The Animals Who Clothe and Feed Us

Home > Spotlight > Animals in Agriculture

Agriculture, the miracle that spawned human civilization

In man’s beginning, there were no farms, no ranches, no crops or cultivated plantings. Cave dwellers and nomadic hunter-gatherers survived by trapping or chasing down live prey and eating berries, roots, and other edibles they found in the wild. Early humans learned to control fire for roasting meats and plants, providing light and heat, and eventually, clearing fields and forests. There is evidence that they had a relationship with dogs as much as 30,000 years ago, but there were no horses, cattle or sheep in the fields, no rows of corn or soybeans, and only roughly cured wild animal skins or twisted plant fibers for clothing. Life was short and unbelievably harsh: early humans spent 24 hours a day surviving the elements, competing with or fending off animals, and avoiding disease.

Slowly but surely, over a period of thousands of years, things changed. Humans first tamed then domesticated plants, and then brought animals into the fold. Archaeological records indicate that hoofed animal domestication began about 12 thousand years ago in the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent with goats, sheep and pigs. Cattle came from lands now known as Turkey and India about 1000 years later. Chickens came later from Southeast Asia.

Thus began human association with the major species of animals that provide our food and fiber and yielded an abundance of medical and industrial byproducts. Today we are surrounded, 24/7, by the results of modern agriculture -- the blankets and sheets on our beds, the shirts and pants on our bodies, the food we eat, vitamins and supplements, medicine, even the components in the vehicles we drive -- nearly everything we touch is in some way associated with agriculture, and an enormous portion of that comes from animals. The chicken on your plate, the milk in your cereal bowl, the wool sweater you put on before leaving the house – these things don’t just magically appear on the shelves of department stores or supermarkets. Nearly all of the food we eat and much of the clothing we wear started the journey to our kitchens and closets as a plant or animal on a farm.

A bit about the evolution of farming in the US

Early settlers in the New World brought some livestock with them, and these animals provided meat and milk for families. According to the Plymouth Archaeological Rediscovery Project:

“When these sources were reviewed as a whole, it was found that Plymouth Colony's livestock practices began somewhat hesitantly but eventually, by the late seventeenth century developed to a point that it was similar to what would have been familiar to yeomen in England. Several trends also became evident through the probates that were born out archaeologically. These include a low occurrence of goat and increases in sheep and cattle raising throughout the century. When the Mayflower arrived at Cape Cod in November of 1620, it has been speculated that she probably carried at least a few livestock with her. These probably included hens and roosters, swine and possibly goats. Hens and swine are prodigious breeders and would not have taken up much space on board the ship. Goats were well known for their hardiness and their use in wild areas and were commonly brought over by fishermen and those who desired a small tough milk producer that could survive in the wilds of New England.”

The 1862 Homestead Act brought thousands of new farmers to the Midwest to claim 160-acre plots given by the government in Washington DC. Although farming had come a long way from colonial days, those who worked the land still plowed, planted, harvested, and transported goods with horses, mules, or oxen and dealt with predators, rustlers, and raiders on their allotments. The hardships of 19th Century farming in the Midwest comes to life in the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and the 1980s television series of the same name. The railroads and the subsequent settlement of the US western territories allowed the development of ranches, large expanses of land for raising cattle and another uniquely American phenomenon – the cowboy. Ranches were huge and battles over water rights and land boundaries complicated agricultural life.

A century ago, most of the US population still lived on farms and there was very little mystery as to the source or the means used to produce our food or clothing. But this close-up, hands-on understanding began to disappear as farm youth, rural workers, and entire families left the farm, for greater employment opportunities and concentrations of wealth, education, goods and services in the cities. Today, our population is far more urban than rural, and the vast majority of us have little daily contact with animals – pets excepted – or even gardening. Most of us know next to nothing about the animals and plants that provide our food and fiber – or the people who raise them.

The most recent (US Department of Agriculture - USDA - 2012) demographic statistics show that there are only 2.1 million US farms generating food, fiber, and byproducts for our population of 313 million. Farmers comprise less than one percent of the population and about two percent of the population live on farms, but they are supplying more goods than a 1900s farmer ever imagined possible. USDA statistics for 2013 show that agriculture accounts for 4.7 percent of the entire US Gross Domestic Product; overall food manufacturing includes 14 percent of all US manufacturing employees and 9.2 percent of US employment. Our rate of agricultural exports exceeds that of our imports. According to USDA, each American farmer feeds 144 people around the globe!

