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23 Gallons a Day from One Cow? Industrial Agriculture Engaged in Extreme Breeding

Breeding livestock for profit comes at the huge expense of an animal’s ability to live a natural life.

Photo Credit: Kamonporn Nakornthab


In 2010, the reigning record holder produced 72,170 pounds in a year, or 23 gallons a day. This is milk we’re talking here. Over the last century, the average dairy cow increased production by a factor of eight.

These days, farm animals are highly efficient and productive. The meat chickens grow to market size at record speed, the layers lay more eggs than ever before, and the pigs have more piglets than the pigs of yesteryear. And those piglets? Their lean bodies grow more quickly to reach market size.

Some of these modern agricultural wonders are thanks to management: growth hormones, lighting, feed, and (for dairy cows) more frequent milkings play a role. But a lot of it is breeding. The cows of 1913 and 2013 could be kept under the same management and fed the same feed, and the modern cow would produce far more milk.

Breeding animals to exaggerate traits humans find useful is hardly new. After all, that’s how domesticated animals came to be domesticated in the first place. A look at the variety of chicken breeds kept by small farms, hobbyists, and backyard chicken owners shows just how much humans have successfully meddled in chicken genetics. You can find chickens adapted to living in hot weather or cold weather, chickens that make great mothers, chickens with exceptional egg-laying abilities, particularly meaty birds, or “ dual purpose” birds that provide plenty of meat but lay a decent amount of eggs as well. You can also find birds that satisfy more frivolous purposes, like being cute or funny-looking or laying blue eggs.

But in the last century, industrial agriculture has taken animal breeding to an extreme, often breeding animals to emphasize one trait at the expense of the animal’s ability to live a natural life.

“It's actually well known by mainstream conventional agricultural scientists that when you focus on a single trait, there are problems with the other aspects of the animal because that's not how nature functions,” says Nicolette Hahn Niman, rancher and author of Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms. “I think we just pushed that so far that we've gone beyond the defensible level of that.”

Nowadays, the industrial layer breed, the white leghorns, begin laying at a young age, lay an egg a day (or more), and never “go broody” (try to sit on the eggs to hatch them). Before there were incubators, farmers needed some broody hens to hatch more chicks. Today, in industrial operations, broodiness is merely an unnecessary disruption in egg production. Modern layers have had all mothering instincts bred out of them. And the males hatched in layer operations – they are killed at birth.

Whereas laying hens are slender, as they channel as many calories as possible into producing eggs, not meat, “broilers” (chickens bred for meat) gain weight at a lightning pace. Five weeks after hatching, they are ready for slaughter. At five weeks, most traditional breeds of chickens have only just grown their feathers and they still look like chicks. Yet, by then, a broiler is big enough to eat. If a human grew that fast, a child would reach the size of a college student by the time he finished preschool.

The cost, to the chickens, is apparent. Their short lives are anything but natural. The common broiler breed, a hybrid known as the Cornish Cross, is known for having weak legs. With such enormous and fast-growing bodies, they don’t move around very much. Families who keep backyard chickens often talk about watching “chicken TV,” because watching the chickens scratch and peck around the yard is as entertaining as anything on television. But industrial broilers don’t do all of the normal chicken things. They mostly just sit and, of course, eat.

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