In 2010, the reigning record holder produced 72,170 pounds in a year, or 23 gallons a day. This is milk we’re talking here. Over the last century, the average dairy cow increased production by a factor of eight.
These days, farm animals are highly efficient and productive. The meat chickens grow to market size at record speed, the layers lay more eggs than ever before, and the pigs have more piglets than the pigs of yesteryear. And those piglets? Their lean bodies grow more quickly to reach market size.
Some of these modern agricultural wonders are thanks to management: growth hormones, lighting, feed, and (for dairy cows) more frequent milkings play a role. But a lot of it is breeding. The cows of 1913 and 2013 could be kept under the same management and fed the same feed, and the modern cow would produce far more milk.
Breeding animals to exaggerate traits humans find useful is hardly new. After all, that’s how domesticated animals came to be domesticated in the first place. A look at the variety of chicken breeds kept by small farms, hobbyists, and backyard chicken owners shows just how much humans have successfully meddled in chicken genetics. You can find chickens adapted to living in hot weather or cold weather, chickens that make great mothers, chickens with exceptional egg-laying abilities, particularly meaty birds, or “dual purpose” birds that provide plenty of meat but lay a decent amount of eggs as well. You can also find birds that satisfy more frivolous purposes, like being cute or funny-looking or laying blue eggs.
But in the last century, industrial agriculture has taken animal breeding to an extreme, often breeding animals to emphasize one trait at the expense of the animal’s ability to live a natural life.
“It's actually well known by mainstream conventional agricultural scientists that when you focus on a single trait, there are problems with the other aspects of the animal because that's not how nature functions,” says Nicolette Hahn Niman, rancher and author of Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms. “I think we just pushed that so far that we've gone beyond the defensible level of that.”
Nowadays, the industrial layer breed, the white leghorns, begin laying at a young age, lay an egg a day (or more), and never “go broody” (try to sit on the eggs to hatch them). Before there were incubators, farmers needed some broody hens to hatch more chicks. Today, in industrial operations, broodiness is merely an unnecessary disruption in egg production. Modern layers have had all mothering instincts bred out of them. And the males hatched in layer operations – they are killed at birth.
Whereas laying hens are slender, as they channel as many calories as possible into producing eggs, not meat, “broilers” (chickens bred for meat) gain weight at a lightning pace. Five weeks after hatching, they are ready for slaughter. At five weeks, most traditional breeds of chickens have only just grown their feathers and they still look like chicks. Yet, by then, a broiler is big enough to eat. If a human grew that fast, a child would reach the size of a college student by the time he finished preschool.
The cost, to the chickens, is apparent. Their short lives are anything but natural. The common broiler breed, a hybrid known as the Cornish Cross, is known for having weak legs. With such enormous and fast-growing bodies, they don’t move around very much. Families who keep backyard chickens often talk about watching “chicken TV,” because watching the chickens scratch and peck around the yard is as entertaining as anything on television. But industrial broilers don’t do all of the normal chicken things. They mostly just sit and, of course, eat.
“One thing I've heard about the industrial poultry,” notes Niman, “is that the minute they reach a certain size, they are panting all the time. Just from walking a little bit they get exhausted. They've got all this tissue, this flesh, being developed at rates that are too rapid. They kind of are really exhausted by minimal physical exertion.”
That’s not to say, Niman adds, that humans shouldn’t engage in some breeding to increase desirable traits. She raises turkeys and cites them as an example. “Wild turkeys look a lot like our heritage turkeys… but we can always tell the difference when we see them on our ranch, we can tell it's not an escapee. [Wild turkeys] are kind of narrower looking. So it's not that you don't have some focus on making the bird meatier. The domestic turkey is a heavier, a meatier animal.” She feels the problems occur “when you push it beyond where you should.”
The industrial turkey breed, the Broad Breasted White, famously has such big breasts that it cannot even mate naturally. Each year the President pardons two such turkeys, who then go to live out their natural lives, but the birds often don’t live long enough to see a second Thanksgiving.
“We've kind of looked really narrowly at these animals at their output, whether it's the meat or the milk, and we've said how do we increase that output,” she said. “And for the poultry, especially the turkeys, we focus on that white meat. We humans just want more breast meat and we try to get that.”
Compare that to Niman’s turkeys. “They can not only walk, they can run. They can not only stretch their wings in our pasture, but they can fly. They are physically capable of doing these things, and I think that it is not insignificant that they are able to mate,” she states proudly. “I think all these things -- there's a common thread there. We've kind of looked really narrowly at these animals at their output, whether it's the meat or the milk, and we've said how do we increase that output.”
And then there’s the modern dairy cow, which Anne Mendelson describes in Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages, as “more like a ruminant SUV.” A typical Holstein (sometimes called Friesian or Holstein-Friesian), the most common dairy breed, weighs 1500 pounds. That’s up from the 1250 pounds they weighed a century ago.
