With only 2% of our population involved in farming, it’s no surprise that the average American isn’t totally informed about what happens on farms. This is especially true when it comes to farms that raise animals. In an attempt to help people better understand what farming really looks like, we’ve assembled six common myths about farm animals—all in need of some serious busting!
1. Dairy cows produce milk all the time.
Mammals produce milk for finite periods to nourish their young, and like humans, cows produce milk only after they’ve given birth. To keep milk flowing, dairy farms artificially inseminate cows about once a year. Their gestation period lasts nine months, so dairy cows spend most of their lives pregnant. When a calf is born it is removed from its mother—generally that same day—to make the mother’s milk available for collection. Male calves are sold for veal or beef. Female calves become milk producers. This cycle continues until the mother cow stops producing milk at economically viable volumes (usually between two and five years of age). She is then considered “spent,” and slaughtered.
2. Female chickens lay eggs, and the males get raised for meat.
Only certain chicken breeds are used for commercial egg production—they are not the same heavy-breasted breed raised for meat. Businesses called “hatcheries” provide egg farms with female baby birds who will grow up to become layers. But half of the chicks born in these hatcheries are male. There is no market for this type of male chick, as they do not produce eggs or very much meat—so shortly after they hatch, they are killed by grinding, gassing, crushing or suffocation.
3. Cows eat grass, hay or grain.
To keep costs low and compensate for poor grazing conditions, large-scale dairies and beef cattle operations will pad feed with whatever is cheap and available: candy, cookies and even sawdust or chicken waste. This practice caught a lot of attention recently when a truckload of red Skittles spilled onto a Wisconsin road and it was revealed that the candy was destined to become cattle feed.
4. The federal government regulates how animals are treated on farms.
There are no federal laws regulating how animals are treated on farms. The only federal laws that cover farm animals pertain to slaughter and transport, not how their lives are lived. Unfortunately, these laws exempt poultry, effectively leaving 95% of farmed animals completely unprotected. The ASPCA continues to push for stronger laws protecting farm animals. In an area of progress, 10 states have passed laws prohibiting the cruel caging of laying hens, mother sows or veal calves.
5. Most animals raised for food in the U.S. spend their time outside.
Over the past 50 years, farming has increasingly moved indoors. In fact, the vast majority of farm animals, most of whom are birds, are raised on industrialized, large-scale farms, confined in highly automated sheds without sunlight, little room to move and no way to carry out their natural behaviors.
6. Chickens are “bird-brains.”
Chickens are a lot smarter and more complex than we give them credit for. A recently published study showed that the birds perform similarly to primates on intelligence tests, have enough self-control to hold out for a better food reward and can understand their own position in the “pecking order,” which characterizes self-awareness. They have at least 24 distinct vocalizations and experience a range of emotions including fear, anticipation and anxiety. They even possess a form of empathy called mental cognition.
Now that you know the facts, we hope you’ll take farm animals’ welfare into account when shopping for food. More humane alternatives to factory farming do exist in the form of welfare-certified meat, eggs and dairy—and, of course, plant-based products. Take the Shop With Your Heart pledge to vote with your dollars for better farm animal welfare, and you’ll receive tools like a label guide, a list of welfare-certified brands, and images to share with your social networks.