The migration to the cities has also been accompanied by changes in agriculture that yield some insight into the public lack of awareness of animals and the mechanics of agriculture: in 1935, there were 68 million farms producing food and fiber for 127 million people; today, only 2.1 million farms serve a population of 313 million. Farms have become larger, less numerous, and more efficient, and farming is a primary occupation of only 45 percent of farmers; the remainder support their farming with outside or non-farming occupational efforts.

The bottom line is that in the US, there are fewer people on the farm in contact with animals than ever in our history, and the trend shows no signs of changing. As a result fewer and fewer people have any hands-on experience with animals or any concept of best animal welfare practices, human-animal interaction and relationships, farming and land stewardship, or other factors involved in farm production. This lack of knowledge and understanding has caused some conflict between those who raise animals to provide food and fiber and those who buy meat, milk, eggs, and woolen and leather clothing and accessories.

NAIA supports responsible animal agriculture and the farmers who raise animals that provide these necessities. We hope the following information will help readers to regain some knowledge that was lost and learn something about the long history of man’s relationship with animals and the trek to domestication.

Beef and dairy cattle


Biologists study variations in human height to identify environmental factors that allow populations to reach their genetic potential for stature. In a study of genetic and environmental influences on height from 42 European countries, the US, Australia, and New Zealand, the strongest predictor of adult male height was dietary protein consumption. Taller populations had a higher proportion of dietary protein from animal sources, especially milk and pork, compared to vegetable sources.

Beef and dairy products are significant and essential elements of the US diet. Generally, animal protein from beef, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products contain complete protein nutrition. The “complete protein” category is derived from the presence of nine amino acids that the human body cannot synthesize on its own. These nine form cells, build muscle and body tissues, regulate energy and metabolism, and help deal with inflammation. They are also used to manufacture some hormones, enzymes and all antibodies.

Beef production in the US

The ad campaign says “Beef: It’s what’s for dinner, and the stats bear it out. Total beef consumption in 2015 was 24.8 billion pounds, an estimated 54 pounds per capita. The US is the largest fed-cattle beef producer in the world, creating high quality grain-fed beef for domestic and foreign consumption. The US is also a net importer of beef, with the majority of those imports being cuts from grass-fed animals destined for processing as ground beef. The production of beef has decreased over the past decade or so; for example, total production in 2002 was 27.9 billion pounds. The change may be related to the continuous introduction of more food choices from around the world, the ebb and flow of the cattle cycle, cow-calf operations, or feedlot options, but the significance to the industry is hard to avoid. Over the past 10 years while the US population has increased by 10 percent, the beef consumption rate has decreased by about 10 percent as well.

Texas Longhorns are rugged animals well-suited for life on the range. This is the animal rounded up and driven in large herds from Texas to railheads in Kansas by cowboys.

Beef cattle come in two basic types, stocky, well-muscled breeds suited for moderate and cold climates and leaner breeds adapted to dry, harsh climates where food and water are hard to come by. Aberdeen-Angus from Scotland and Herefords from England typify the former and Texas Longhorns and Pineywoods (aka Florida Scrub cattle) are examples of the latter. Angus, Herefords, and their crossbreds tend to dominate the market, but some farmers opt for larger Simmental (Switzerland), Chianina (Italy) or Charolais (France) or crossbreds of two or more of these breeds. Simmental, Chianina, and Charolais are known as multi-purpose – they were developed to provide meat, milk and draft work in their native lands but are pretty much used for beef in the US.

Dairy production

Milk and milk products are universal in human diets. Not only do people drink milk, but we make it into cheese, yogurt, and ice cream. Milk is an excellent source of calcium, a mineral necessary for strong bones and for various chemical processes in the human body. It also contains complete protein along with phosphorus, carbohydrates, fat, and vitamins.  Over thousands of years, people have milked animals they also raised for meat and hides; from goats, sheep, and cows in Europe to yaks in Tibet, reindeer in Lappland, and camels, donkeys, llamas, mares, and even musk oxen. Many countries produce specific types of cheese from goat, sheep, and cow’s milk.

We know that domesticated goats and sheep existed in the areas of Afghanistan and Iran dating back to 9000 BC, where they were used to provide meat and milk. Cattle likely descended from wild aurochs, a Eurasian oxen based on evidence as far back as 8000 BC. Aurochs were extinct by the early 1600s, but prehistoric domestication and continual selective breeding produced a large number of different, smaller, more productive and easier to handle breeds.

Cattle were being herded by 7000 BC in what is now Turkey and parts of Africa. Milk products were known in the Greek and Roman empires; and although they hadn’t discovered amino acids at the time, people must have suspected that milk and milk products had prized beneficial effects on vitality, growth and health.  Of all the mammals used to produce milk, cattle have remained the preferred champions, from their domestication in Asia to their current nutritional contribution throughout the world.

