Free to run. A more compassionate approach to animal husbandry frees chickens and calves from the confinement of factory farms
KEN KLEINPETER used to teach guitar in New York City until he quit to go farm in upstate New York three years ago. In an era when small farms are struggling, he is making it, in part because of a unique program which rewards a more compassionate approach to animal husbandry. His specialty is veal. It comes not from calves kept in very confined, often dark, quarters, but from young animals that are free to move outdoors, that butt each other playfully and skip and romp in the sun. It is a pale rose pink rather than the white of conventional American veal, hence its trade name: Rambling Rose.
Bob Hurff of Barnsboro, N.J., is another who has turned his back on ``factory farming.'' He runs an egg operation - 2,000 laying hens producing some 130 dozen eggs a day, sold under the Nest Eggs trademark. It's an accurate label, because, unlike the cage systems of modern egg factories, the Hurff chickens lay their eggs in nests. They are also free to run, forage, take dustbaths - even fly if they wish.
In Mr. Hurff's view, his straw-floor or deep-litter system of egg production allows a hen to follow its natural nesting instincts in a way her battery-caged counterpart never can.
The Kleinpeter calves also live a more natural, if limited, life. Like all meat animals, the calves have to be killed in the end. ``But the way I see it,'' Kleinpeter says, ``they do not suffer beforehand.''
Kleinpeter, Hurff, and a small but increasing group of similarly minded colleagues are finding profitability in what they see as ``humane'' farming because of a unique program begun by a Chicago-based animal rights activists three years ago.
Robert W. Brown is the president of Food Animals Concern Trust (FACT), a non-profit organization he founded in 1981. According to Mr. Brown, FACT's message may get some producer groups, and those active in farm politics, ``a little hot under the collar, but we've detected very little resentment from farmers themselves.''
Those who listen to the FACT presentation quickly realize that, far from strewing obstacles in the farmer's path, Brown offers marketing options that offer hope in financially tough times, particularly to the small family farmer. While some other animal rights groups search for alternatives to factory farming, FACT is unusual in this respect: it becomes both the buyer and seller of the farm product.
As the executive director of the Anti-Cruelty Society in Illinois, Brown hosted a conference on factory farming some years back. That, he says, brought out clearly where the greatest need for improving animal welfare lies in the United States. ``The numbers show where it's at,'' he says. The 4 billion animals raised on US farms dwarf the 60 million or so that are used in laboratory experiments each year, according to FACT.
At the same time, he realized that improving the lot of livestock could also address two other needs: responding to the public's growing call for wholesome, less chemically laced food; and bolstering the often wobbly economics of small-scale family farming through better marketing of products and lower capital investment requirements.
In Brown's view, laying hens and veal calves are the most abused of farm animals. ``They are kept in the most confining and inhumane conditions of all,'' he says, ``so we began with those.''
Hen batteries, as they are sometimes called, are tiered cages of laying hens. Each wire cage is 12-inches wide by 18-inches long and, says Brown, ``five full grown hens are stuffed into each cage.'' Under such restricted conditions, hens peck each other constantly. So chickens destined to become caged layers are debeaked when young to prevent them from damaging or killing each other.
``If you have to mutilate an animal to keep it alive in your housing system, then there's something wrong with your housing system,'' Brown insists.
On a trip to Switzerland, he discovered that the animal welfare society Schweitzer Tierschutz certified egg producers who met their standards - much like the AAA certifies hotels and motels in this country. Buyers are thus able to make their purchases according to their own feelings about livestock treatment. But Brown has taken the idea one step further: FACT actually owns the chickens and leases them to farmers who meet the trust's standards for housing and treatment. Then FACT markets the product as Nest Eggs.
In some instances, FACT has subsidized a farmer's switch from a cage system of egg production to the approved deep-litter method. ``We get paid back from sales,'' Brown says, ``but the risk falls on us.''
FACT also markets Rambling Rose veal but does not own the calves. The important thing, in FACT's view, is that the calves live a more natural life until slaughter, including a wholesome diet. White, sometimes called ``fancy'' veal, is achieved by excluding all iron-rich foods from the diet. An article in Harrowsmith magazine by J. Tevere MacFadyen, a longtime student of alternative agriculture, says this of white veal: ``The economics of conventional veal production hinges on a terrible equation. Denied iron, the calves are critically anemic - during the final few days the trick is to get the animals to market before they die.''
Under such intense confinement, the hens and calves have to be ``pumped full of antibiotics just to keep them alive,'' according to Brown, ``and people are concerned about the possible negative impact this can have on human health.''
Greg Scher, president of the Huntington, Ind.-based American Veal Association, takes strong exception to such statements. ``Our records speak for themselves,'' he says, referring to the industry practice of confining calves in individual pens. ``Industry studies show that we need less medication [in the single-pen system]. Our death losses are 5 to 10 percent or less, compared to 40 to 50 percent or less in the open-pen system.''
Those open-pen studies (20 to 30 calves to a pen) involved some 15,000 calves and many veal producers over a two-year period.
``Virtually all of them have gone back to single pens,'' Mr. Scher says. ``They had too much trouble with disease.'' He also contends that white-veal calves are not anemic. ``If they were, they'd stop eating and die.''
Brown's response to this is that Rambling Rose calves are housed in ``nothing like'' the intensive, indoor conditions of the open-pen or group system tried out by the industry. ``Our calves,'' says Brown, ``have [indoor] shelter but are free to roam outside in the sun'' and graze.
No more than eight Rambling Rose calves are ever confined in a fenced pasture. Disease, he says, is not a major problem under these more natural, spacious conditions - so ``we don't need continuous medication.''
As he sees it, the Rambling Rose approach (a shed and outdoor pasture) is far less expensive to erect, if somewhat more labor intensive. ``That's why it's an ideal system for the small family farm.''
FACT's approach to more humane husbandry is to find suitable markets and then seek out farmers who will produce eggs or meat under conditions that meet their standards. ``One reason we like to own the chickens,'' says Brown, ``is so we can remove them if the farmer fails to meet our requirements.''
As word of the organization has slowly spread, some farmers have approached Brown with requests to work with FACT. ``We'd certainly like to accommodate them all,'' Brown says, ``but if the farmer isn't in an area where we have established a market, there isn't much we can do right now.''
But Brown is optimistic. Starting in Chicago, FACT products moved into the New York City region and more recently into Cambridge, Mass. A FACT field representative is scheduled to move to the West Coast next year to find both markets and farmers interested in running a FACT operation. Currently, there are eight FACT farms - six producing eggs and two, veal.
About 10 percent of FACT's revenue comes from the sale of meat and eggs, and should increase as markets grow, says Brown. Meanwhile the bulk of its funding comes from private donations.
Ultimately, Brown expects, FACT will be operating in every major center around the country. ``I'm convinced that when the American public is fully informed about factory farming, the people will turn against it.''
For more information write to FACT, PO Box 14599, Chicago, IL 60614.