Unintended Consequences of Confined Animal Facilities

By the Californian Senate Office of Research - Confined animal facilities, sometimes called factory farms, apply industrial production methods (concentrated production, large capitalization and mechanization – all housed in a factory-like facility) to the raising of animals for human consumption. While this method of intense production farming has produced certain economic benefits – cheaper and more plentiful products – it has also produced unintended consequences.
calendar icon 5 December 2004
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Confined Animal Facilities in California - By the Californian Senate Office of Research - Confined animal facilities, sometimes called factory farms, apply industrial production methods (concentrated production, large capitalization and mechanization – all housed in a factory-like facility) to the raising of animals for human consumption. While this method of intense production farming has produced certain economic benefits – cheaper and more plentiful products – it has also produced unintended consequences.

Executive Summary

Many of the concerns over confined animal facilities (CAFs) have centered on hog and poultry operations in the southern, eastern and midwestern sections of the United States. CAFs in California are largely confined to dairies, beef cattle feedlots and the poultry industry.

Confining animals in restrictive spaces produces unique responses. Confinement produces unnatural behavior and living conditions. To keep poultry from harming each other, beak tips may be removed. A percentage of animals that experience this procedure die. Antibiotics are routinely administered to counteract the spread of disease that stress and living in close quarters can promote. Light deprivation is used in some cases to promote increased egg and meat production. Male chickens in egg-producing facilities are disposed of by the thousands.

Some dairy cows have their tails docked so they do not interfere with mechanized milking equipment. They are given hormones to increase their milk production – sometimes up to ten times what would occur naturally. Beef cattle can spend up to half of their lives in confined feeding pens with 75 to 200 other head of cattle.

Factory farming also produces waste that pollutes surface and groundwater, pollutes the air and harms wildlife habitat. The generation of this waste also impacts human health from the contamination of drinking water with pathogens, to the diminished effectiveness of antibiotics for humans.

Other states, local governments and nations, especially the European Union (EU), have been addressing these issues for some time. California has just begun and is mainly focusing on air and water pollution.


According to the 1997 Census of Agriculture, sales of confined animal species (feedlot beef cattle, dairy, swine and poultry) totaled over $75.4 billion, more than 45 percent of total farm sales. Federal policies that affect the industry’s manure-management costs – e.g., through the Clean Water Act and farm legislation – can have significant economic effects on the livestock and poultry sectors. In addition, a growing number of states are implementing regulations directed specifically at confined livestock and poultry operations.

Farm animal production has steadily evolved from family-farm-sized units to more and more integrated or corporate-sized farm units. This is particularly true for poultry production and more recently for production of swine. The number of beef (fattened cattle) feedlots with over 1,000 animals has stayed relatively stationary.

Constructing larger facilities is more cost-effective on a per-animal basis if not all the external costs are considered. External costs, such as environmental and community effects, are not normally included when the owner of an animal-feeding operation or meat-processing facility calculates the cost of operation.1 Large concentrations of animals grown in confinement generate large quantities of manure or litter.

Beef cattle, dairy cows, swine, broilers (chickens raised for meat) and turkeys are the primary farm animals produced in the United States. With the exception of beef cattle, these animal species are commonly grown in partial or total confinement systems on concrete floors. This means the manure produced can be more efficiently collected. Beef cows are primarily maintained on pasture and not in confinement. The “finishing” of cattle is done on feedlots where they are normally confined on uncovered dirt.

Feedlots generally produce a “dry” manure-soil mixture, which means the material can be handled as a solid.

In the United States, much of the controversy over CAFs revolves around the trend in southern, eastern and midwestern states to larger and more specialized hog and poultry-raising operations.


California broiler production is concentrated in the upper San Joaquin Valley. The industry is highly concentrated, with several firms accounting for a large majority of broilers, processed from either company-owned or contract ranches. Processors are fully integrated from placement of chicks at production facilities to the marketing of branded products at retail stores.

The existence of large-scale poultry operations enable the largest plants to decrease labor, overhead and capital costs by 10 percent over those of their smallest competitors. To remain competitive, smaller plants have to either increase their own production, reduce their production costs or switch their product mix to highly specialized products for niche markets.

Many economists believe that scale economies are a driving force in industry consolidation. The scale economies in poultry slaughtering are said to be stronger than in cattle and hogs.11

The poultry industry’s issues concern the humane treatment of animals and the use of antibiotics. Animal advocates have expressed concern over de-beaking – cutting or burning off the tip of the beaks of poultry so they cannot injure one another when confined in close quarters – and the amputation of toes and claws of turkeys for the same reason. In addition, advocates feel it is inhumane to confine these animals in buildings for meat production or in racks of individual cages for egg production.12 This is done by the thousands, or hundreds of thousands, and in many cases these animals live under regulated light conditions.

The medical community has also expressed concern over the routine use of antibiotics to counter disease, which is accelerated by close confinement and stress. More and more bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics, which is limiting the range of therapies that can successfully be used to protect human health. Some groups of farm-animal producers have become somewhat proactive in publishing handling-and-care practices for the treatment of animals. However, these practices are strictly voluntary. One national group supported by the Humane Society of the United States and American SPCA has an active program to certify farms for animal-welfare standards using a third-party assessor.13 There are a few farms in California certified by this program.

