Thoughts on the ethical treatment of livestock

On any farm there are many tasks requiring attention on daily, monthly, and a number of annual cycles. If you raise livestock you know that many of these tasks are unpleasant, and some may be considered by a few to be cruel or unnecessary. Here is our stance on such matters including castration, ear notching, docking, and disbudding.

The animals we raise are highly domesticated;  they are the products of perhaps several centuries of artificial selection directed by human agriculturalists. Over the years we have raised horses, dairy and beef cattle, llamas, sheep, goats, pigs, rabbits, turkeys, ducks, geese, and chickens. None of these has emerged from out of the forest primeval to take up residence at Pairodox Farm;  all are domesticated and are, as such and to some extent, genetically determined to rely on us. There is an interdependence of farmer and farm animal and we are convinced that both do better in the presence of the other.

Although the folks at PETA would have you believe that humans are herbivores the alternate view (that humans are omnivores) has been expressed by voices at the Vegetarian Resource Group. It is entertaining to read both of these arguments to see how each uses the same data to support their very different conclusions. We support the view of Dr. John McArdle, author of the piece linked above to the website of the Vegetarian Resource Group when he wrote, ” .. the best arguments in support of a meat-free diet remain ecological, ethical, and [those relating to individual] health concerns.” This dietary dichotomy (between vegetarianism and omnivory) remains an area for further consideration and will be the subject of a future considerations of ours. Once you have made the decision to raise livestock for slaughter we believe that you have entered into a moral and ethical contract with the animals for whom you have assumed care and responsibility. The central responsibility of that contract is that you care for your animals in compassionate and in humane ways.

Animal domestication imposes responsibility upon the farmer, and in particular, the ways in which animal husbandry is practiced. These responsibilities are things that should be done in the best interest of individual animals as well as the collective interests of others that are pastured or confined with that animal. There are responsibilities one must fulfill when raising beef cattle, pigs, meat birds – and so on. It is our opinion that if you don’t want to do these things, because of reservations you may have about your ability to do them or because you have reservations about animal welfare, you shouldn’t be raising the animal – period. Some basic responsibilities include the provision of necessary food (as pastures, hay, grains, or mineral supplements), water, shelter, and veterinary care. The unpleasant responsibilities alluded to earlier include (but are not limited to) tail docking (the shortening of long tails in certain breeds of sheep), castration (the neutering of intact males), ear notching (for the purpose of registry identification in certain breeds of pig), ear tagging (for individual identification), tooth clipping (in pigs), routine and prophylactic worming via injection, and disbudding (heat cautery of horn buds in kid goats and calves). Many would argue that one or more of these measures is cruel and unnecessary. We would argue, to the contrary, that all of these activities comprise a series of best practices (methods or techniques which consistently show results superior to those achieved by other means) which improve the standard of animal care, health, and well being. To withhold these measures is, in our view, irresponsible, inhumane, and in violation of the contract into which you entered when you assumed possession of your animals.

We cannot ignore the reality that each of these practices has its real and negative consequence in terms of animal welfare. We cannot deny that castration, disbudding, and even injection cause discomfort and pain. The argument to be considered here, however, is more inclusive than the one which focuses on negative consequences alone. All of life is a balancing act between good and bad, and black and white. One must really turn to consideration of  the overall net benefit of  each of these farm practices. Does one improve the overall quality of herd health via the injection of Ivermectin, for example, to control nematode infestation? Does one improve the overall quality of herd health by castrating nonbreeding males … via the disbudding of goat kids and calves … via the application of ear tags for the purpose of individual identification? We would strongly argue that the answer to all of these questions is an unequivocal yes. To withhold such practices, we believe, diminishes on balance, herd health and animal welfare. Which management practices one chooses to adopt is a very personal matter indeed and will vary from person-to-person and situation-to-situation. Over the years we have, in fact, made a number of choices in this regard. For example, we stopped raising Old English Game Birds when we learned that the breed standard required dubbing. We chose to stop breeding show sheep when the standard for docking became, in our opinion, unhealthy if not dangerous for the animals. [One of the many reasons we raise Shetland Sheep, rather than some other fleece breed, is because these animals are naturally docked. That is, they are born with very short tails which do not need to be shortened.] We use an Elastrator when castrating because we believe that other practices (such as cutting or use of an emasculator) are far less humane. We disbud goat kids and calves rather than dehorn them because the former is again, in our opinion, a safer and more humane technique. We ask lots of questions, talk to lots of people, and read. What we do here, our implemented set of best practices, is the result of past, on going,  and thoughtful deliberation.

Because it is beyond the scope of  this blog page to discuss all aspects of herd management, we will focus on the particular case of castration. What are its costs? What are its benefits? And, how does the procedure shake out in terms of its overall net benefit to our farm economy and to individual animals?

Here are what we see as the negative consequences of Elastrator (rubber band) castration:

  • Band castration causes discomfort and requires the use of tetanus antitoxin.
  • Band castration has an associated risk of myiasis (maggot infestation) at particular times of year.
  • Band castration has a significant risk of infection if improperly timed.

