Agrarian group

Farming Terms - What do all these terms mean?

There is a lot of confusing information and deceptive terms circulating about livestock, poultry, and the meat we eat. This page is my attempt to cut through the rhetoric and provide people with some real information they can use to make informed purchasing and eating decisions.

There are four factors to consider when raising or consuming meat. They are:

  • The breed of the animal
  • What its been fed or administered
  • How its been raised
  • How its been killed
Breed of the Animal

Since the dawn of domestication, man has influenced and formed specialized animal breeds within domesticated species of animals to meet his purpose. Some cows are bred to optimize milk production while others optimize meat production. Some were bred to live happily in cold climates while others needed to survive in warm climates. Local tastes prevailed and our world has an amazing variety of cows, horses, dogs, and chickens because of this practice. The problems occur when man takes this practice to extremes and creates a breed of animal that is so specialized and so frail that it takes extraordinary efforts to raise it and the animal's quality of life suffers. And when the vast majority of a species is represented genetically by this one frail breed our food system and the species itself are at risk of catastrophe.

The breed of animal you eat influences the flavor and consistency of the meat. Different breeds provide slightly different flavors and I enjoy this variety. In contrast, factory farms mass produce only a few breeds of livestock that have been bred to optimize production of meat, milk, or eggs. Mass distribution can only reach economies of scale if they have a consistent product that appeals to a wide variety of people at the lowest cost possible. That means a bland, homogenized taste that is liked by just about everyone but not really special in any way.

I also believe that keeping natural genetic diversity in our food supply is important - particularly in this day and age when global pandemics can spread so quickly (at least in theory). Different breeds of animals have different immunities and a disease that may affect one breed greatly might be quickly fought off by another. We need to keep this natural disease fighting diversity in our animal gene pool. From "Raising Standard Turkeys for the Holiday Market" by Marjorie Bender (her reference to "standard" breeds means "heritage" breeds)

  • Each of these studies is interesting and valuable on its own. As a group, they are stunning. They clearly indicate that the Slate, Black, and Bourbon Red turkeys, by virtue of their genetics, have more vigorous immune systems, making them obvious choices for free range production. The only parameters on which the industrial lines excel are feed conversion and rate of gain.
  • Standard turkey varieties offer a robust immune system and with it a lower mortality rate, the ability to mate naturally, excellent hatchability, active foraging, increased levels of endogenous vitamin C, intelligence and overall attractiveness.
  • These are very exciting findings. They demonstrate the value and importance of the genetic resources embodied in standard varieties of turkeys, supporting claims long made by breeders, and justifying turkey conservation.

Terms/Buzz Words:

Heritage breed - A term small farmers are starting to use to refer to the old style breeds of livestock and poultry. For example, "Heritage Turkeys" refer to the breeds that are a true genetic breed with an established and continuously breeding population since 1925 and that can naturally mate.

Standard breed - A synonymous term for Heritage breed.

Commercial breed - Refers to the dominant breeds of livestock in factory farming operations. The broad-breasted white turkey is an example. These animals are highly specialized for production - meat, milk, or eggs - often to the detriment of their health and mental well being.

What its Been Fed or Administered

You are what you eat - and that's true of our food animals as well. What they eat influences the taste of the meat, the well being of the animal, and even human health upon consumption. Some diseases like mad cow are contracted through improper (and now illegal) feeding practices. And just like kids with candy, some foods that animals favor will give them an upset stomach and even ulcers if they are fed it exclusively.

Commercially raised animals are often administered growth hormones and unnecessary antibiotics to ensure the most rapid growth possible and to prevent the diseases that would be inevitable given their living conditions. Studies have suggested that these materials are being passed on to humans through meat and milk and are having an affect on our bodies. My opinion is that growth hormones are entirely unnecessary and antibiotics only have a place in disease treatment (not prevention) and only when they can benefit the individual animal.

Terms/Buzz Words:

Organic - This is a term that is now misleading consumers! Organic farming has a legal definition and farms must be certified on a regular basis to qualify. The criteria for organic meat and eggs include feeding strictly an organic diet, no use of antibiotics or growth hormones, no use of toxic persistent pesticides or wormers, and giving the animals access to the outdoors, fresh air, and sunlight. But be careful! Factory Farms recognize that "Organic" demand is growing and they have found ways to get around some of the criteria. For instance - giving animals access to the outdoors can mean a small enclosed area that must be shared with thousands of other animals.