Cattle were not native to North America. Columbus brought cattle with him on his second trip to America in 1493, and colonists brought them across the Atlantic Ocean in the1600s. At the time, most cattle served several purposes: they provided meat, milk, hides, and labor.

Louis Pasteur’s 1864 discovery of the pasteurization process and the development of condensing milk multiplied the value of the product and the industry grew along with the population. By the early 1900s milk products were a staple of the food and nutrition basket, pasteurization was set into law in many large cities and the milkman with bottled daily delivery set the pace for consumption until mid-century, when markets began to carry cartons of milk in coolers in the present day mode of marketing and delivery. Early on, selection of the best milk producers went through numerous breeds, with Holsteins winning championship status as best dairy producing cattle because of their production rates and ease of handling, housing, and management. Black and white or red and white, these Dutch native cattle are now found throughout the world.

Other breeds raised mainly for milk production include Jersey and Guernsey from Britain’s Channel Islands, Ayrshire from Scotland, Brown Swiss from Switzerland, and about a dozen others common to specific regions of development.


Animal scientists classify cattle, sheep, and goats as even-toed ungulates, meaning that they have hoofs with two toes on the ground and two vestigial toes above their hoofs. Other characteristics of two-toed ungulates include an all- plant diet, lack of upper front teeth, chambered stomachs, and a ruminant digestive system that can turn fibrous plant matter into meat and milk. Giraffes, camels, deer, and antelopes are also ruminants.

Smaller than Holsteins and always a shade of light brown in color, Jersey cows produce milk that is higher in butterfat, calcium, and protein than most other breeds and is favored for making high-quality cheese and ice cream. Another medium-sized cow, the red and white or tan and white Guernsey produces rich milk high in protein, cream, and vitamins A and D. Both Jerseys and Guernseys produce their high quality milk with less feed than their larger Holstein cousin and the Guernsey in particular can do so on a grass diet.

Scotland’s red and white Ayrshire was carefully developed from a variety of breeds to produce an animal suited to life in the southwest Scotland. Like the Guernsey, the Ayrshire is an efficient converter of grass to milk, but its butterfat content is lower.

Developed from Braunvieh beef cattle for life in the Swiss mountains, the Brown Swiss may be the oldest dairy cattle breed. A large animal, it has rich milk for making cheese and is known for its ability to improve the milk production of other breeds.

Farmers in various regions of the world developed hardy and healthy dairy cattle breeds to adapt to the climate and terrain, produce milk for a variety of products, and efficiently convert available forage to meat and milk. Some of these breeds found favor with large dairy operations while others had limited appeal or were closely guarded by their owners. The Livestock Conservancy lists low-number breeds on its conservation priority list as endangered, threatened, needing watching, and recovering. To learn about these breeds, see the TLC website.

Dairy farming in the US

Dairy operations have taken the same path as the beef cattle production in the US over the past 100 years. Farms have become smaller in number but larger in magnitude of operation; herds have become smaller, but per-cow milk production has increased. As in beef production and farming in general, an ever smaller percentage of the US population is feeding an ever growing population. Farm comparisons for the 20-year period from 1992 to 2012 reflect what has been a long evolving but recently accelerating trend in the dairy industry: the number of farms decreased by 60 percent while the production of milk increased by 33 percent. In 1992, the nation had 134,931small farms of under 100 cows that comprised 49 percent of the nation’s dairy cow population. At that time also, only 564 farms had over 1000 cows, amounting to 10 percent of the dairy cow population. Twenty years later, those figures showed stunning changes, with small farms moving from 134,931 to 49,683, making up 17 percent of the nation’s dairy cows, while the dairy farms with more than1000 cows jumped from 564 to 1807 and 49 percent of the nation’s dairy cow population.

From this, it’s understandable that the small farms had to become big farms or simply perish as sustainable enterprises. The economy of scale and the continuous mechanization of dairy farming obviously favor growth and larger farming efforts. The larger efforts in turn enable the production of less expensive product, a consolidation that relentlessly squeezes small farms into ever smaller profit margins and threatened obsolescence.  

Small farms may feel the pressure of larger farming operations today, but they have always been bastions of American entrepreneurial ingenuity, and the love of farming often seeks ways to grow with greater vigor than the sophistication of gigantic farms and economic forces that could run them out of business. Farms such as Betty Acres Farm in New York, Winter Park Dairy in Florida, and Looking Glass Creamery in North Carolina have exploited niche markets for specialty cheeses and other products. The results are obvious: The dairy section of the local supermarket has become an in-store shopping mall of possible milk products, driven by both mega-dairies and by small farms seeking new market niches.

