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Cattle raised for beef are the only farmed animals in America that typically spend a significant portion of their lives outdoors and free of intensive confinement. Although factory farming has devastated traditional cattle husbandry, the beef industry has resisted the factory farm model more than any other form of animal agriculture (including dairy production). Whereas pigs and poultry spend their entire lives in confinement, cattle raised for beef typically spend only half their lives in a factory farm setting—the feedlots that fatten them before slaughter. For the first half of their lives, cattle raised for beef are left relatively free to roam in pastures.
Small segments of the beef industry have even become national leaders in creating higher welfare, more sustainable animal agriculture. The small but growing market for pastured beef does away with the feedlot and allows cattle to live in a healthy environment and engage in many of their species-specific behaviors—a foundation of good welfare. Other progressive operations have reduced the amount of time animals spend in the feedlot and taken steps to mitigate the detrimental effects feedlots can have on animal welfare and the environment.
One such operation— Niman Ranch—has gone so far as to require all of the 300 ranchers participating in its cooperative to follow basic welfare practices recognized by leading animal protection groups. Although these practices are insufficient by Farm Forward’s standards (dehorning is prohibited, for example, but branding is still allowed), they represent an important step forward.
Despite such positive examples, the beef industry as a whole has been heading in the wrong direction. Today, it has become an international force promoting animal suffering, dependence on fossil fuels, pollution, and deforestation. Whether through reducing or eliminating beef consumption, or supporting higher welfare, more sustainable suppliers, consumers have a vital role to play in reducing the ongoing harms perpetrated by the beef industry.
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