On occasion, we hear the claim that farmers don’t treat their animals poorly because stressed cows, for example, produce less milk. This is often trotted out in response to videos of animal abuse taken on farms.
First, it’s a framing that implies vegans think animal agriculture is about sadistic farmers going around whacking their livestock for no particular reason. Most vegans don’t think this way, yet the reality of life on a factory farm is worse than this image.
The problem with animal agriculture is not that some farmers and other workers beat their animals — though that does happen. The problem is with the standard practices and routine measures that animals must endure, and with the economic realities that prevent farmers from providing them a comfortable life, no matter how much they may actually want it.
The standard practices that I’m referring to include placing hens in tiny battery cages, which United Egg Producers acknowledges are the homes for 95% of egg-laying hens. They also include debeaking chickens, which is necessary to prevent them from injuring each other due to stress. Pigs have their tails docked to prevent similarly-caused injuries, and mothers are routinely placed in gestation crates that leave them unable to turn around. Cows, too, have their tails docked and are often branded with a hot iron. The offspring of dairy cows are removed from their mother within hours of birth to prevent the calf from consuming the milk. Most dairy cows have infections. These are the rules, not exceptions, that make animal agriculture so preposterous and amoral.
It can still be true — in fact, it probably is — that stressed animals produce less. If farmers could save money (or make more) in the long run by not doing the treacherous things outlined above, they most certainly would. The reality is that any loss of production that results from the stress caused by these standard practices is significantly outweighed by the decrease in costs and increase in revenue that these same practices yield.
Removing calves from their mother, for example, causes significant anguish to the mother, as scores of YouTube videos illustrate quite clearly. However, it also effectively increases the amount of milk that can be sold, since the calf doesn’t get to drink any.
Keeping sows in gestation crates is meant to prevent them from crushing their offspring. The stress and psychological toll of not being able to turn around may result in a stressed animal that produces less meat after slaughter, but preventing her offspring from being crushed, thereby allowing them to grow up and eventually be slaughtered, too, more than compensates for it.
And keeping livestock in small enclosures in general is an economic decision that farmers really can’t budge on. Many farmers are actually struggling to meet their numbers, looking for ways to cut costs and increase their yield any way possible. Expanding the space each animal occupies is costly, and any farmer who attempts to do so will quickly lose to competitors.
So, while farmers may wish to have animals that are happy, standard practices and economic realities prevent them from doing so. In a world where every nonvegan seems to know of a small farm where the animals are treated like kings and queens, that’s not where 99.9% of meat and animal products come from, and the reality of animal agriculture is far worse than some sick-minded farmers beating their livestock.