Cattle in other capacities

Draft oxen are castrated male cattle of any breed or mix that are raised primarily for work and ultimately for meat. They have largely been displaced by tractors and mechanized farming but teams of are still effective around the world and on smaller farms in the US. Cattle as well as horses, mules and donkeys are all eligible for draft work, and each has their unique advantage when used in different kinds of work. 

Cattle are also seen in rodeo bull riding. This exciting event is one of the toughest to enter and master. Bulls used in this event are bred specifically for bucking tendency and excellence at keeping humans off their backs, and can commonly cost $5000 a head or more; they can reach the million dollar value, depending on their ability to toss bull riders regularly. Bull-riding events occur nationwide with gala national finals in Las Vegas near the end of the year.



The earliest likely domesticated sheep were the wild mouflon in the Fertile Crescent of Western Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq. However, DNA studies suggest independent development of mouflon in separate geographical areas, with at least three lines: Asian, European and Turkish/Chinese.


Some cattle, sheep, and goat breeds have horns made of a bony core surrounded by a layer of keratin, a protein substance that also forms hair, hoofs, claws, feathers, and fingernails. Horns can be long or short, curved upward or downward, or wound tight. Unlike antlers, they are permanent structures and are found on both males and females of each species.

From these humble beginnings, we now have more than 500 breeds of sheep worldwide with the exact total difficult to know because not all countries maintain accurate breed registries or breeding activities. What is known is that these versatile animals are adapted to the uses demanded by local breeders and users, ranging from meat to wool to milk and that wool production and woolen cloth made Great Britain major player in world trade.

Sheep have been highly valued throughout history. Long before they put Great Britain on the map, sheep took a leading role in Biblical times as a provider of milk, meat, and woollen cloth in what is considered to be man’s oldest industry. Queen Isabella used money from the wool industry to finance Columbus’ voyages to the New World, and Columbus brought some of the animals with him as a food supply.  England tried to protect its large share of the wool market by discouraging the development of the industry in the colonies, but to no avail.  In 1664, the Massachusetts General Court required that schools teach spinning and weaving and by the end of the century, the colonies began exporting wool goods. The British countered by outlawing wool trade from the colonies.

Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison all kept sheep at their plantations and wore woolen suits made from home-grown sheep at their presidential inaugurals.

Sheep have also been at the center of historical battles both in Great Britain and the US. Britain’s “Highland Clearances” replaced small farms in Scotland with large sheep farms and, in like manner, the closing of the commons in Britain displaced subsistence farmers in favor of enclosed grazing areas for sheep. In the US, sheepmen and cattlemen battled in range wars over grazing areas.

Sheep breeds

The most commonly available products from sheep are wool and meat. All sheep have hair and a wooly undercoat; the wool producers have far more undercoat (wool fleece) and the meat producers have less wool fibers and more hair. Sheep with a high percentage of wool in the coat must be sheared; those with more hair tend to shed naturally. 

Sheep are bred for different characteristics, and sheep farmers choose their breeds or mixes depending on the market they plan to serve. Those selling lambs for meat and selling wool as a by-product may select Southdowns or Suffolks; those looking to sell fine wool may opt for Merinos or Ramboullet; those producing wool for artisan weavers would select one of the naturally colored breeds such as California Reds or Jacobs. Climate and terrain also enter into the decision. Hair sheep such as Barbados Blackbellies or Katahdins are better-adapted to hot climates, breeds such as Navajo-Churro do well in harsh environments or with poorer quality forage, and some, like the Gulf Coast Native Sheep are resistant to certain parasites and diseases.

Some sheep are specifically bred to milk for cheese production. Most of the world’s dairy sheep farms are in Europe and along the Mediterranean Sea but the industry is taking off in the US, especially in New England, the Upper Midwest, and California. The milk of the East Freisian and Lacaune breeds is highly prized for making such cheeses as Romano, feta, and Roquefort.

Sheep’s wool can be fine, medium-weight, long, or coarse.  The Romney and Icelandic breeds produce wool that is tough enough to be used in woven fabric and carpet manufacturing; the Suffolk and Merino breeds produce finer wool that can be used in blended fabrics or fine clothing; and breeds such as Jacobs and Border Leicesters produce colored wool that is preferred by many spinners and weavers. The wool strand diameter and uniformity, crimp, yield, color and staple length determine the category of value and best use. Diameter under 22 microns and uniformity make finer yarn, with uniformity being the single most important determinant of value. Crimp is the degree of bend in the wool fiber, with finer wools having more crimp than coarser wools. Yield refers to the percentage of the wool left after scouring, or washing to remove lanolin, dirt and foreign matter, with higher percentage yields producing more value. Finally, white wool is easier to dye than wool with color in it, so pure white is atop the value scale. Even the presence of color on the face or other body part can affect the dye-worthiness of a white fleece.

