Farm Animal Welfare

Since the end of the Second World War the methods of raising animals for food have changed dramatically. Small, family owned farms have been replaced by larger, more intensive operations that confine more animals in smaller spaces. These farms are highly-mechanized, often corporately owned and designed for one purpose: to produce meat and other animal products as cheaply as possible.

While these “factory farms” have succeeded in providing low cost meat, eggs and dairy products, a terrible price has been paid by farm animals. They suffer in cramped, unhygienic conditions, sometimes barely able to move. They are transported long distances, often unprotected from severe cold or heat. They are slaughtered in systems that do not ensure a humane death.

Factory farming methods have spread from developed countries around the world to China, India, Latin America and Eastern Europe and beyond. Billions of animals are now raised in intensive systems that compromise their welfare. All these animals are sentient beings, capable of feeling pain, fear and stress as well as pleasure and contentment. But in modern farming they have become mere products, with minimal regard for their well-being.

In addition to causing animal suffering, factory farming damages the environment and threatens public health. The production and promotion of cheap, intensively raised meat has led to overconsumption, which is now linked to obesity, cancer, diabetes, hypertension and other health problems. See our Eat Less Meat section.

  • Key farm animal welfare issues
  • The growth of intensive livestock production in Canada
  • Livestock production in the Fraser Valley, BC
  • Quick facts

Key Farm Animal Welfare Issues

Below are brief descriptions of farm animal welfare issues in Canada. More detailed information can be found at the links that follow. Egg laying hens and battery cages Egg-laying hens are typically housed in battery cages.

The term “battery” refers to the stacked rows of cages (a battery of cages) in which thousands of hens are kept in large windowless barns. The wire cages are so small the hens cannot spread their winds, so barren that they have no nest in which to lay eggs and so restricting that the birds’ bones become brittle and can snap through lack of exercise. With 4-6 hens per cage, each hen lives her entire life in a space smaller than an 8½ by 11 inch piece of paper. They are caged like this all day, every day. After one or two years’ confinement, their only release is slaughter. More than 90 per cent of Canada’s 26 million hens are kept in cages like this.VHS is fighting to end the use of battery cages through our Chicken OUT! campaign.

Broiler chickens (chickens raised for meat) The average broiler chicken is raised inside a large industrial barn in groups of 5,000 to 100,000 birds. They are mass-housed on the floor in crowded, barren buildings with automatic feeders and waterers.

Broiler chickens are genetically selected for fast growth, resulting in skeletal deformities and lameness (due to stress on joints). In 1950 it took 84 days for a broiler chicken to reach market weight. By 1988 it took only 42 days to produce a 2 kg bird. The chickens spend more and more time just sitting as they approach their slaughter weight. Their inactivity is linked to chronic joint pain. In 2002, 608 million chickens were slaughtered for meat in Canada.

Turkeys The life of a turkey is much like that of a broiler chicken. They are kept with thousands of other turkeys with no natural light and poor ventilation. Due to the stress of overcrowding, fighting and aggression, feather pecking can result. Turkeys usually have their beaks sliced off (without anaesthetic) to prevent the pecking from causing injuries. As a result of decades of breeding for higher meat production, turkeys can no longer breed naturally and females must be artificially inseminated. In 2003, 19.7 million turkeys were slaughtered in Canada.

Female pigs and sow stalls The sow “stall” or “crate” keeps pregnant sows confined for most of their lives. The stalls are metal-barred cages about two feet wide by seven feet long. They are so small the sow cannot turn around. Instead, the pig’s movement is limited to one step forward or one step back. The sow has to eat, sleep, urinate and defecate in this tiny space. Prolonged confinement affects the sow’s health, often causing lameness, foot injuries, weakened bones and painful abrasions. Poor cardiovascular fitness causes some sows to die when they are transported. Sow stalls are being banned in Europe in 2012 and in California in 2015.

