PEABODY – Duane Unruh’s chickens live on a bus – still marked as Sterling Unified School District – but they’re free to hop down and wander among the stalks of rye, gently clucking and pecking here and there.
He converted the bus into an eggery, sitting in the farm field behind his house in northeastern Harvey County. Every day he gathers 35 dozen eggs.
A movable electric fence surrounding the slice of pasture provides protection. He knows it works, he said, because he has seen coyote prints around the edge.
Unruh is no hippie. He’s a local farm boy who graduated from Kansas State University with a degree in entrepreneurism. He has big plans for expanding the operation, adding more livestock and a store.
His operation is more or less a rejection of contemporary livestock agriculture – or, at least, the agriculture of the recent past, because even the biggest players in the industry are easing away from some of the more controversial livestock management practices.
As animal welfare activists have stigmatized such practices – such as cages for egg-laying hens or the use of antibiotics to speed growth – people, the restaurants they eat at and the companies that supply them are seeking what they call more humane practices.
Even as companies such as Wichita-based Cargill Meat Solutions tweak their livestock practices, small producers – such as Unruh’s Prairie Fresh Poultry – trumpet their practices as superior.
And it’s not just chickens and eggs. More producers are using unconventional methods to raise pigs, beef cattle and dairy cows, as well as all kinds of crops and even bees.
Unconventional livestock production comes in variety of flavors: free-range, pasture-raised, grass-fed, locally grown, organic, genetically modified organism-free, no-added hormones, antibiotic free, chemical free and so on.
The practices often overlap, and the producers preach that their way of doing things is better for both the animals and the people who will consume them.
There were 163,675 farms of all kinds that sold at least some of their production locally in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Direct-to-consumer sales increased by 17 percent between 2002 and 2007 and again by 5.5 percent by 2012.
A few miles away from Unruh’s chicken operation is Janzen Family Farm, where farm manager Norm Oeding raises about 50 cattle.
In a pasture north of Elbing, the cattle wander amid the damp, bright green grass. The cattle are watchful, a little skittish around humans, but Oeding walks close, holds out his hand to one of the herd matriarchs, an 8-year-old.
“Come here, mama,” he says in a soothing voice, holding out a cattle cube.
She approaches. Her long tongue snakes out and takes the treat.
“I wish I could get them all to do that,” he says.
Like almost all cattle in the U.S., Oeding’s animals start their lives in the pasture. But in a conventional cattle operation, cattle are later shipped to a feed yard to eat corn or milo as well as supplements, which speed growth and give their meat a smoother, higher-fat flavor.
What makes Oeding’s operation unconventional is that the cattle never leave the pasture, meaning they are 100 percent grass fed, before they head off to the local meat locker. He never uses antibiotics, he says.
He says it takes months longer to raise cattle to their slaughter weight this way, with more hands-on care. Grass-fed beef contains less fat than marbled grain-fed meat and tastes different from what many people are used to.
It’s also more expensive: Oeding has his ground beef marked at $7 a pound, and a KC strip is $16 a pound.
Animals’ best interests
One of the key disconnects is that conventional and unconventional livestock farmers both see themselves as following good livestock practices for the good of the animal. Conventional producers don’t see their practices as harmful and resent animal welfare activists for saying that they are.
For cattle, those practices include de-horning and castration, said Tracy Brunner, a rancher and feeder from Ramona who is president-elect of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
“Those practices there are done in the name of good animal husbandry,” he said. “You have to manage them so they don’t hurt each other.”
He said farmers are very good at listening to their customers and more than happy to work with McDonald’s and Wal-Mart when they ask for changes. And, he said, conventional ranchers are not at odds with those who practice alternative methods, such as grass fed.
But, he added, many activists use their concern for animal welfare as a screen when they are actually against meat altogether.
“To those people, we have to be a little more firm in affirming that we have the best interest of the animal at heart,” he said.
‘Bad old days’
Animal-rights groups started out more than 20 years ago with a campaign against veal crates, in which calves were kept from moving much. More recently, campaigns have been directed against antibiotics and hormones used to promote animal growth, gestation crates for sows and battery cages for laying hens.
In the pork industry, the idea is to keep the animals out of trouble from predators, disease and other pigs. The modern use of confinement barns and pens allows handlers to easily monitor each pig’s food and medicine intake and condition, proponents say. It provides a controlled environment in which companies and their contractors can safely and reliably raise millions of animals at a low cost, they say.
For cattle and pigs, other issues that have drawn attention in animal-rights groups include de-horning, tail docking and castration.
Beyond how the animals are treated, some food activists object to the use of genetically modified crops for feed and the use of hormones and antibiotics to speed growth or prevent disease.
For poultry, the issues surround growth hormones and slaughter, such as moving away from hanging chickens upside-down before their heads are run through an electrified bath to stun them.
In light of criticism and controversy, the meat industry has made substantial changes in the past decade or so, said nationally known livestock industry consultant Temple Grandin, a professor at Colorado State University.
The big meat packers used to be less careful in how they dealt with pigs and cattle at slaughter, she said. Only mammals are covered by the federal Humane Slaughter Act.