When we think of wool, we probably think of warm clothes and blankets, perhaps made in Pendleton Mills. However, as soft and wonderful as a Pendleton blanket or woolen suit may be, there are many, many other benefits that sheep provide. Beyond wool, the hide at slaughter produces lanolin, drum heads, art brushes, rouge, asphalt binder, textiles, ointment base, tennis balls, glue, paint and plaster binder, among other things. Yes, tennis balls; the ones that are used at Wimbledon for nine games each before rotating out of tournament use and off to lesser skilled players. From fatty acid processing, sheep produce byproducts for dozens of products from explosives and solvents to industrial lubricants, cosmetics, chicken feed, and soap and biodegradable detergents. But that’s not all! The intestines are used for sausage casings, and instrument strings, and the bones, hoofs, and horns contribute to gelatin desserts, rose food, piano keys, marshmallows, pet food ingredients, collagen and bone for plastic surgery, bone china, shampoo and conditioner and much more. For a more complete list, go to the Purdue University uses of sheep page and scroll down to the byproducts section.

Goats for meat, milk, and pets

Descended from wild goats in the Middle East, domestic goats have been a source of meat, milk, hides, and dung for about 10,000 years. Neolithic humans used the hides for clothing and water and wine containers, the bones for tools, and the dung for fuel. Easier to handle than cattle and able to convert low-quality plants to high-quality milk and meat, goats then and now fill a variety of agricultural niches.

Animals that eat plants can be further classified by their dining style: cattle, horses, and sheep graze on grasses, i.e. eat their dinner close to the ground; goats browse on the tops of plants and the leaves of shrubs, vines, and saplings or low-branching trees. This dietary preference allows goats to get necessary nutrients from a wide variety of plants, including those that may be unpalatable or toxic to other species. (Some goat owners have turned this preference into a money-making opportunity: they rent their herds to individuals and agencies to clear brush along highways, in parks, and on private properties.)

Goat milk is highly prized for specialty cheeses and is used to make soap and other skin care products. Most goats are kept for milk production, either in dairies or on small farms. A single goat can provide enough milk for a family’s needs, and a herd of goats can provide milk to sell. Some goat farmers belong to co-ops that help with marketing; others sell directly to the public at farmer’s markets or over the Internet or to restaurants and health food outlets.

Although people in Africa, Europe, and Asia have developed dozens of goat breeds, about a dozen are kept for meat and milk in the US. The Anglo-Nubian (aka Nubian in the US) originated in England as a cross between African and British breeds. It is a large goat used for both meat and milk and is adapted to hot climates. The Nubian is noble in appearance with a distinctive Roman nose and comes in a variety of coat colors and patterns.

The French-Alpine (aka the Alpine) developed in the French Alps from goats brought from Switzerland. It is a large goat that also comes in several colors and patterns.

The Saanen developed in the valley of the same name in Switzerland. It is a white or tan goat that does well in cool climates. The Toggenburg, another Swiss goat, may be the oldest dairy goat breed. It is slightly smaller than the other Swiss breeds, is robust and energetic, and does well in cooler weather. The Toggenburg is always solid color, from fawn to chocolate brown, with characteristic white markings.

The Nubian, Toggenburg, Alpine, and Saanan are primarily milk goats although the Nubian is also raised for meat. A native of South Africa, the Boer goat is first and foremost a meat goat. A low-maintenance animal, it matures quickly, an advantage for a meat animal. The Boer goat is becoming more popular in the US as consumers seek a wider variety of meats.

The Angora is a small goat raised for its fine hair. This mohair (not angora fiber, which comes from rabbits) is similar to wool but has a much smoother surface. 

Goats can be kept as pets as well as utility animals. Their antics are amusing; they eat weeds (including poison ivy) and make good companions for horses. Male goats, known as bucks, can be ornery and smell bad, but females and castrated males can be fun to have around. 

Are they hogs or pigs?

Visions of dairies, sheep farms, cattle ranches, and horse farms generally conjure scenes of animals grazing in a field. Not so with hog farms: Here the vision may include pictures of pigs wallowing in mud or the recollection of Dorothy falling into the outdoor hog pen in The Wizard of Oz: risky business as depicted in the movie. Other visions come from films as well and feature pigs as cute, clever, glib, and photogenic, ala Babe or Charlotte’s Web.  These are the sum total of the general public’s impression of and knowledge about pigs, pig farming, and the pork industry.

Pork may come to mind during holidays or other occasions of family gatherings when a pork roast or ham is center front, but many people don’t know that bacon and sausage are pork products or that pigs have an association with mankind that is thousands-of-years-old.

