The evolution of animal agriculture (Agriculture vs the Public – Part 2)

Written by Steph Coombes, Central Station editor

In 2015 and 2016 I attended Kansas State University, studying a Master of Science in Agricultural Education and Communication. As a part of my degree, I was required to undertake a research thesis.

 It wasn’t difficult for me to choose a research topic. I’ve been a passionate “agvocate” (agricultural advocate) since 2012. Our industry has had a lot of “agvocates” – spurred on by the live export ban and subsequent continuous dialogue ever since about “social license”.

Here’s the thing though – while I love to advocate for agriculture, I see a lot of people doing it  poorly – to the point where it really frustrates me, and I think they are doing more harm than good for our industry.

The following is an excerpt from the literature review component of my Masters’ Thesis, “Discursive features of animal agriculture advocates”. I’m going to post it over a series of blogs, and I sincerely hope this research challenges the way you think about communicating with the public about agriculture.

You can find the whole thesis here.

Find all 11 articles here.

The evolution of animal agriculture

The domestication of animals began about 10,000 years ago in the Neolithic era, along with the cultivation of plants. Animals are considered domesticated when: “they are kept for a distinct purpose, humans control their breeding, their survival depends on humans, and they develop traits that are not found in the wild.” (DeMello, 2012, p.84). Cattle, sheep, and goats were among the first livestock to be domesticated for human consumption. Some time later cattle became a dual purpose animal, being used for transportation and draft work along with horses.

Before the 1800s, agricultural production in the United States took the form of subsistence farming. Subsistence farming (also referred to as subsistence agriculture) is defined as: “farming or a system of farming that provides all or almost all the goods required by the farm family usually without any significant surplus for sale” (Merriam-Webster online dictionary, n.d.). Subsistence farming was adequate for the time, with about 70 percent of the population living and working on farms (Boone et al., 2000). There were several factors over the course of the 1800s that contributed to the “agricultural revolution” that saw subsistence farming shift to commercial farming (where a surplus of products were produced to be traded and sold). These factors included: the expansion of agricultural land farmed with the settlement of the west, the industrial revolution and mechanization of agricultural equipment, the demand for produce from growing cities, the expansion of the railroad system and refrigeration technology, and the 1862 Morrill Land Grant Act.

The invention of the reaper by Cyrus McCormick in 1831 is commonly referred to as the starting point of commercial agriculture (Conkin, 2008). McCormick’s automatic reaper allowed two-and-a-half hectares of wheat to be harvested per day, which had been previously limited to less than one hectare per day using a hand sickle (hand-held blade) (Conkin, 2008). A period of rapid development of other mechanized farm tools followed, increasing the efficiency of both crop and livestock production (Conkin, 2008; Post, 1997).

The expansion of the railroad system meant that livestock could be raised in one location and fed and butchered in another. The addition of refrigerated railroad cars meant that perishable products, including meat, were able to be transported long distances (Aduddell & Cain, 1981). Farmers were no longer restricted to producing that what could be consumed by the population in their local region; food preservation and transportation opened up new markets across the country.

The 1862 Morrill Land-Grant College Act provided land grants to states in order to establish agricultural colleges. The purpose of land-grant colleges was to “to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts” (Morrill Act, 1862). Shortly after, the Hatch Act of 1877 was enacted and land-grant colleges were funded to develop agricultural experiment stations to further research (Boone et al., 2006). As a result of dedicated resources for scientific research, by 1900 all states had developed experiment stations and great gains in production efficiency and yields were being made (Boone et al., 2006). As the west was settled, the American population grew from 5.3 million in 1800 to 76.2 million in 1900, a 1300% increase that mostly occurred in cities (United States Census Bureau, 2002). With more farm land under production, using new equipment technologies and research, farmers were able to produce a surplus of food to supply themselves and the growing population. 

Changes to animal agriculture

As the demand for animal products (meat, milk, and eggs) continued to grow, the animal agriculture industry sought ways to increase production and efficiency. Significant advances in understanding nutrition, breeding, genetics, and health were made in the 20th century. Vaccines were developed as preventative medicine for a range of endemic diseases such as tetanus, pneumonia, leptospirosis, and the clostridial diseases. Medicines, including penicillin, antibiotics, and anti-inflammatories were developed to treat a range of infectious and noninfectious diseases. Analgesics also were developed for pain relief. The use of medicinal technologies not only reduced livestock mortality from illness, but improved animal health, which in turn affected animal production; healthy animals have improved conception and reproduction rates, feed consumption and nutrient conversion efficiency, yield and product quality.

