Breeding for quality, not quantity
Raising healthy animals is also about avoiding genetic alterations or modifications to the animals themselves.
While genetically modified animals are rare in supermarkets (although, genetically engineered salmon are currently on the market and genetically engineered pork has been approved by the FDA), selectively bred animals make up the majority of what we eat, especially for chickens.
The USDA states that broiler chickens, which have been bred specifically for consumption, “provide virtually all of U.S. chicken meat,” averaging “68 percent of all poultry sales,” as of 2021. These birds were bred to put on weight faster than their bodies can handle, often leading to health problems, including bone diseases and deformities, according to a 2021 study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
But our local farms raise slow-growing breeds. Hemlock Hill raises Plymouth Rock and Red Heritage breed chickens, John Boy’s grows Berkshire pigs and Cabbage Hill Farm in Mount Kisco raises historic, once near-extinct livestock species like Red Devon cattle, Highland cows and Shetland sheep, ducks and geese.
“The Perdue commercial breed is ready in four to five weeks,” Silva explains. “Mine are ready in 10, which is nice because that’s naturally how a chicken should grow – it hasn’t been bred to grow faster.”
Additionally, creating and breeding GMO livestock limits species diversity, which can have detrimental effects.
“If you commercialize everything and are breeding for very selective traits, you’re going to lose a lot of genetic diversity, and they’re not going to be resilient to diseases,” explains Brian Mansour, Cabbage Hill Farm’s general manager.
Making a home on the range
Animals don’t always need to be housed in a barn or sheltered from the weather – usually, the best home for them is the great outdoors.
“I don’t believe in raising animals in barns; it goes against all the rules,” says Ubaldo. “There’s a reason why cows have four inches of fur on their backs and pigs have layers of fat. Outside is where they’re the happiest. So why would you want to change that?”
Yet, nearly all of our nation’s farms operate differently. In 2021, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found there were 21,237 Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) in the U.S.
In CAFOs, animals live shoulder to shoulder, feather to feather, rarely seeing the outdoors. Not only is this excruciatingly uncomfortable for the animals, but it creates a breeding ground for diseases.
As explained in a 2020 study published in The Official Journal of the European Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, “the high animal density in intensive farms leads to a greater spread of pathogens within the facilities.”
However, not all hope is lost. In a 2021 report by The Humane League, cage-free egg production in the U.S. has increased by 26 percent since between December 2007 and February 2021. Additionally, the Humane Society found that as of 2022, 14 states have banned or restricted the uses of cages for pigs, veal calves, and egg-laying hens.
While this doesn’t necessarily mean these animals have free access to the outdoors, it’s progress.
And, of course, we still have our local farmers. Silva says the animals at Hemlock Hill “live in a very free environment where they have access to the woods.”
While granting animals the freedom to roam is crucial to raising livestock in a healthy, stress-free environment, varying this environment is important as well.
Many ethical animal farmers are now including silvopastures (the practice of integrating trees and grazing livestock) as part of their livestocks’ field space. Silvopastures offer animals a larger variety of options and a more balanced diet.
“They don’t just need pasture,” adds Ubaldo. “They like to chew trees, eat leaves, all kinds of stuff.”