So what is the scoop? Are pigs or are they hogs? And where did they come from?

Most people use the words “pig” and “hog” interchangeably, but those in the know understand that “pigs” are young swine weighing less than about 120 pounds and “hogs” are adult swine weighing more

Swine, the term encompassing the pig/hog family of livestock, came from a type of wild hog known as the Eurasian Wild Boar. Early man hunted these animals and gradually domesticated them. Hog farmers use the word “boar” to mean an intact male hog, but “boar” is also used to identify the original wild ancestor of domestic swine and the feral hogs that are such pests in parts of the US and throughout the world.

From wild boar and prehistoric hogs to the farm and beyond

Early humans domesticated Sus scrofa in several areas in Asia and the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East about 8000-9000 BC, although some sources place domestication in China as early as 12,000 BC. As with other livestock species, domestication led to changes in the animal’s appearance: farmed hogs have less hair, shorter heads, curled instead of straight tails, no mane, more developed hindquarters, and shorter legs than their wild cousins.

Columbus brought pigs with him on his second New World voyage to start hog farms in Cuba, Hispaniola and Jamaica as depots to replenish food supplies on future expeditions, and the pigs soon multiplied into a stable supply. They also escaped and multiplied in the wild at all three locations. Hernando De Soto took 13 of these pigs to Florida in 1539 and explored his way west to Texas. Feral descendants of the Columbus and DeSoto hogs now roam rural areas and pose a threat to crops, wildlife, and sensitive environments. 

In the days before vegetable oils and manufactured lubricants, lard from pigs was a critical product for cooking and reducing friction between mechanical parts, protecting tools and parts against wear, and other uses. At the time, hogs were divided into two general types: lard breeds gained fat quickly and were stocky and short-legged with deep bodies; bacon breeds were leaner and grew more slowly, putting on muscle instead of fat.


Swine are two-toed hoofed animals but unlike cattle, sheep, and goats, they are omnivores, not herbivores. In other words, swine will eat much more than the green parts of plants, including insects, small mammals, eggs, roots, and acorns and other nuts and fruits. In the early days of pig farming, the animals foraged on their own and were sometimes fed leftovers from bakeries and other village businesses. However, pigs and hogs on the farm generally get a specially-prepared diet to assure that they get the proper amounts of proteins, vitamins, and minerals.

Hog farming today

Modern hog farms are a far cry from those early days. Today, swine are kept in large barns, fed a nutritionally-balanced diet, and protected from disease. Many farmers use specially-designed enclosures to keep sows from crushing or stepping on their piglets and to make it easier to keep piglets warm and their dams cool. Some farmers use group housing for sows and put them in individual pens when they are pregnant and when they are ready to give birth.

Selective breeding has produced a larger but more manageable animal and created a temperament that poses less risk to handlers. Contemporary pig farming challenges remain, however, as swine are unable to sweat and are susceptible to heat exhaustion unless they can keep cool in shade, mud, or pools or have access to a sprinkler system. They are also vulnerable to heart attack if too excited or traumatized.  

The most common swine breeds in the US are Yorkshire, Duroc, Hampshire, and Landrace, breeds favored for large operations. Homesteaders and other small farm operators might opt instead for Berkshires, Poland-Chinas, Chester Whites or Tamworths.

Although modern pigs are easier to manage than their wild progenitors, all pigs have the capacity to grow tusks, from Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs to hybrid domestic hogs. In hog farming facilities, piglets typically have their “needle teeth” removed at one day of age to prevent the growth of baby tusk teeth and injury to the sow during suckling and to other piglets during normal litter squabbling. Tusks are canine teeth, and adult boar tusks can become razor sharp and do real damage. Most commercial operations raise boars for 2-2 ½ years and do not remove tusks; smaller hog operations that keep boars for longer periods of time may remove tusks periodically by trimming them as close to the gum line as possible.

Current hog farming practices in the US are following the lead of other meat production farming: That is, over the past 50 years, smaller farms have decreased in production participation while larger farms have grown to mega-size and production capacity. Over the past 15 years alone, small operations have decreased by 70 percent while larger and specialized farming operations have filled in the production deficit of the disappearing smaller farms. The US today is the third largest pork producer in the world, and the largest exporter of pork products, with about 20 percent of domestic pork and pork product production being exported.

Common practice today is production specialization in three main areas: 1) farrow-to-finish operations which raise pigs from birth (farrowing) to slaughter weight, about 240 to 270 pounds; 2) feeder pig operations, which raise pigs from birth to about 10 to 60 lbs. and then sell them to finishers; and 3) feeder pig finishers, which buy feeder pigs and raise them to slaughter weight. The gestation period for sows is about 113 days; the average litter size is 19 piglets. 