Animal Welfare

As animal welfare activists who oppose confined animal facilities see it, animal cruelty is pervasive and routine. CAF farming is viewed as a practice that forces animals into confined spaces intended to maximize profits on selling their flesh, eggs and milk, well ahead of any consideration for their welfare. Members of the agricultural community view their practices in mainly economic terms – more efficient production, less labor costs and less expensive products for the consumer. At the large egg farms, laying hens may be kept in long, darkened sheds for extended periods. Photos made of practices in the egg industry by animal activists show chicks tossed onto conveyor belts, the females diverted one way to be raised for egg production, the males sent another way for disposal. The Tribe of the Heart organization puts the number of male chicks killed nationally by large egg farms at 250 million a year.

Up to 125,000 hens at a time occupy the long, narrow sheds typical of the big farms in California.15 Hens spend one year in the sheds until their egg production days are over and are sold for meat at 18 to 20 months of age.

Beak Trimming

Various groups view beak trimming very differently. The animal activist community believes it is an inhumane practice. The poultry industry views it as a necessary practice. The University of California’s Cooperative Extension does not take a stance on whether it is a humane practice.

For chickens and turkeys bred for meat production, efficiency of the enterprise means mechanically cutting the chicks’ beaks back, occasionally drawing blood, to prevent the animals in close quarters from pecking each other to death before their optimum meat weight is achieved.

Beak trimming in the hatchery protects chicks from injuring each other. If beaks are to be trimmed, a hot blade trimmer with a blunt blade should be used to notch the upper beak, according to the UC’s Cooperative Extension Animal Care Series. An electric spark trimmer can also be used. After a few days, the tip of the beak will separate under these two methods, leaving a trimmed upper beak. This approach leaves the tip of the beak intact until a chick learns to eat and drink. The Animal Care Series does not attempt to set forth specific guidelines for production practices or describe best practices but rather explains why, when and how these practices are used in complex production systems in California.

Trimming may be done once at a very early age (first week of age) or twice (a second permanent trimming at 6 to 12 weeks of age). Proponents say that when done correctly, this provides life-long reduction of feather pecking and injury and also reduces feed waste.

Beak trimming is said to have very minimal effects on the young chicken when performed before six weeks of age. Later trimming tends to affect the birds by depressing feed consumption, resulting in lower body weights during the following weeks. Careful beak trimming requires all parts of the procedure to be adhered to closely. This includes the age of the flock, amount of beak to be removed, sharpness and temperature of the blade and angle of the cut.

Poultry Lighting

Animal activists believe that withholding natural light and manipulating the timing of light is unnatural and therefore inhumane. UC’s Cooperative Extension Animal Care Series has provided the following information to explain standard industry practices regarding lighting for broilers and egg layers:

  • Broilers – Developing pullets of meat-type strains that are exposed to increasing day lengths will begin laying eggs before they have reached optimum body size. This can result in excessive production of small eggs and hens that are more susceptible to prolapse of the oviduct, which often leads to death. To prevent these problems, pullets should be raised on short days (e.g. 8 hours) in a darkened house, or on decreasing day lengths if housed in pen-side housing. The day length should be increased to initiate lay when adequate body development and age have been achieved. Males should be light-stimulated at least a week before females to assure good fertility of the lay.

  • Egg-laying flocks – Since many of the inherent chicken responses common to wild birds have been bred out of the domestic chicken, responses to lighting programs are far less pronounced then in the past. Seasonal influences on performance are less noticeable and only small differences are noted between lighting programs of widely divergent descriptions. Nevertheless, all commercial producers use lighting programs. Replacement pullets are commonly reared on constant day-length programs in environmentally controlled housing, or on decreasing day-length patterns in open-type rearing houses.
    Laying flocks are usually boosted to at least 13 hours of light when egg production is desired, with additional weekly increases of 15 to 30 minutes, until a maximum of about 16 hours of total day length is reached.

Foie Gras

Production Besides meat production, ducks and geese are induced to produce enlarged livers for the gourmet delicacy foie gras. To achieve the desired effect, the birds’ livers are fattened by prying open their beaks and forcing a tube down their throats, through which a corn mixture is fed into their systems two to four times a day, every day, for periods of two to four weeks. Consequences for the animals include swollen livers which expand the abdomen and make breathing and walking difficult. SB 1520 (Burton), which was signed into law by the governor on September 29, 2004, will ban the practice in California by July 2012.

Animal activists report that lesions and infections to the bill and esophagus occur from the force of inserting the feeding tube. After the forced-feeding period of two or more weeks, the birds are often too weak to stand or flap their wings, they contend. Humane issues have brought about bans or proposed bans on foie gras production throughout most of Western Europe. In the United States, foie gras is produced in only two states: New York produces 80 percent; a farm in the Central Valley produces the rest.

Further Information

To read the full report, please click here (PDF)

Source: Senate Office of Research - November 2004

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