Dairy cows Modern dairy cows have been manipulated and exploited to produce more milk than they would naturally. They are kept in a perpetual cycle of pregnancy and lactation, with their babies taken away when only hours old. Mother cows can suffer physically and psychologically as a result. Cows are typically good-natured, sensitive animals, but on an intensive dairy farm they can become nervous and high-strung. Milking and confinement can result in physical ailments. Swollen udders are a common and serious problem, resulting from constant milking that puts a strain on the udder. Lameness is another serious and painful ailment that results from standing on concrete floors and lack of exercise. Dairy cows are slaughtered prematurely due to lameness. The vast majority of hamburger meat comes from the bodies of slaughtered and ground up dairy cows.

Veal (the male calves of dairy cows) and veal crates Veal is a by-product of the dairy industry. Dairy cows need to be kept constantly pregnant in order to produce milk for human consumption, resulting in many offspring. Most of the male calves produced are taken from their mothers as young as one or two days old to be shipped away and raised for veal. Those not sold for veal are culled within the first few days on farm. Veal calves are typically slaughtered at 14 to 16 weeks of age. In Canada in 2003, more than 300,000 calves were slaughtered for veal. Commonly, calves are kept in veal “crates” where they cannot turn or take more than one step forward or one step back, or are tethered to tiny plastic igloos that offer no protection from heat and cold. They spend their entire lives severely confined so their meat will be tender at the time of slaughter.

Beef cattle Of all food animal production, beef production appears to have changed the least over the past 100 years. Cattle still spend much of their lives on the open range and mothers have the opportunity to interact naturally with their young. But cattle are still branded, castrated and dehorned – all painful procedures. The growing use of “feedlots” in the cattle industry also raises serious welfare concerns. Feedlots are used to “finish” cattle, bringing them up to the desired weight quickly and adding fat to make their meat appeal to consumers. Their diet is switched from mainly hay to mostly grain, which wreaks havoc with their digestive systems (as ruminants, cattle are suited to eating grass, not grain). Consequently, cattle suffer from bloating, diarrhea and extreme discomfort.

Farm animal transport According to figures compiled by the BC SPCA from Canadian Food Inspection Agency statistics, between two and three million farm animals are found dead each year when trucks are unloaded at Canadian abattoirs (more commonly known as slaughterhouses). Exposure to harsh weather, rough handling and extremely cramped conditions on long journeys cause these animals to suffer and die painful deaths. According to regulations under the Health of Animals Act, cattle may be transported without food, water or rest for up to 52 hours (and the regulations are not adequately enforced). For pigs, horses, rabbits and poultry, the maximum transportation time is 36 hours.

Slaughter Current systems for slaughtering farm animals often fail to ensure a humane death. Poultry for example, are shackled upside down by their feet, putting extreme stress on their joints (which are too often weak or damaged from rough handling, lack of exercise and breeding for fast growth). They are then conveyed to an electric stun bath to render them unconscious before having their throats slit. Not all birds are stunned however, leaving them to feel their throats being slit. Others make it alive all the way to the final scalding tank, where feathers are removed. More than 650 million farm animals are slaughtered in Canada each year.

Foie Gras Foie Gras is the fatty liver of ducks or geese that have been force-fed. A metal tube is inserted into the birds throats several times a day, starting when the birds about 12 weeks old and continuing for up to three weeks until they are slaughtered. The force-feeding is not only stressful and painful, but also requires confinement that prevents the birds from engaging in natural behaviours.

What can you do to help farm animals?

  • If you consume eggs don’t buy eggs from battery (caged) hens. Buy certified organic or BC SPCA- certified eggs. More info on our Chicken OUT!! page.
  • Reduce or eliminate your consumption of meat, eggs and dairy products to help reduce the demand for these goods, which is driving the growth of factory farming.
  • Avoid meat produced on factory farms. Buy certified organic products.
  • Don’t buy foie gras or veal.
  • Learn more about farm animal welfare and speak out. The news media, legislators, government officials and even your own family, friends and colleagues need to know more about these issues.

