Leaving Factory Farms in the Past: OSU Experts Talk CAFOs

If you’ve spent any time researching where your food comes from, you have probably heard the term “factory farm.” Images come to mind of animals in dirty cages or pens, squished together, unable to move, and you probably wonder why producers choose to raise animals this way.   

Thankfully, these images are not the norm, according to Matt Kennedy, Senior Instructor of Animal and Rangeland Sciences at Oregon State University, and there are real benefits to raising animals in these types of facilities, both to producers, and to the animals themselves.  

The History of “Factory Farming”  

Prior to the industrial revolution, most families raised their own food on farms. Farm workers were usually the farmer’s family themselves, and while they may have sold food at markets or traded with their neighbors, most families were sustainable on their own.   

According to University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, inventions and innovations in farming techniques made it easier for farmers to produce more food with less labor, leading to a decline in necessary workers. These workers then sought jobs within the city, and farms were left responsible for feeding more and more of the populations with fewer and fewer workers.   

The result of these events was the need for farmers to be very efficient in their production. By the 1940s, poultry farms had become mostly indoor operations, and according to the National Chicken Council, by the mid-1960s, ninety percent of broilers produced came from integrated operations  

Swine and cattle operations followed, and today most of the meat consumed in America comes from a Confined Animal Feeding Operation.   

Confined Animal Feeding Operations  

The term “factory farm” is not an industry term, says Kennedy. The industry term in Oregon is a Confined Animal Feeding Operation.   

“A factory is mass production, because there’s a high demand for a product. I call [CAFOs] probably more ‘efficient production,’” Kennedy said.  

According to Oregon Administrative Rule 603-074-0010, the definition of a CAFO is the concentrated confined feeding or holding of animals or poultry … in buildings or in pens or lots where the surface has been prepared with concrete, rock or fibrous material to support animals in wet weather, that have wastewater treatment works, or that discharge any wastes into waters of the state.  

This means the CAFO designation is more closely related to the way animal waste is handled than actual number of animals.  

Wym Matthews, the Manager of the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s CAFO and Fertilizer Programs, reported that as of the end of 2019, Oregon had 508 permitted CAFOs within the state. They range in size, with the smallest dairy in the program only possessing three animals, and over half meet the size designation of medium. There are nine CAFOs located in Benton County, two of which are the OSU Dairy and the OSU Swine Center, both located off of Campus Way in Corvallis. Kennedy oversees the Swine Center.  

The purpose of raising animals in CAFOs really comes down to efficiency, but not just efficiency of production, says Kennedy: “It’s efficiency of time, space, and also efficiency of animal care and animal monitoring in a lot of ways.”   

This ties into the humane treatment of animals, which many people are worried about when it comes to CAFOs. Caretakers of animals in CAFOs are able to better monitor animal health and status.   

“If animals are totally out on pasture, you may not know something is going on until it’s too late,” Kennedy said. “For a CAFO operation, you’ve got to feed them morning and night, at least, and you may be doing other things. It gives you a good chance to really monitor animal health status, and monitor for problems.”   

Animal Abuse at CAFO’s  

Kennedy notes that the instances of animal abuse that we see on the news are few and far between. “It’s like anything,” he says. “The 1% ruins it for everyone else.”   

In Oregon, there are state inspections every year.   

“The CAFO Program has a goal of inspecting every permitted facility at least once every 10 months,” Matthews said. “Last year, the CAFO program performed 872 inspections of all types on the 508 permitted CAFOs and a small number of non-permitted CAFO complaints.”   

These inspections make sure that all regulations are being met, including those regarding waste management as well as animal abuse and neglect. According to Matthews, of all 508 facilities in Oregon, there have been no citations or closures for animal abuse in the last five years.   

The Laws Governing CAFO’s  

Oregon has an extensive list of statutes detailing how animals are to be treated within the state, two of which are ORS 167.310-167.351 and ORS 632.835-632.855  

Kennedy believes that CAFOs are a very humane way to raise animals. “In a Confined Animal Feeding situation, you’re probably observing the whole pen and everything in it. So, it gives you that chance to really make sure your animals are staying healthy, because you’re doing more observation daily.”  

The other benefit of CAFOs, in Kennedy’s opinion, is that it allows for good overall land management: “For example, at the Dairy, [the cows] are not always confined to those pens 365 days a year. We’re practicing grazing based dairy as well. It comes down to taking care of the land. They don’t graze much at all during the heavy rain months of the year because of mud.”   

For Kennedy, there’s more to CAFOs than just efficiency of production. It’s about practicing proper environmental stewardship with practices that are good for both the animals and the earth.   

The Reasons We Need CAFO’s  

So why do we raise animals this way? Kennedy says it comes down to the fact that consumers want a certain product.   

In the industrial revolution people began moving into cities and away from farms, meaning that fewer farms had to produce enough food to feed the city populations. They had to come up with systems that allowed them to grow the majority of the food with a smaller number of growers. As a result, producers have become very efficient at creating a specific product to sell, because it is what is expected of them at the grocery store.   

Kennedy says that consumers still have a say in the way their food is raised: “The ultimate way a consumer can make an impact is by voting with their dollar. If you want to see a change, make a change. Support local business as much as you can.”   

If you have questions about where your food comes from, or what your options might be for changing your purchasing habits, there are several resources that can help. First, check the packaging your food comes in, often there is information about where the food was grown on the label. You can also look at state of origin reports published by the USDA. Finally buy local, shop your local farmers market, or buy direct from producers.   

For more information about the CAFOs in Oregon and the regulations surrounding them, visit the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s CAFO Program Website  

By Kyra Young