“They really have made some big changes,” she said. “The bad old days were really bad. The ’80s and early ’90s were terrible.”
Meat packers used cattle prods, sometimes their stunning equipment didn’t work, and floors were often slippery. That really began to change when executives from McDonald’s toured a beef plant in 1999 and were appalled by what they saw, she said.
“It was a true ‘Undercover Boss’ moment,” she said.
The industry continues to make strides, reinvesting in equipment and practices pushed by the government or by public sentiment, which has been pushed by animal welfare groups and their undercover videos.
The videos of animal abuse keep coming, Grandin said, but these days they are documenting the exceptions, not the typical conditions. She said that the mainstream pork and beef industry is close to a humane system.
“We are very close to that point,” she said.
Cargill, bowing to pressure from customers and the changes it saw coming in the industry, decided over the past couple of years to change some of its practices that had become controversial.
The company announced in June that it would phase out gestation crates for nursing sows from its own operations by the end of 2015 and that of its contractors’ operations by the end of 2017.
The sow gestation crates are roughly 2.5 by 6.5 feet, too narrow for the sow to turn around. Basically, all they could do is eat, nurse piglets and rest.
Mike Siemens, head of animal welfare for Cargill, and Mike Martin, the company’s head of communications, recently discussed the company’s moves on animal welfare. They said the scientific research shows that gestation crates are just as humane for pigs as group housing, but many in the public are less interested in science than in what they feel about a situation.
“When you see these narrow stalls with one animal in each one versus a group setting where they look more social, it’s more visually pleasing,” Martin said.
The sows will remain in the large sow barn but will be housed in group pens that are big enough for a group of sows. The company is working to minimize the conflict at feeding time when dominant sows will fight to take food from others.
One of the main animal welfare groups pushing the industry, the Humane Society of the United States, lauds Cargill’s moves.
“Cargill, on that issue, has been on the forefront,” said Matt Prescott, senior food policy director for the Humane Society. “That seems to be an issue that consumers really want. Every major food chain has said they want these cages out of their supply chain.”
Siemens said curtailing antibiotics used to promote growth is actually the top animal welfare issue, even ahead of animal housing, because it can affect human health as well.
“That seems to be what resonates with the end consumer,” Siemens said. “They can relate to it. They’ve got a child who if they got sick, they got treated with antibiotics.”
In its turkey operations, Cargill is phasing out the use of antibiotics purely to promote growth, although they could still be used to treat illness in the animals, Martin said.
As of this past Christmas, the company’s fresh whole turkeys and turkey breasts were free of growth-promoting antibiotics. As of Christmas this year, that will cover frozen turkeys as well.
“That’s where the industry is going,” Martin said. “We just chose to do it a little quicker.”
Other animal welfare practices are still under study at Cargill, Siemens said. For example, turkeys are already in open houses, but chickens are not. The company is studying whether larger cages or an open building called an aviary is preferable. It’s also looking at practices such as de-horning cattle.
Undoubtedly, the practices of agriculture will continue to evolve, pushed by financial considerations and technology as well as the public’s attitudes about its food and animal welfare.
On Friday, Wal-Mart announced that it would work with suppliers to eliminate the use of growth-promoting antibiotics. It also said it was adopting new policies regarding the humane treatment of animals.
As trends that favor locally grown food and naturally produced meats grow, there will be at least a niche for unconventional producers – niches that could become bigger.
But, clearly, unconventional production is more expensive for a number of reasons, including small scale and increased losses. Unruh lost 150 of his hens in a couple of instances in January when an owl got into the bus and caused a panic in which scores of hens were smothered. He has since fixed that so it won’t happen again, he said.
It’s a learning experience, he said. But partly because of such incidents, he sells his eggs at wholesale for more than big supermarkets such as Dillons sell them for retail.
At the other end of the production scale, producers have cost, convenience and consistency on their side. Food is more affordable with the efficiencies of systematized processes and a larger scale of production. They can deliver it in nearly any manner to nearly any place.
But even the commercial operators can face big problems. The H5N2 bird influenza is devastating poultry farms, mainly in the Midwest – nearly all in commercial houses with tens of thousands of birds in close proximity – affecting nearly 40 million chickens and turkeys.
Brunner, the rancher, said the alternative segment may grow, but not very fast. The difference in cost and the difficulty of ensuring consistency in product quality are just too powerful to overturn basic practices, he said.
“The difference in production costs for a niche market is really a discouragement to any kind of scale of production,” he said. “While the sale price does command a higher price at retail, it is certainly not a high enough price to encourage more producers.”
Glynn Tonsor, assistant professor at K-State, is in the midst of studying public perceptions on how effective alternative practices are at improving the welfare of cattle and how practical it is to implement those practices.
But the bottom line, Tonsor said, is that the great majority of people buy primarily on the basis of cost, even if they say they want animal welfare respected. He doesn’t see the growth of unconventional practices, such as grass-fed and free-range, as having a significant impact on the conventional beef industry.
“That said,” he wrote in an e-mail, “there is room for each to grow as what we might consider a small but viable market share within the broader beef industry.”