You can often hear us at World Animal Protection decrying the cruelty and harms of factory farms and pushing for more high welfare farming in the US, but what is the difference? For animals, it is everything.
A factory farm treats animals like cogs in a machine, trying to get as much out of them while putting as little into the system as possible
A “factory farm” is a farming system where husbandry practices do not acknowledge the sentience of animals and where negative animal welfare, environmental, and/or labor impacts are significant yet not factored into the costs of production.
The business of factory farming is characterized by concentrated and highly corporatized management, streamlined processes, high production volumes, and a strong focus on minimizing costs while maximizing output.
In essence, a factory farm treats animals like cogs in a machine, trying to get as much out of them while putting as little into the system as possible. These farms are most often extremely crowded, with upwards of tens of thousands of animals in one location. Animals are bred for rapid growth and fed high-energy diets to gain further weight at unnatural rates (for animals raised for meat) or produce higher yields (for milk- and egg-producing animals). The environments are highly stressful to the animals, and as a result, their health is continuously compromised, leading to the regular use of antibiotics to prevent diseases from emerging.
Factory farms are quite different for each species, as are the solutions that high welfare production systems implement. Each animal is unique, but there are some general ways in which we differentiate a factory farm from a high welfare farm for the separate species.
More than 70 million pigs are currently living in factory farms in the US. Roughly 7 million of them are pigs used for breeding and confined for most of their lives to restrictive, barren crates that do not allow them to turn around or lie down comfortably with their limbs fully extended. They are fed a highly restricted diet to control their weight during pregnancy. The boredom and stress lead to abnormal, harmful behaviors like bar biting and sham chewing—constantly mashing their jaws as if chewing food, causing foaming at the mouth and lesions. The inactivity makes them prone to weakness and lameness in their legs.
Pigs raised for meat are taken from their mothers too young before they have had a chance to fully develop and build immunity and nourishment provided by their mother’s milk. In the first week of their lives, they have their tails cut, teeth clipped, and testicles severed without any pain relief. They spend the 6-8 months of their lives growing at unnatural rates, crowded together in barren, concrete pens with slatted floors that allow the urine and feces to fall through to a collection area below. Whether raised for breeding or meat, pigs are regularly given antibiotics via feed, water, and injections to keep them from getting sick in such horrid conditions.
By contrast, higher welfare farms provide for the natural behaviors and experiences of the animals. Pregnant pigs live in groups in pens with materials that enrich the space, such as straw or other edible fibers. This allows them to be the social creatures that they are and to exhibit their natural nesting behaviors. When they farrow (give birth), they nurse their piglets for several weeks, giving them the strong start they need for healthy growth and development. Piglets are not forced to endure painful procedures—the space and enrichment provided in their pens helps to prevent injurious behaviors like fighting, mounting, and tail biting.
The US meat industry slaughters roughly 9 billion chickens, called “broilers,” for meat each year, and it is estimated that more than 95% of them live on factory farms. Bred for rapid growth, they are raised and killed in just seven weeks. During that short time, they live in crowded, stuffy barns and the barren environment causes aggressive, harmful behaviors. The extreme growth makes chickens prone to painful physical malformations and many are unable to walk by the time they’re slaughtered.
Higher welfare farms, such as those that meet the requirements of the Better Chicken Commitment [link], provide more space and appropriate lighting in the barns. Using slower-growing breeds with better health outcomes and allowing a longer lifespan to reach market weight means physical abnormalities are uncommon. The chickens have access to enrichments, such as perches, boxes, ramps, and litter, to allow chickens to exhibit their natural behaviors.
Chickens (laying hens)
Nearly 400 million chickens are currently kept to produce eggs in the US. Laying hens housed in factory farms spend their lives in tiny wire cages, crammed in the small, barren space with as many as ten other hens. Cages are stacked on top of one another to pack as many chickens in a single barn as possible. This makes inspecting individual cages challenging and chickens who die may remain in cages with the other birds for long periods of time.
The stress, cramped space, and inability to express natural behaviors cause chickens to peck violently at one another, so factory farm producers clip or trim their beaks to mitigate serious injury. Factory-farmed hens have been bred for heavy egg production. Both the breeding and restricted movement lead to brittle bones and fractures. The factory farm egg industry is also notorious for killing day-old male chicks. Since male chickens do not lay eggs, they are seen as having no value to hatcheries and day-old males are killed en masse—typically by being ground up alive in a macerator or left to suffocate in garbage bags.
Higher welfare farms prohibit cages and require that birds have access to perches and nests. Maximum stocking densities ensure birds have sufficient space to move around and perform natural behaviors and providing litter on the floor enables birds to engage in dustbathing and foraging activities. Routine beak trimming is prohibited and producers must prevent feather pecking through improved management practices such as enriching the environment, adequate nutrition
More than 30 million cows raised for beef are living in factory farms in the US on expansive feedlots. Feedlots cover hundreds of acres, tightly confining cows to concrete-covered ground so that the built-up manure can easily be flushed away. The cows do not have access to grass and are fed grain-heavy diets to put on weight quickly. Cows’ natural diets are grass-based and eating large volumes of grain increases their risk of health issues, including liver abscesses, that require regular doses of antibiotics to prevent and treat. Cows on feedlots are often branded to be easily identified and likely are forced to endure other painful physical procedures like castration and dehorning often without painkillers.
Higher welfare farms emphasize allowing cows to be cows. They are kept on grass when the season and weather is suitable. When it is necessary to keep them indoors, they are given plenty of space and comfortable laying areas. Physical procedures are prohibited or severely restricted.
Nearly 10 million cows are kept for producing milk, living in factory dairies, and bred for extreme milk yields. Dairy cows in factory farms face many of the same welfare issues as beef cows, including grain-heavy diets and painful procedures. However, unlike beef cows, dairy cows are likely to be confined indoors for their lives and may even be tethered or tied in place. Excessive milking causes mastitis, a painful infection of the udder that requires continuous antibiotics to prevent and control.
As with cows raised for beef, on higher welfare dairies, cows can be cows. They are kept on grass as much as possible, have regular contact with their young calves, and are not subjected to unnecessary physical procedures. They are not bred for high yields and not excessively milked, helping to keep the incidence of a common painful udder infection called “mastitis” low.
The cruelty animals experience on factory farms varies greatly by species, as do the viable approaches to ensuring their wellbeing is protected and that they are provided with lives worth living. At the core, higher welfare farms allow animals to be their natural selves, giving them the space and materials to be comfortable, social, and active.
You can help end this abuse by signing our Farm System Reform Act calling for a complete ban of factory farms.