The development of animal agriculture based in husbandry is presuppositional to the development of western civilization and culture, which is itself presuppositional to the development of industry and technology. And in this surely resides one of the most profound ironies in human history. For it is the very fact of husbandry undergirding civilization that created the possibility of the undoing of husbandry-based agriculture!
As soon as the industrial revolution occurred, animal producers were able to break the contract with animals. No longer were breeding and good husbandry the limiting factors for animal productivity. The animal welfare that was assured by the need to put square pegs in square holes, round pegs in round holes was rendered obsolete by newly emerging “technological sanders” that allowed producers to force square pegs into round holes and round pegs into square holes – animals into environments congenial to profit, but radically inimical to the animals’ biological natures.
In essence, new technology radically severed the connection traditionally obtaining between productivity and animal welfare. Under technological agriculture, animals were ripped from the pastoral environments they were evolved to live in, and crowded into abrasive and alien confinement situations where they were totally unable to express their telos, i.e. their inherent psychological and biological natures. This is primarily true for poultry and swine, where square pegs are forced into round holes by the use of technological sanders such as antibiotics, vaccines, bacterins, and air handling systems. Absent the sanders, the animals could not survive and produce. In essence, unlike the situation in husbandry, productivity has been separated from animal welfare.
Extensive beef production remains closest to traditional husbandry, where animals get to exercise their biological and psychological natures and eat a natural diet. The system is also most sustainable, where cattle devour forage and waste is not a problem but a soil nutrient. Cattle ranching is as much or more a way of life as it is a way of making a living. This is eloquently illustrated by a statue that stands outside of the agriculture building at Colorado State University, showing a rancher braving a severe blizzard to bring a baby calf home at major risk to himself.
Life for the animals is not a bed of roses in that they still must cope with natural disasters such as floods and snowstorms, but at least their natures are not infringed 24/7. This is not of course to say that welfare of these animals could not be improved, specifically through veterinary involvement.
Veterinary medicine considers itself the champion of animal welfare in society. Surely if there is an area fundamental to animal welfare, it is the control of pain and distress. Federal law for laboratory animals designates veterinarians as the guardians of such control. If such is the case for animals used in research, a similar duty exists regarding the animals we use for food. Though control of their pain is not legally mandated, it is surely morally required. We have seen, in just the last few years, society taking a great and ever-increasing interest in animal welfare – witness the closing of the Ringling Brothers Circus for reasons of animal welfare, and the end of killer whale shows at Sea World. This is a chance for the ranch community and for veterinarians to demonstrate their concern for animals in a way the general public can easily understand.
Note: This article originally appeared as part of Animal Welfare in the Beef Industry in the March 2017 issue of Bovine Veterinarian.