More information This is just a brief overview of farm animal welfare issues. For more information please visit these links: Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals (CCFA) BC SPCA Canadians for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (CETFA) Beyond Factory Farming Liberation BC

The Growth Of Canadian Livestock In Canada

In April 2003, Statistics Canada published a report, The expansion of livestock farms between 1991 and 2001, which showed that despite the biggest decline in the number of farms in 30 years, Canadian farmers were raising more cattle, hogs and poultry than ever before. The report said that the number of larger livestock operations was on the rise, and the number of animals on larger operations was soaring. This trend has continued. The 2006 Census of Agriculture found that Canada has 20 per cent fewer cattle farms than it did in 2001, although the average number of cattle and calves is up 13 per cent to 144 per farm. As well, the number of pig farmers has dropped by more than a quarter, although the size of the average operation has grown a whopping 45 per cent, from 902 pigs to 1,308. (Canadian Press)

Livestock production in the Fraser Valley, BC

Intensification (move toward factory farming) The Fraser Valley has the highest concentration of very large farms in Canada, with 30 large farms for every square km of farmland available. Between 1991 and 2001 the number of large farms increased by 88 to 146, the biggest increase in Canada during that period. (2001 Agricultural Census – Vista paper). Fewer farms with more animals: While the number of chickens in the Fraser Valley has increased, the number of poultry farms is dropping. The number of poultry farms dropped from 1487 in 2001 to 1179 in 2006. (2006 Agricultural Census). During the 1990s the number of chickens per farm in the valley increased by 78 per cent. (H. Schreier, R. Bestbier and G Derksen. 2003 A Quantitative Assessment of Agricultural Intensification and Associated Waste Management Challenges in the Lower Fraser Valley). The Fraser Valley has the highest animal stocking density in Canada (UBC Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, Dr Hans Schreier). There are approximately:

  • 15.4 million chickens
  • 128,000 cattle
  • 95,500 pigs
  • 9,000 sheep
  • 5,000 goats
  • 767,000 turkeys(2006 Agricultural Census)

The number of chickens in the valley has nearly doubled since 1991. The number of dairy cows and the number of goats have both increased by more than 20 per cent. The number of pigs and sheep has dropped because operations have moved to other provinces. The number of cattle overall is down slightly. (Dr. Hans Schreier, UBC). The Lower Fraser Valley has the largest number of dairy cows per farm in Canada. (Schreier, 2003).

Contamination of soil and groundwater A study released in Feb. 2007 by BC Agriculture Council found “high to very high environmental risk” levels of nitrates in soil on Fraser Valley farms. (Fraser Valley Soil Nutrient Study 2005). A multi-agency study released in 2005 found groundwater nitrates in excess of the maximum acceptable concentration for drinking water in several areas in the Fraser Valley. The study stated: “Intensive agricultural land use over the study area appears to remain the primary source of nitrate in the aquifer.” (Nitrate and Coliform Bacteria Distribution in the Abbotsford Aquifer – results of a Groundwater Quality Survey 2004-05, BC Ministry of Environment; Environment Canada; Fraser Health). A UBC and Environment Canada report in 1999 concluded that: “agriculture is a significant contributor to pollution in the Lower Fraser Valley.” (Schreier, H., K. Hall, S.J. Brown, B. Wernick, and C. Berka. 1999. “Agriculture: an important non-point source of pollution).

Additional reports: Hall, K. and H. Schreier. 1996 Urbanization and agricultural intensification in the Lower Fraser Valley: Impacts on water use and water quality. GeoJournal: 40, 1-2: 135-146; Berka, C., H. Schreier, and K. Hall. 2001. Linking Water Quality with Agricultural Intensification in a Rural Watershed. Water, Air and Soil Pollution 127:389-401; Brisbin, P.E. 1995. Agricultural Nutrient Management in the Lower Fraser Valley. Report 4. DOE-FRAP, Environment Canada, 81pp. High levels of nitrates in drinking water are linked to Blue Baby Syndrome, a condition which reduces babies’ ability to carry sufficient oxygen in the blood. (Environment Canada).

