Cattle, hogs and poultry are all raised in confinement-production facilities, and on a vast scale. While aspects of their lifecycles are the same, in an industrial system their considerably different sizes and physical needs require each group of animals to fit into confinement-based production processes differently. The smaller the animal, the more easily it is raised within an industrial model; for this reason, chickens spend their entire lives in confinement, while beef cattle spend much of their lives outdoors on pasture before being consigned to a feedlot.

For animals who go through several stages of production, opportunities exist for more or less humane treatment at various points in the production process; and each stage has implications for the livelihoods of farmers and workers. Animals raised entirely on pasture require more land, labor and time to grow to market weight. As a result, meat and dairy products from animals raised with higher standards for the animal’s welfare and for the environment are more expensive. Generally, the cost differential is in inverse proportion to the animals’ size: pastured beef tends to be about twice as expensive as industrially-raised, while pastured chicken can cost four to six times as much as industrially-raised.

How Cattle Are Raised

Dairy Cattle

Dairy operations are expanding rapidly; milk is increasingly produced by dairies housing thousands of cows, but a great deal is also still produced by small operations of 50 to 250 cows.

The production cycle begins with the birth of a calf, which causes the onset of lactation, or milk production. Dairy cows are milked for 10 to 12 months, given a two-month rest, and impregnated again. A mature dairy cow produces a calf every 12 to 14 months. Average US milk production is about 17,000 pounds per cow annually, though herds with averages of up to 24,000 pounds per cow are not unusual.

Both male and female animals are called calves until about five months. From six to 24 months, females are called heifers; only after the first calving, at about 24 months, are they mature cows.

Bull dairy calves are sold for veal or beef production. About half of female calves are raised as replacement milk cows, as the older ones slow down; the rest are sold for veal or beef. In an average herd, 25 to 40 percent are replaced each year. Female calves kept as replacements are either raised on site or transferred to a specialized off-site operation or to a contract farmer to be raised to breeding and milking. On a farm that raises replacements on site, calves and heifers make up 50 to 60 percent of the herd at any given time.

Dairy cattle are most commonly housed in:

  • Tie-stall barns, where cows are tethered to a stall
  • Free-stall barns, where they can move around and have straw bedding areas to lie on
  • Dry lots, which have no vegetation or bedding

Many small dairy operations, including those that pasture their animals most of the time, house cows in tie-stalls in the coldest part of the winter. These farms often have old barns that would be prohibitively expensive to retrofit, so they make do with what they have. The free-stall barn is the most common housing for cows in larger operations. Cows are grouped by stage of lactation (milking, pregnant or resting) in large pens with free access to feed and water. There may or may not be access to the outdoors for exercise or pasture for grazing. In warmer climates, cows may instead be housed in an outdoor dry lot, with an open shade structure.

Cows are milked two or three times a day, depending on the operation. At milking time on pasture-based farms, the cows are herded to the barn or milking parlor and returned to a fresh pasture afterwards. Many small operations still milk cows in a barn, with the animals in stanchions. The farmer cleans each cow by hand and attaches a vacuum suction milker, through which milk flows in tubes directly into a storage tank. Newer and larger operations use a milking parlor in which the cows are at a higher level than the workers (solving the problem of having to bend over to reach the udder), as well as more automated milking machines. Some operations are moving to robotic milkers, which eliminate human interaction altogether, enabling the animals to be milked on their own schedules.

Beef Cattle

Conventionally-raised beef cattle are generally raised in three stages, two of which are on pasture.

