Excerpt: The New Livestock Farmer
The Better System: Pasture-Raised, Ethical Meats
by Rebecca Thistlethwaite & Jim Dunlop
What do we mean by the term “ethical” meats in the subtitle? In our minds, ethical meats come from producers who want their animals to live comfortable lives and to die as quickly and as humanely as possible. These animals get to exhibit their natural behaviors: as Virginia farmer Joel Salatin likes to call it, “the animal-ness of the animal.” Poultry get to take dust baths, scratch, and peck; waterfowl get access to water to play in; pigs get to root or make nests; cattle get to eat grass or lie in the shade to ruminate. If animals are kept in cages, a densely packed barn, or an outdoor feed yard knee-deep in muck and manure, they won’t be exhibiting their natural behaviors. They will be just barely coping and often going slightly crazy, leading to abnormal behaviors like chewing off each other’s tails or excessively pecking the backs of other birds.
Ethical meats come from animals that spend time outdoors and get to eat naturally growing vegetation that their digestive systems are used to handling. Goats get browse; pigs get roots, nuts, or legumes; sheep and cattle get pasture; poultry get some bugs, green growing vegetation, and seeds. We are not saying ethical meats have to be 100 percent grassfed or 100 percent organic, because every animal is different and every production system is different. What works in one region, such as year-round grazing, may not work for a region with a two-month-long active grazing season. However, to the extent possible, the farmer should match the animals to the landscape, not the other way around. Raising broiler chickens in winter, for example, does not work very well in most northern climates unless you have a fully temperature-controlled building. Broiler chickens raised outdoors won’t thrive in a cold winter and most likely will all die. But confining them to a barn starts to look more and more like a CAFO as one scales up.
Do ethical meats come from animals fed grain that has been conventionally grown with petroleum-based fertilizers, neonicotinoid pesticides, or glyphosate herbicides? If the system depends on feed grains that are grown using genetic engineering technology or cancerous chemicals, then the system is broken. It is just shifting the negative impacts onto the grain production in order to prop up cheaper meat production. Can ruminant animals be fed some grain and still be “ethical”? We think so. We don’t love the feedlot model, but feeding some grain during the last sixty to ninety days of finishing, in addition to providing plenty of forage and healthy living conditions, seems like a pragmatic compromise. Depending on your pasture production, rainfall amounts, and other conditions, some grain feeding might make sense for you.
We are not going to create a complex definition of what constitutes ethical meats, but would rather like you to ask yourself some tough questions. Good agriculture and good business involve continuous improvement. You may start at one point on this continuum and be able to achieve a more holistic system of production after you gain experience and begin to earn the revenues necessary for improvement. Most importantly, if you are going to market ethical meats, educate your customers about your practices and why you have chosen to raise the animals in the way that you do. Don’t lie about it and don’t hide it. More educated consumers will make the whole food system work better.
Questions to Ask Yourself on Your Path to Producing Ethical Meats
- Are my animals able to express their natural instincts?
- Are my animals comfortable during weather extremes?
- Do my animals have reasonable protection from predators while still getting to live outdoors?
- Do my breeding animals have safe places to give birth and provide milk to their offspring?
- Do I give my animals sufficient time to get to market size or must I resort to other methods such as growth hormones or overfeeding or restricting movement to get them to size?
- Do I have a low stress way to corral, sort, and transport my animals to slaughter?
- Have I visited the slaughterhouse and verified how they pen, handle, and kill the animals?
- If I don’t have a closed herd or do all my own breeding, are the animals I’m bringing onto my farm healthy and were they treated in a humane way before they got to my farm (chicks, weaner pigs, stockers, lambs, breeding stock, etc.)?
- Does my animal management system keep animals safe from each other or is there a lot of fighting?
- Do I check on my animals frequently? Can I get close to my animals?
- Do I have a good system in place to prevent illness and disease in my animals?
- Do I have a way to segregate or capture an animal if it appears sick or injured?
- Do I have a way to treat or medicate sick animals?
- Do my animals have access to the outdoors whenever they feel like it?
- Do I keep my animals from lying in or living on top of their own dung?
- Are my pastures and paddocks protected from degradation during weather extremes?
- Does my animal management system lead to soil erosion, water pollution, or air pollution?
- Does my animal management system degrade wildlife habitat or enhance it?
- Do I utilize a variety of preventative practices to deter predation or just resort to lethal control of predators, such as bobcats and coyotes?
- Do I rotate and rest my pastures?
- Do I manage my manure so that it is a valuable resource or is it more like a waste product that can cause pollution?
Feeds and Feeding
- If I buy growing stock, have those animals been fed medicated feeds, given antibiotics, or given hormones prior to arriving on my farm? Do I have any control over that?
- Do my ruminants have continuous access to pasture or forage whenever they feel like it?
- Do my feed grains come from places recently deforested to grow grains?
- Do my feed grains come from genetically engineered seed?
- Does the production of my feed grains require significant fertilizer or pesticide use?
- Were my feeds trucked in from a very long distance (over 500 miles, for example)?
- Do I make an effort to grow my own feeds and forages to the extent possible?
- Do I utilize other locally produced nutritious feedstuffs (not post-consumer garbage) to support my animals?
- Do I prevent my animals from eating animal products of the same species?
- Are my employees subjected to toxic fumes, frequent pathogen exposure, unsafe working conditions, and stressful animal handling conditions?
- Is my surrounding community subject to toxic fumes, manure runoff, excessively loud noises, or other unsafe conditions because of my operation?
- Am I producing safe, healthy, high-quality meats for consumers?
- Do I give back to the community in any other ways?
We could ask you a bunch more questions, but this will do for now. This is not a scorecard: If you answer yes or no to some of the questions, that does not mean you can’t consider yourself an ethical producer. Just figure out the best way for you to raise animals in a way that is humane, environmentally and socially responsible, makes you money, and produces a high-quality end product that you can be proud of. This book will help you to do just that. Don’t shift the costs of your animal production onto other places or other people. To the extent possible, take responsibility for your full operation and strive for continuous improvement.
This excerpt is adapted from Rebecca Thistlethwaite and Jim Dunlop’s The
New Livestock Farmer (June 2015) and is printed with permission from
Chelsea Green Publishing.