If you haven’t seen Food Inc. or read The Omnivore’s Dilemma you may be asking yourself what a CAFO is. It is a concentrated animal feeding operation that squeezes as many animals into each square foot of available space as is physically possible.
In the “olden” days when young animals were weaned from their mother’s milk they would be kept separate until mom’s milk dried up. Then the weanlings would be reunited with the older animals out on pasture until they were old enough to process for meat, usually between twenty-four to thirty months of age.
With the advent of CAFO’s most weanlings are now sent to big feedlots where they are fed unnatural diets of GM ( genetically modified) and government subsidized grains and soy products. Around this same time someone came up with the bright idea that if cattle were fed leftover meat and meat byproducts from the butchering process they would grow faster. All these totally unnatural feedstuffs would increase productivity and lower input costs for the CAFO operator. They also led to diseases like Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy better known as “mad cow.”
Ruminant animals were designed to eat fibrous grasses, plants and shrubs. Their digestive systems are placed under continual stress when they consume starchy, low fiber grains. A condition called sub acute acidosis occurs. This is very painful for the animal (just like a stomach ache that you can’t get rid of) and can be fatal. To combat this man-made problem low doses of antibiotics are routinely add to their rations eventually causing naturally occurring bacteria to become resistant.
Animals also become stressed when they are kept in crowded conditions such as CAFOs. There is very little room to move around in a natural way. Grass is unable to grow because of all the animals in a small area. This leads to a pen that is just dirt or when it rains a mud hole. Not only does the unnatural feed contribute to illness, now the animals are faced with respiratory issues from the dust that is stirred up when they mill around the area. During the wet season these animals will be up to their bellies in mud.
We have seen these conditions first hand. When Larry was young he worked in these large feedlots during the winter and spring seasons. It is just about impossible for the feedlot workers to get around in these pens, yet we expect the animals to. Sometimes it is impossible to get away from mud even on a pasture-based farm, but our animals are never forced to live out their lives in such squalor conditions.
Industry tells farmers that CAFO’s are the only way to feed the population. This mentality is supported by government subsidies that encourage producers to purchase grains that do not reflect the true value of their production costs.
Is it any wonder that most farmers today must work at a job off the farm just to support their family? So why are small family farms disappearing from our culture? Toward the end of this series I will explore my take on the ethics of this issue.
Are CAFOs only a production model for cattle?
Come on back next week as we continue this conversation.
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