Air pollution – Ammonia Ammonia is a colourless gas with a sharp pungent odour. Agricultural activities such as cattle, pig, and poultry housing, manure spreading and storing, and fertilizer application account for more than three-quarters of ammonia emissions in the Lower Fraser Valley. Ammonia can react with other pollutants in the atmosphere to form fine particulates. Scientific investigations in the Lower Fraser Valley indicate that combined reactions of chemical compounds like ammonium nitrate and ammonium sulphate represent a significant portion of ambient fine particulate. (Metro Vancouver report). Hugh Sloan, Director of Planning for the Fraser Valley Regional District, told the FVRD Agricultural Committee in March 2006 that “the Fraser Valley is going to need major, structural solutions within the next five to seven years. By then, agriculture will be more responsible for air pollutants than all the vehicular transportation the valley produces.” He also reported that “of all the common air contaminants being measured, only ammonia is increasing.” (Minutes of FVRD Agricultural Committee meeting, March 31, 2006). Poultry appears to be the biggest problem. The Fraser Valley poultry industry was producing 736,500 cubic yards of manure in 2000 and this is expected to rise to 1 million cubic yards by 2010 (according to the Sustainable Poultry Farming Group: 604 556 7781). The manure is used as fertilizer (on raspberry and blueberry farms).

Disease – avian flu The Fraser Valley was the scene of Canada’s largest avian flu outbreak in 2004. The virus emerged in a broiler breeder barn and mutated from low pathogenic to high pathogenic avian influenza. In June 2007, a UN study, Industrial Livestock Production and Global Health Risks, states that: “The proximity of thousands of confined animals increases the likelihood of transfer of pathogens within and between these populations, with consequent rates of pathogen evolution.”

Quick Facts

Global meat production is projected to more than double from 229 million tonnes in 1999/2001 to 465 million tonnes in 2050, while milk output is set to climb from 580 to 1043 million tonnes. (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report, Livestock’s Long Shadow, 2006).

Livestock now use 30 percent of the earth’s entire land surface. (Ibid).

Intensive, concentrated livestock production is growing in Canada. The 2006 Census of Agriculture found that Canada has 20 per cent fewer cattle farms than it did in 2001, although the average number of cattle and calves is up 13 per cent to 144 per farm.

As well, the number of pig farmers has dropped by more than a quarter, but the size of the average operation has grown by 45 per cent, from 902 pigs to 1,308. The Fraser Valley has the highest animal stocking density in Canada. (UBC Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability – Dr Hans Schreier) The number of chickens in the Fraser Valley has nearly doubled since 1991. (Ibid) The Fraser Valley poultry industry was producing 736,500 cubic yards of manure in 2000 and this is expected to rise to 1 million cubic yards by 2010 (according to the Sustainable Poultry Farming Group: 604 556 7781).

Livestock production in the Fraser Valley is causing water and air pollution. More than 665 million intensively-farmed animals were slaughtered in Canada in 2004. (Canadian Food Inspection Agency statistics).

Meat chickens, or broilers, live in huge indoor sheds in groups of 5,000 to 50,000, eating and sleeping in their own waste for their entire lives.

Egg-laying chickens, or battery hens, spend their lives crammed in tiny wire cages–stacked like shipping crates–with four to six others, each hen living in a space smaller than an 8½ by 11 inch piece of paper.

Hog barns house up to 5,000 pigs in crowded pens. Stress from overcrowding creates aggression and boredom, so most pigs have their tails cut off to prevent tail-biting. Breeding sows are confined for almost their entire reproductive lives in stalls that are just slightly bigger than the sows themselves. They eat, sleep, and defecate in the same space; their manure falls through slatted floors to a cesspool beneath.

For the last 60 to 120 days of their lives, beef cattle live in feedlots of up to 40,000 animals. Standing in piles of manure and fitted with growth-hormone ear implants, they are fed mostly grain to increase their market weight and meat marbling. This can wreak havoc on ruminants’ digestive systems, which are more suited for grass, creating painful bloating and severe discomfort.