An understanding of the role of nutrition, and the value and availability of different feed stuffs was one contributing factor for the industry moving from extensive grazing systems to intensive feeding systems. Government subsidies for grain production resulted in a systemic surplus of corn and soybeans, which became a standard livestock feed ingredient (feed stuff). High-energy and high-protein feed stuffs were used to achieve faster growth rates, meaning a higher turnover of animals produced in a shorter time period. Feed and water additives were developed to promote digestive efficiency; low-value feed stuffs (with low digestibility) could become more digestible and have a higher amount nutrients utilized by livestock with the addition of additives and supplements. The use of antibiotics in livestock feed, and implantation of hormone growth promotants began in the 1950s and still remain a popular option for increasing feed efficiency and growth rates in livestock (Bretschneider, Elizalde, & Pérez, 2008; Stewart, 2013).

There were two main outcomes from the move to using a predominately feed-stuff based diet (compared to grazing); livestock could be grown and finished all year round, no longer restricted by the seasonality of pasture growth, and; livestock could be raised and fed in numbers much higher than what a pasture-raised system could support. The amount of livestock raised on extensive pasture grazing systems is limited to the carrying capacity of the land; the environment can only sustain a certain population of species without becoming degraded. Feeding livestock crop products and by-products meant that more livestock could be raised on less land, and so came the evolution of intensive production systems, also referred to as confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Intensive production systems for cattle generally occur outside in “feedlots” where cattle are grouped together in pens, and intensive poultry and swine operations are generally housed indoors. Poultry and swine are more susceptible to weather extremities and disease, with indoor housing allowing for a more controlled environment. Benefits of indoor housing for livestock include protection from weather and predators, as well as barriers to disease through on-farm biosecurity measures (, 2016). For livestock raised intensively outdoors, different geographical locations require the addition of shade and windbreaks so that animals can seek shelter from the heat and cold.

Changes to animal husbandry also occurred in the 20thcentury. While the act of branding cattle and horses for identification of ownership can be traced back to Egyptian times (Khan & Mufti, 2007), the use of tags in cattle, sheep, and goats developed as a secondary and temporary identification means. The application of an identification tag involves piercing an animal’s ear with a plastic tag using special applicators. While the castration of male animals is another procedure that has a long history, the prevalence of the practice has increased with commercial agriculture. Male livestock, particularly cattle, produce hormones that affect carcass composition and meat quality; castrated livestock are preferred for their superior carcass attributes, and often have a more docile temperament (Seideman, Cross, Oltjen, & Schanbacher, 1982).

Furthermore, castration is a method of genetic and reproductive control by physically stopping specific animals from reproducing. The surgical procedure of spaying (female castration) became popular with cattle who were no longer required for reproductive purposes; spayed cows gain weight faster than non-spayed cows. Spaying is also a method of birth control for cattle on extensive production systems who are not ready for market; cows can be spayed and turned out to pasture with bulls with no risk of falling pregnant.

Horn management includes tipping (trimming), and removing the horn bud (dehorning) (American Veterinary Medicine Association, 2015a). There are various procedures to tip and dehorn cattle. The primary reason behind dehorning cattle is to prevent damage to livestock, other animals, and people (American Veterinary Medicine Association, 2015a).

In sheep, common procedures include shearing (removal of wool by clipping) and crutching (removing of wool around the breech area by clipping). Mulesing is surgical procedure which removes wool-bearing skin from the tail and breech area of lambs to prevent fly strike (Lee & Fisher, 2007). Beak trimming in poultry involves the removal of part of both the top and bottom beak, and is a preventative management strategy to reduce the occurrence of injuries caused by cannibalism and bullying among hens (Henderson, Barton, Wolfenden, Higgins, Higgins, Kuenzel, & Hargis, 2009). In swine production, teeth clipping, tail docking and castration are standard practice, with the latter done to preserve meat quality, similar as done with beef cattle (American Veterinary Medicine Association, 2015b). Teeth clipping and tail docking are performed to reduce the chance of injury caused by the natural biting behavior in pigs (American Veterinary Medicine Association, 2015b). Tail docking is also regularly practiced in dairy cattle production as a measure to improve hygiene on the udder (Tucker, Fraser, & Weary, 2001). There are several more practices and procedures used in the animal agriculture industry with varying implementation rates and different techniques across the world.

By manipulating the production environment, livestock can be raised for slaughter more efficiently, resulting in a higher turnover of products with less losses to illness and injury. While the major change to animal production in the 20thcentury revolved around the shift to intensive production systems, many of the nutrition, reproduction, and husbandry technologies developed are used today in extensive, or “free range”, production systems also.