals. They cannot and do not try to attend to them. Sick animals are ignored, killed onsite or sent for slaughter.

  • Humane Standards
  • Claim: Well run factory farms exceed the standards set down by governments for humane animal treatment and safe food production.

  • Claim: The nature of factory farms makes them inhumane and environmentally unstable. Official safety standards do not go far enough and are not always strictly enforced.

  • Variety & Taste
  • Claim: Factory farming provides an immense variety of tasty food.

  • Claim: Factory farms churn out huge quantities of the same bland foodstuff that cannot compare in flavour to traditional, more humanely, farmed food.

  • Eating Humanely
  • Claim: We must all eat to live. Meat is a very important source of protein in our diets. So we cannot stop raising food animals.

  • Claim: We must all eat, but do not have to eat food animals raised inhumanely. Furthermore, some people prefer a healthier Vegetarian option.

  • Useful Sources for this Entry

    Code of Recommendations for the Welfare of Livestock: Meat Chickens and Breeding Chickens. Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. 2002. Accessed online October 2006.

    Mutilations Report. Report of Working Party established by RCVS Council to consider the mutilation of animals. Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. 1987. Accessed online October 2006.

    © 2004 Roger Panaman All rights reserved