And here are what we see as the positive consequences of Elastrator (rubber band) castration:

  • Band castration runs a lower, overall, risk of infection than other commonly used methods of castration.
  • Castration prevents breeding of low-quality stock and the perpetuation of undesirable traits.
  • Castration makes males less dangerous to themselves, to other animals, and to humans.
  • Castration results in a higher quality slaughter product in nonbreeding males.

Having defined the costs and benefits of castration, we now turn to the net benefit of the procedure. On balance should one castrate or not? Yes it causes discomfort, and surely there is a risk of infection; but in the overall economy of raising the animal we believe that the net benefit is positive. After more than two decades of careful observation we believe that the discomfort experienced by banded animals is minimal and of short duration – and it is certainly shorter than caused by castration via cutting. The incidence of myiasis (in fleece-breed sheep) is low, especially if lambing is timed for cooler months. And, finally, the risk of significant infection approaches zero if animals are banded well before testicular diameter precludes safe application of the bands themselves. Furthermore, consider that stock (genetic) improvements becomes impossible without castration. Hormones such as testosterone can influence the quality and taste of intact males sent to slaughter. And perhaps most importantly intact males of all species are potentially and, very significantly, dangerous.

We castrate all nonbreeding males on our operation. To not do so would be, in our well considered view, irresponsible. Although this practice has been easy for us to come to terms with we are sure that it presents a real dilemma for others. Such choices are individual, highly personal, and should not be made on purely emotional grounds. Hard management decisions should always be based in fact and on first-hand knowledge.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on the ethical treatment of livestock

  1. It is interesting to read this, as I think that the trade off for limiting the territory of animals kept for domestic use must benefit the animals and compensate for what cannot happen naturally. Thus, best practices are perhaps not ideal, but necessary as we colonize the planet.

    I am currently reading a novel called Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong (trans Howard Goldblatt). It is an autobiographical-based account of the Chinese cultural revolution taken to the nomadic steppe people of Mongolia. Only half way through, I am struck by the conflict of agricultural ideas in China (influenced by Confucianism ideology) and the Mongolians’ observation of nature for best herding practices on the delicate steppe grasslands. So often, the removed ideology is out of sync with best practices, to the detriment of all living creatures dependent on the complex ecology of the land. Jiang Rong consistently gives voice to Mongolian observation, stating that government managed corporate agriculture is causing an expansion of the Gobi desert, as grazing land is destroyed for crops and planting. The Chinese argue that any land which is arable should be turned over to farming, as grain crops can feed more people per acre than meat raised in the same space. The argument that unfolds suggests, almost in a spiritual way, that humans were made to be both plant and meat eaters so their needs would be in sync with this greater balance, what the Mongolians call “Big Life” as opposed to individual and passing need (called “little life”). Always, the Big Life needs must come before little life needs; the grass is a Big Life, and without it all little life will die. Little life can pass away, returning its body to the needs of Big Life, and it’s passing will nourish all. It is a simple break down of need, to prioritize the most urgent stewardship, and is probably the only simplified structure in the book; steppe life is very much dependent upon a resistance to binary thinking, and the understanding of larger interconnectedness. The title, Wolf Totem, calls attention to how the Mongolian people have survived in this harsh place, by watching and learning from the wolf, and being in competition with it for their own survival. Their culture sheds the arrogance of human centric thinking, an unhealthy luxury of “civilization,” I think.

    I encountered in the novel that the sheep tails for the meat livestock are not docked in this culture. In fact, it seems that the tails (which plump up to the ‘size of a skillet’) are essential in the harsh steppe climate and landscape for helping the animals store much-needed fat for winter survival. There is also a discussion on castration, and the writer suggests that this is a practice humans learned from observing that fighting male herd animals will bite the testicles from each other if given the chance; the surviving neutered males contribute to the herd but do not pose a threat to its safety. It may be that humans adopted the practice of neutering males rather than exterminating them from their domesticated herds by observing the results of what the animals themselves did.

    1. Thanks for such an extended response and for outlining the logical, reasonable, and real difference between Big Life and Little Life. So we, as humans, represent the latter while the health of the planet represents the former … do I have it right-way-around? In any case it seems to me we humans have very much become myopically focused on our own, little, lives at the expense (climate change as an example) of the Big Life of the planet. The difficulty is in teaching those so focused about what’s at stake and in the longer term. As an aside, I have never liked the term ‘sustainability,’ because it suggests maintaining what we’ve got, and I don’t believe what we have at the moment is sustainable. Between us … I’d prefer we go back, say 100 years, and sustain that! What say you? D

      1. That is the way Big Life and little life is determined–eco systems are the Big Life, supporting everything within. I also don’t like “sustainability” in the sense that it implies maintenance of status quo. I guess when I use that word I probably always say, “this is not sustainable.” To go back in time, I’d go to at least pre-colonial times and institute policies that do not permit sod stripping or enable the annihilation of indigenous cultures. So, the early 1890s in Saskatchewan, at the latest. Maybe further back, even. Places in our province were determined by the first land surveyors to be unfit for Euro-centric settlement. Of course, this land was eventually annexed for settlement, but probably in the wrong way. Light sandy soil was broken for crops, to meet the requirements of homesteading which required clearing and breaking of the land. Entire areas better suite for grazing were destroyed. I should put this into a post, although it is a little freeing to embed comments in the archives.

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