An exceptional Holstein cow can produce eight percent of her body weight (or more) in milk every single day. Can you imagine the amount she’d have to eat and drink to keep up with that? Now consider that cows evolved by grazing on low calorie grass. How far would she have to walk and how much would she have to eat to take in enough calories in grass? How much volume would that much grass take up in her stomach? She can’t live on grass alone.
One way to boost a cow’s calories is by supplementing her diet with higher calories “concentrates” – mostly grains. But, Niman adds, industrial dairies supplement the feed of such productive animals with higher calorie additives, including blood meal, hydrolyzed feather meal, fish meal, meat and bone meal, and poultry by-product meal.
Up to a point, adding grain to a cow’s diet is okay. But “at high levels,” writes Mendelson, “it also changes the only slightly acidic environment of a normal rumen to a lower pH. The unhappy animal often loses her appetite. She is constantly thirsty and tries to right matters by drinking more water, which means more (if thinner) milk… She may develop full-blown ruminal acidosis.”
What does that mean? “The walls of the rumen become ulcerated,” continues Mendelson, “releasing infectious bacteria that often travel to the liver, where they cause abscesses, or generating by-products that migrate to the interior of the hooves, where they cause a painful foot inflammation called laminitis.”
Yikes. Niman also cites increased levels of lameness among dairy cattle, particularly in confinement operations where the animals stand on concrete all day. She also notes problems with mastitis, an infection of the udder that is linked to high levels of milk production. And, as modern Holsteins are enormous, they also give birth to big babies, making complications during calving more common.
And what about pigs? Today’s pig is leaner and faster growing than its recent ancestors. The so-called modern white pig raised in confinements is a cross between several breeds, including the Yorkshire and Landrace.
Temple Grandin writes in her book Animals in Translation that lean pigs are different from their fatter kin in another way: “they’re super nervous and high-strung.” She speculates that this might have to do with myelin, a “fatty sheath surrounding the nerve cell axons.” Perhaps leaner pigs are deficient in this fatty part of the nervous system. “Lower myelin levels could produce jumpy animals because inhibitory signals – the chemical signals that tell other neurons not to fire – don’t get through from one neuron to another.”
She adds that lean American animals are less sexual than their fatter Chinese counterparts. When fat Chinese pigs were brought to University of Illinois, “the boards would magically slip out of their pens and breed the sows whenever the staff wasn’t around, something that no American pig would ever do. They had nonstop sex on their mind and they turned into Houdini to have sex. All the fat Chinese pigs were super-calm and super-sexy.”
Niman, famously a vegetarian, adds that she has heard that the modern lean pig is not particularly tasty even though she has not tasted it herself. “I've heard that the leaner pork has such poor eating quality,” she recalls. “It's dry, it's kind of brittle when you cook it, it's kind of dusty, saw-dusty. In fact, a lot of chefs said they had stopped using pork altogether.” The chefs were willing to pay more for pastured pork from Niman Ranch. “In many cases they didn't even care about the environmental issues, it was strictly the issue of eating quality,” notes Niman.
What’s the common thread between these chickens, turkeys, dairy cattle, and hogs? They are all raised in confinement. Niman thinks this is an important point, saying, “One of the things I especially enjoy about raising beef cattle - and this is true of sheep and goats, all the grazing animals - because it's still economical for humans to keep them on grass, outdoors, living a natural life.” These animals have not been bred exclusively for one trait to the detriment of others “because if you did that they wouldn't be able to survive outdoors without so much human intervention… To keep those animals on grass, you have to have an animal capable of natural breeding and natural birthing and those other things.”
She compares dairy cattle, raised in confinement, with beef cattle, raised on grass. (Beef cattle often go to feedlots at the end of their lives, but they typically live their first year outdoors with their mothers.) “The poor dairy cow, she's brought inside, and she's pretty much under constant human care, the only time a dairy cow isn't taken care of by humans is when she's a young heifer when she's a growing cow... the rest of the time she's in a little hut when she's a calf, she's usually tethered, and then she's going to be in a confinement situation as an adult. So it doesn't matter [that] they can't give birth unassisted.” Even with human assistance, dairy cattle experience a lot of infant mortality and even maternal deaths during childbirth.
"If you didn't have them in small confinement spaces, they couldn't survive,” Niman goes on. “The beef cow has been fortunate in that it hasn't been in the human interest to mess up their bodies that much... So it's kind of a funny situation, but beef cattle, when you're around them, you notice they are very fit. They can run, they can jump, they often jump over fences if they feel like it. They give birth on their own with a very low mortality rate. That's an indication to me that those animals are physiologically, they are very sound.”
Critics of industrialized agriculture often focus on the confinement of animals: it’s cruel, it’s bad for the environment, it produces inferior meat, milk and eggs, and it creates a pollution problem for neighbors, with so much manure in such a small space. And that criticism is true. But the animals within the confinements have often been bred so that even in the best circumstances, they would not be able to lead normal lives.
Niman sums it up, saying, "It's just one more way of illustrating how wrong-headed this whole direction of agriculture is, and I think even some people in mainstream industry are realizing that some of this stuff has been pushed too far.”