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Do Humanely Raised Animals Make Better Burgers?

Photo by Carla Occaso
Photo by Carla Occaso

by Carla Occaso

What is humanely raised meat? What’s a factory farm? Does it matter if, in its original bovine form, the hamburger you just ate slept on a comfortable bed, listened to classical music and got plenty of outdoor exercise?

“If only humanely raised had a clear meaning. Instead, farmers and food companies define it differently, depending on their knowledge and beliefs about animals. It’s not a term that everyone agrees on.” So writes Montpelier’s Caroline Abels on her website Humaneitarian.org. She describes herself an “ordinary eater” not affiliated with any particular food organization or nonprofit. Emails requesting her comment for this article were not immediately returned.

Abels defines humanely raised meat as “anything that does not come from a factory farm,” that comes “from animals raised on grass or pasture” and “animals allowed to act naturally.” She does not define factory farm on her site, but the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals does define it, as “a large industrial operation that raises large numbers of animals for food.” An ASPCA page,  www.aspca.org/fight-cruelty/farm-animal-cruelty/what-factory-farm, adds that “over 99% of farm animals in the U.S. are raised in factory farms, which focus on profit and efficiency.”

Photo by Carla Ocasso
Photo by Carla Ocasso

Many Washington County farmers give special consideration to raising their animals in what is widely and loosely termed “humane” fashion. “To me, raising an animal humanely means that you provide for its needs. You’re not treating them like your child (i.e. reading poetry or playing music), but neither are you treating them as an object or a commodity. You respect the animal for what it is, and you make sure the animal has a normal, rich existence,” wrote Susan Socks of Dancing Rocks Farms in Cabot in an email interview. Socks lets her chickens range around outdoors, making sure they get water, food, fresh air, grit, plants and bugs.

“Allow them access to their needs, and you have a healthy, happy, humanely raised chicken,” she puts it. In addition, she notes, animals raised humanely “don’t stink up your farm with accumulations of waste. The meat (or milk, or wool, or eggs) is of the best quality. … You are responsible for the existence of this animal, and it reflects very poorly on your character and morals if you treat it badly.”

“The problem with factory farming,” she continues, “is that it isn’t focused on the animals. … The welfare of the animal is important only as it affects the bottom line. And generally their needs are met to the minimal point of survival, no more. At our farm, we do pay attention to our labor and our costs, but the first and most important consideration is the welfare of the animals.”

So what does that mean in practice?

To raise chickens for meat, Socks and her husband, Michael, start batches of about 100 chicks in an brooder area roughly eight feet square, with pine-shaving bedding topped off regularly to keep it fresh, and a tarp over half the enclosure for shade. A heat lamp warms the chicks when they get cold. “Clean water, organic feed, and grit are always available,” Susan Socks says. “We also give them sod or weeds from the garden. … They love to pick through to find bugs and spiders, and also eat the greens and soil. Soil has probiotic bacteria, very good for their gut.”

When three weeks old, the chicks go out to a pasture area about 50 feet in diameter. Electric netting keeps predators at bay. A moveable shelter offers roost poles and open space inside. The Sockses move the shelter daily to clean ground, and move the netted pasture about twice a week.

“At 12 weeks, they are slaughtered for meat,” Susan Socks continues. “We do our own slaughtering on-farm to minimize their stress. If we sent them out for processing, they would need to be packed in boxes and jostled in a truck, and when they got to the facility … the slaughterers might carry them upside down by their legs, or be really loud, or just ungentle, since they are in a hurry to get through the day’s quota. We work calmly and gently, and try to give them the easiest possible death.”

In another email interview, Kimberly Hagen of Osprey Hill Farm, a small, diversified fruit and livestock farm in Putnamville, likewise recommended plenty of outdoor activity “for Dr. Sun and Dr. Rain.” Hagen, who raises sheep on “rotationally grazed, intensively managed pastures” and adds value to her products by producing yarn, sheepskins and rugs, agreed with Socks that  “happy animals make good product … milk, meat,  fiber.”

She concurred, that is, in the basic premise: that a happier cow does indeed make for a better burger.