The industry is not without critics (as are all livestock industries today), as activists seek court action and legislation to define acceptable limits of confinement for sows in gestation and farrowing crates, and these efforts have generated national publicity to expose the public to the critical view of pork farming practices. Individual farmers in the pork industry have been concerned about public perception, but their expertise, training and focus has been on the industry itself rather than the possibilities of appearance: their aims have been on improvements in terms of equipment, facilities, operations, disease prevention, and output rather than on legislation lobbying or court action. As a general rule, hog farmers are not politicians, lobbyists, activists, publicists or public relations experts. The resulting clash between farming experts and activists requires the public to become fact finders if it is concerned with best practices and animal welfare.

Poultry and eggs

It seems as if chickens have been with us forever, holding preeminent positions as egg producers and meat suppliers to the human diet. The riddle and question, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” and “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” were probably around in 8000 BC – when archeological evidence indicates that humans first domesticated chickens in Asia

Like beef, pork, fish, and other meats, eggs and poultry meat provide complete protein, but the poultry sector of the American diet occupies a favored position in terms of per capita consumption. Worldwide, poultry use and consumption includes domesticated birds of nearly all kinds: common fowl are chickens, turkeys, ducks, pigeons, geese, guinea fowls, pheasant, swan and quail. Poultry are differentiated from wild fowl that are hunted as game animals, although some, such as pheasants, may be considered game in some countries but may also be domesticated for consumption in others. 

By far the biggest and most ancient contributor to human consumption of poultry is the chicken, and it maintains that position against all other meats. Beef may be “what’s for dinner,” but chicken is king in the US and around the world

Chickens begin their passage to the barbecue grill or to the egg carton in the hen. First comes the egg yolk, which develops into a chicken if fertilized or becomes breakfast or an egg product for human consumption. It takes about a day for the yolk to be covered by egg white (albumin) inside the hen and for a shell to form. If the egg is fertile, a chick hatches in about 20 days.

Chickens that provide meat for the grill, oven, and frying pan are raised by the millions in climate-controlled barns, fed a scientifically formulated diet, and carefully monitored for health. Known as broilers, these chickens live in large colonies with free access to bedding and feed.

The US is the largest producer of broiler chickens in the world. The industry produced nearly nine billion broiler chickens in 2015 with chicks from more than 25 thousand family farms and some company-owned farms.  The journey to the dinner table starts at the primary breeding farm where chicks that will become parent breeders are raised. These chicks go to the breeder farms at about 20 weeks of age, where roosters and hens live together to produce fertile eggs that will become broiler chicks.

Broiler chickens are raised without steroids or other hormones and receive antibiotics only as needed for optimum health, i.e., to control, treat, or prevent disease. Chicken farmers follow the antibiotic guidelines from the US Food and Drug Administration to minimize the use of antibiotics also used in human medicine.

Chickens and eggs

The other half of the chicken story involves eggs, another reasonably-priced protein food much loved by consumers. Egg farmers fall into two categories: those who produce shell eggs for cartoon sales in grocery departments and those who produce eggs to use as ingredients in processed foods and restaurants. Eggs for processed foods and restaurants come in freeze-dried, liquid, and powdered form and are also available for purchase for home recipes and long-term storage.

Female chickens are called pullets before they start laying eggs at about 18-22 weeks. Age and hours of daylight start their egg laying, and their peak production occurs at 30-32 weeks. After that their rate of production declines; by 60-70 weeks they are laying at about 50 percent of their peak capacity. Some hens can live up to seven years; in commercial operations the majority ends their egg production at 100-130 weeks of age. An average figure for eggs produced in a lifetime for hens is 450, although some, like Leghorns, can go as high as 300 per year. After laying production diminishes beyond profit calculations for feed, housing and care costs (generally either one laying cycle or 18 months), hens are processed into such products as chicken pot pies and chicken soup. 

Hens in commercial production are vaccinated, fed at defined nutrition levels at specific ages, live in controlled light environments to extend laying capacity, assessed for productive living space; in short, every aspect of their condition and environment is carefully monitored and controlled to achieve maximum productivity. 

How big is big, in terms of large scale production? In 2015, the largest egg producer in the country is Cal-Maine Foods, headquartered in Jackson, Mississippi. They own  nearly 23,000 acres of land in locations within their marketing area. And their flock total is the largest in the US, approximately 32.4 million layers and 8.5 million pullets and breeders. They have three breeding facilities, two hatcheries, four wholesale distribution centers, 20 feed mills, 40 shell egg production facilities, 27 pullet growing facilities and 38 processing and packing facilities.They own or control mills that can produce 696 tons per hour of feed; their processing facilities capacity claims an output of 13,460 cases of shell eggs per hour – each case containing 30 dozen shell eggs. That’s 4,845,700 eggs per hour.