  • Cow-calf operators manage a herd of beef cows, which are generally artificially inseminated to produce calves. Calves are raised, often on pasture with their mothers, until weaning at six to twelve months, when they are sold. Female calves are sometimes kept to build the herd. There are thousands of these small farms around the country, some with only a few animals.
  • Backgrounder/stocker. After weaning, most beef cattle go to a backgrounder to spend six months to a year grazing, until they are 12 to 16 months old. Many backgrounder ranchers graze cattle on federal lands.
  • Commercial cattle spend their last four to six months in a feedlot, where they are fed grain to accelerate weight gain. A grain finish produces the fat marbling that US consumers have come to expect from beef. Most feedlots house hundreds of thousands of cattle.
The FoodPrint of Beef

While conventional beef cattle are slaughtered at 12 to 16 months after several months on a feedlot, grass-fed and grass-finished beef cattle spend their whole lives on pasture and/or eating hay, and are not ready for harvest until 22 to 28 months. On the other hand, beef that is grass-fed, grain-finished and not sold through the conventional system (directly marketed, sold through a regional distributor, and so forth) may be:

  • Supplemented with grain while still on pasture
  • Moved to a nearby small feedlot (up to 200 cattle) in the weeks or months before the final finish

These kinds of grain or feedlot finishes happen especially in areas where the climate does not allow for enough year-round pasture for a grass finish.

How Hogs Are Raised

Hog production, whether industrialized or pastured, is specialized into three types of operations.

Farrow-to-Finish Hog Operations

Farrowing is when a sow gives birth to a litter of piglets. This type of operation includes the entire lifecycle – breeding and farrowing sows and raising piglets to market weight. This takes the longest time commitment, the biggest upfront investment and largest space and equipment needs. Most vertically integrated confinement hog operations are farrow to finish.

Farrow-to-Feeder Hog Operations

These operations breed sows and sell the weaned piglets. They require the most labor, and the market can fluctuate dramatically based on the demand for piglets. Fewer of these operations are in existence now, as most have been folded into vertically integrated companies.

Feeder-to-Finish Hog Operations

This is the most common type of operation for a new or small-scale hog farmer, who buys small hogs (feeders) at 30 to 60 pounds and raises them to the finished weight in six to seven months. This type of operation eliminates the cost and space needs of adult hogs and breeding.

Hogs used to be called “mortgage raisers,” because raising a few for market was an easy way to make quick extra money. This scenario has changed dramatically in the last few decades as the majority of animals started being raised in vertically integrated systems, where one company owns the hogs from birth to finished meat product. These companies have gotten so big that they control the market, reducing the price that individual farmers can get selling a small number of hogs at an auction or sale barn. At the same time, while the vast majority of US hogs are raised in confinement barns, there is a rapidly growing market for pasture-raised pork. Assuming there is a processor nearby – a big “if” – hog farming is much easier for a new or small farmer to experiment with than beef, requiring little land or infrastructure. Hogs raised by small independent feeder-to-finish producers are generally raised outdoors, allowed to move around, root and feed on pasture or in the forest.

How Poultry Is Raised

Hens raised for eggs are called layers; birds raised for meat are called broilers. Production for both begins at the breeder farm, where hens are kept together with roosters and lay fertilized eggs. The eggs are incubated for 21 days; when they hatch, chicks are vaccinated against disease and quickly shipped to the grower.


TheFoodPrint of Chicken

Laying Hens

Female chicks are either transported directly to the grower, or more commonly, to a pullet grower, who raises them to 19 weeks. Hens begin laying at 18 to 20 weeks and lay an egg about seven out of eight days. Layers are generally kept in battery cages, too small for them to spread their wings, though many companies are phasing out these cages or expanding their size due to consumer demand.

Broiler Chickens

Day-old chicks are shipped to the grower, where they spend five to six weeks in an open (cage-free) barn before being shipped for harvest. Birds are grown to different sizes depending on the market they are meant to fill, with five pounds being average.

Pastured Poultry

Pastured chicken farmers also get day-old chicks from a hatchery, but there the similarities end. Pastured chickens grow more slowly and take more time to reach market weight. Without the very efficient economies of scale achieved by confinement production, the cost of feed, housing and processing pastured small-flock chicken can be four or more times that of industrial production. Chickens can be an important part of a diversified farm system, making them additionally valuable to the farmer, but the high relative price has limited the current market to direct sales to consumers at farmers markets or similar scenarios.