Paul led me into one of his barns where 9,000 10-day-old chicks cheeped away as they fluttered under warm lights around feed and water stations. They’ll live and grow here for five weeks before being sent away for “processing.” Paul wouldn’t exactly say that his chickens are happy (though later when we stepped into another barn, he shouted out a question about U.S. President Donald Trump, and it elicited a lively reaction from 1,500 turkeys). But he was adamant that his animals are well fed and cared for. This is the ethical bottom line for many farmers, even for the much-maligned factory farm. “What defines it?” Paul asked. “Is it more than a certain number of animals? Even if it is, if the livestock and poultry are being treated properly, so what? There is an assumption that animals are produced on a vast assembly line where nobody cares. In the majority, that’s not the case.”
He continued, “In the odd instance where PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) goes in undercover and films somebody abusing something, we are just as upset as anyone. We have codes of practice, and when those are violated it makes us all look bad.” Both food safety and animal care, he stressed, fall under industry, government, and, in some cases, international codes and inspection regimes.
He steered me to the website of the Chicken Farmers of Canada, an Ottawa-based association representing 2,800 Canadian chicken producers. Farmers who belong to the organization must sign on to an animal-care program developed in conjunction with the National Farm Animal Care Council. The code of practice for chicken farmers sets out stringent requirements for everything from the hatching of eggs to how chicks are housed, fed and watered, to how they are readied for transport beyond the farm gate. But as thorough and progressive as these protocols may be, they’re unlikely to win over the kind of people who buy space on subway trains to make their case that raising animals to be eaten by humans is wrong, period.
Another of those subway posters led me to the farm of John and Marie Miller in Collingwood, Ont. The poster charged that “most of Canada’s 13 million cows raised for beef spend the last few months of their short lives on barren, muddy, or dusty feedlots containing up to 40,000 cows and endure branding, castration, and dehorning without any painkillers. To maintain milk production, dairy cows are subjected to a brutal cycle of pregnancy and intensive confinement, often with swollen and infected udders (mastitis), while repeatedly having their calves torn away from them. At 3-5 years of age, dairy cows are labeled ‘spent,’ and sent to slaughter and ground up as hamburger meat. Because their newborn male calves are of no value to the dairy industry, many are killed soon after birth, or are severely confined for their lives before being killed for veal at only a few weeks of age.”
This is not what I encountered at the Miller farm. On 400 picturesque hectares just south of Georgian Bay, the Millers run a modern dairy operation, distributing the milk from their herd of Jerseys — nicknamed the Jersey Girls — to local stores. What is the life of a Jersey Girl? As John took me into his barn, I quickly discerned that these cows are not tied up in the way I remember, passing their winters secured to a single stall. With an average lifespan of approximately eight years, the Millers’ cows roam through a free-stall barn, sleeping on rubber-filled mattresses, able to access a constant buffet of nutrient-enriched corn and hay silage while, every 15 minutes, a cable-driven apparatus passes along the floor to remove their waste. “Special needs” animals — for example, cows about to give birth, as they do every 13.5 months — are stabled in pens next to the main population.
Twice a day, at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., the cows proceed in groups of 16 to elevated stalls where two workers prep them for the five- to seven-minute process of milking. Betty might be a cow’s name, but Betty also has a number encoded in a transponder around her ankle that alerts a computer that tabulates her milk output as well as current information about her health. If something’s wrong with her, the Millers know about it instantly.
On the Miller farm, and on every other farm I visited, I was struck by the sheer size and sophistication of the operations compared to the farm I grew up on. Aided by just two employees, my old friend Paul will turn out 300,000 chickens and 50,000 turkeys in the course of a year; my dad kept 400 laying hens. The Millers milk 10 times as many cows as my dad did, and run the operation with just 11 employees.