But even with those totals, it’s not nearly enough to feed a hungry US. The top six states in the industry hold more than 167 million hens and the top 10 producers nationwide own about 141 million hens. USDA figures have shown that 52 egg producers that own at least one million layers have about 88 percent of the total industry layers, and that the 10 largest of these 52 egg producers own about 48 percent of the total industry layers. The US produces about 90 billion eggs per year, with about 60 percent going to table consumption and the remainder being used for the hatchery market, which is used to replace spent layers and grow broiler chicks. [citation] The majority of eggs produced in the US are consumed domestically, with minimal exports. Individual annual consumption nationwide amounts to about 250 eggs per person.

While this level of production rages on, the entire industry is in a constant process of competitive improvement in nearly all areas; breeding, handling and care practices, personnel, education, equipment, research; the list is nearly endless. And each new solution to an item on the list is never the be-all, end-all; they are always open to subsequent advances and improvements.

While commercial egg production provides eggs for the entire country, homesteaders and backyard chicken farmers produce eggs for their families and friends and sell the excess at farmers’ markets and local restaurants. The new popularity of raising chickens at home for pets and eggs has generated new zoning laws in many communities and resulted in unwanted chickens being given to animal shelters and rescue groups. Small farmers and homesteaders generally raise chickens as free-range livestock where the birds forage for bugs and seeds that supplement their prepared diets.

Nowhere is this attention to detail more clear than at the amateur, backyard or small farm level, where housing, equipment, feed, chicks and lifetime production costs make it nearly impossible to compete with large enterprise egg facilities. The reward for small production is fresh eggs - and negligible profit, if any

Egg farming is not just about eggs….

California passed legislation that mandated larger space for egg laying hens in commercial facilities by 2016. It made nearly all existing battery cages outmoded. In addition to that, companion legislation also required any out of state egg producers to comply with California’s standards. During this course of events, the California egg producers were in the process of enlarging and improving cage dimensions on their own; the change required a transition to new equipment that would take some time. This “down time” was viewed as a gambit to withhold production and drive prices up and the egg producers were sued. They found themselves under threat of court action for not changing their cages and equipment and then found themselves under threat of court action for the manner in which they were going about making the changes.

More on poultry farming

Although chicken is by far the most popular bird for meat and eggs, turkey is not just for Thanksgiving any more. And although the bulk of turkeys hit the market in November in the US, new products such as ground turkey and packaged turkey parts can be found in many grocery stores. Ducks and geese are also raised for the table both commercially and in small flocks, but they are hard to find except in specialty markets.


Farmers turn grains and grasses into food and fiber to feed and clothe world. They are scientists who know about animal nutrition, behavior, parasites, and diseases and conservationists who protect the environment they live in. Working with land grant colleges and private universities, they help develop new strategies to protect animal health and provide for their welfare. Farmers are always learning: they study genetics to produce stronger, more disease-resistant animals and monitor species behavior to balance animal needs with the human need to earn a living. They adapt to the vagaries of the market, responding to consumer preferences even when public perception is at odds with traditional methods that provide for animal welfare and safety.

Farmers band together in trade groups that represent their interests with government agencies and legislatures and are a resource for information about their animals, the markets, public perception, and other issues affecting their businesses. And like others who are proud of their accomplishments, they exhibit their animals in county and state fairs and agricultural expositions.

Farmers can operate on a large or small scale. They can raise millions of chickens, thousands of heads of cattle, or hundreds of sheep, or they can keep small numbers of animals and cater to regional markets or simply provide meat, milk, and eggs to friends and neighbors.

Even though farmers acquit their responsibilities in admirable fashion, they come under attack by groups that cleverly distort farming methods and lobby for bans on certain husbandry practices. In addition to the anti-egg campaign mentioned above, these groups target dairy calf and pig housing with staged and heavily edited undercover videos and campaign against raising animals for food and fiber.  Unfortunately, this illicit activity often results in new laws that ban some husbandry practices regardless of whether the accusations are true or the bans result in better conditions for the animals.

Farmers are fighting back with efforts to pass “right-to-farm” laws that prevent nuisance lawsuits against farming practices. 




NAIA - National Animal Interest Alliance Discover Animals is a web-based educational resource offered by the NAIA
To learn more about the NAIA or about other NAIA programs, visit us at
if you would like to help, join or support the NAIA or any of its programs please click here >>