Beyond Organic/Sustainable - This value system shares many of the objectives of the "organic" movement but is not a government certified term and goes further in defining farming practices. The acceptable practices shared by these small farmers (never factory farms by definition) often include the organic practices plus keeping animals in housing that allows them to demonstrate their natural behaviors (rooting, pecking, and grazing), antibiotics never used or only in situations to treat an individual animal when its sick. These farmers sell their animals as close to the farm as possible.

Grass Fed - Animals allowed to forage on grass or fed a grass hay diet. This may or may not mean exclusively grass fed as some animals naturally eat other things like bugs, berries, and nuts.

Naturally Fed - Typically means the animals eats things it's meant to eat. So for cows that means a 100% vegetarian diet but it can still consist of grass, corn, silage, etc. Just no animal by-products. Poultry are meat eaters (bugs, lizards, worms) so their natural diet can include animal protein. But you don't want them fed animal protein that has growth hormones in it.

Growth Hormones/Hormone Free - Poultry cannot by law be given growth hormones. But they can get growth enhancers as they are fed in factory farm situations. Organic, Beyond Organic, and Sustainable farmers don't feed these growth enhancers.

How its been Raised

This refers to how the animal lived its life prior to becoming my dinner. Animals lead much more complicated and social lives than most people give them credit for. Chickens and turkeys are extremely active and observant. Cows and pigs form bonds and social groups. I believe it is our obligation to provide these animals with happy, healthy, and peaceful lives. Never should an animal suffer physically or mentally.

You may see some atrocious pictures displayed by animal rights groups but in fairness those situations are rare. Where I do fault factory farms is in forgetting about the natural behavior and mental health of the animals they are raising. Raised in huge chicken houses, hog houses, or fattened up in commercial feed lots the animals are not permitted to live a normal life. They are crowded and stressed and don't have access to grass and sun and dirt. I wish everyone could see how much a hen enjoys her dirt bath! Then you would know that denying a chicken that simple pleasure is unnecessary and cruel.

Terms/Buzz Words:

Factory Farm - While there is no agreed upon definition, a Factory Farm is one that raises a very large number of animals in confinement using as little space as possible. They optimize the production of their "product" (meat, milk, eggs) at the expense of other factors such as human and animal health, the animal's mental well being, humane treatment of the animals, or the environment. Typically corporate owned.

Free Range - This is a tricky one as the commercial industry has defined a standard for free range that would surprise most people. It simply means that the animal has access to the outdoors - it does not say how much outdoors nor how much space each animal is allocated.

Pasture Raised - A term that small farmers are starting to use to distinguish themselves from the commercialized "free range" term. This means the animals are raised on pasture with actual grass and forage and a reasonable amount of space. Good farming practices include rotation of pastures to prevent parasites and a balanced number of animals to prevent over grazing.

Ranch Raised - Another term that small farmers are starting to use to distinguish themselves from the commercialized "Free Range" term. While there is no standard, most times you see this term it will mean the animal was not confined to a coop or pen and had access to pasture. Ask your local farmer what it means to them.

Cage Free - Another tricky term. Meat poultry are not raised in cages and their huge poultry houses crammed full of thousands of birds are not considered "cages". So a chicken can be raised in crowded conditions and still be called "cage free". For laying hens this terms simply means they are not in "layer pens". It's a good start but not as good as allowing them to be free roaming.

How its been Killed

If you eat meat then it means an animal has died - its a simple fact we have to accept or become vegetarians. But the death of the animal does not have to be a "cruel" event - it can be done humanely and without stress.

The commercial meat industry has a very cruel killing process. Animals are trucked to feedlots where they are fattened in preparation for butcher. They are then moved to holding pens outside the slaughterhouses where they can hear the cries of other animals and smell the blood. They are then driven into chutes to the killing areas. For cows its a quick bolt to the head. For poultry they have to go through the fear of being hung upside down and dunked, sometimes unsuccessfully, in an electrocution vat. No wonder adrenalin toughens the meat.

Fortunately a growing number of farmers are having their animals killed on the farm and then processed on site or quickly moved to butchering facilities. These animals don't get shipped hundreds of miles and often don't even leave the pastures they lived in. They experience less stress, less handling, and often don't even know what happened. Quick killing methods vary by species and farm but the important point is that when done correctly and with compassion the animal does not suffer from fear or pain.

Terms/Buzz Words:

On-Site/Farm Processing - Killing and performing the initial processing on the farm where the animal lived its life. The meat is then typically quickly taken to a butcher for processing. This method has the least amount of stress inflicted on the animal.