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Stocking Density, Overcrowding, Excess Consumption – How Do We Balance?

April 25, 2013

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn any given day there are hundreds of stories, repeating tales and condemnation of factory farms. The horrible conditions in feedlots and commercial facilities are repeated, and too often it’s not with context.

Then comes a comment that makes me sit up and say “WHAT?!” Such was the case last night.

As a small soon to be expanding place, we’re eager to expand also on what we know. Adding to what we do is natural. Going on the two often condemned agriculture operations – feedlots and poultry – I find a stocking density that varies.

According to a fact sheet on finishing feedlot cattle, the last 3-6 months of a beef animal’s life they’re in lots of 125 to 250 square feet per animal. This does not include the majority of an animal’s life when they’re in pastures, this is for 3-6 months. As to density it says:

By far,most U.S.cattle feeding operations today are small, with fewer than 1,000 head.However, the 5 percent of operations with more than 1,000 head finish more than 80 percent of fed cattle.
OK so the monstrosities that folks seem to love to hate that produces beef for stores and restaurants is groups of  about 1,000 head with a range of square feet, but at most then 250,000 square feet.
Poultry vary – for broilers, professor Chicken say “chickizens” (chicken citizens!) says:

IF I had a say, I’d opt for 180-200 to the acre, but I can live with the 300 if I have too.

UNDERSTAND, Human, I’m talking about at least 145.2 square feet of roaming area per Chickizen!

Now that’s the same ball park as a feedlot steer! Others say 6-8 feet per bird. The University of Georgia has a different view:
Sometimes stocking density is reported using the number of birds per unit area or the amount of area per bird. For example broilers could be placed at .68, .70 or .75 square feet per bird.
Some of these place a stocking density of 50-200 birds per acre.  So last night I’m reading about grass based systems and see this:
By controlling the access to different pasture areas, of course, the carbon bank builds up ahead of the herd so that when they enter, often the forage is 2 feet or more high. Sometimes you can scarcely walk through it. We’ll put a herd of 500 on 2 acres for a day. When they enter, you can’t walk through the forage. Just 24 hours later, a mouse would have to carry a knapsack with lunch just to get across the paddock. Anything that’s not ingested is stomped.
Now I’m still trying to wrap my head around this! That’s just under 175 square feet per animal and from a density amount it’s smaller than some feedlots. Yet it’s in action practice by Joel Salatin, as quoted in “The Sheer Ecstasy of being a Lunatic Farmer.” From a square foot amount, it is a feedlot. Granted it’s new ground daily, but a feedlot nonetheless. When people criticize animal agriculture let’s compare the “how would you like to…”
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFrom a density standpoint, a square mile is 640 acres. So on the 175 square feet we have 160,000 cows per square mile for 3-6 months. New York City has a density of 27,550 people per square mile – for decades! When the waste isn’t hauled “away” and things don’t come in, it gets ugly quickly. Cross into Guttenberg NJ and it’s 56,878.9 people per square mile. Manhattan has a carrying capacity of 69,467.5. Worldwide, Manila has 111,576 people per square mile.
Looking at this, I think we can agree on density feedlots and cities are an environmental impact. The residents must be housed, fed, waste removed and daily accommodations handled.  Neither are “normal” and both may have, arguably, issues for the inhabitants.
Ironically, the same reasons are given – while farmers say it’s more efficient and it’s discounted, city residents say it’s more efficient for them to be in cities! Critics point to pollution, disease, stress, increased drug use and illness. Both can be found as density increases. In cities, assaults, murders and crime increase with density.
Oh but people can choose! comes the argument. Really? Would children choose to be in the high stocking density problems or out where they can play safely at a park? How much choice do the children have? The decision is made for them!
In agriculture, we make decisions for the best interests in the care of our animals. That may be the feedlot or confinement set up or, like we do, outside with more room! We, too, choose to not live in cities with high density, believing that, too, is not healthy or sane. We see evidence of that on a daily basis!
We offer options – for our animals and for your food choices. That doesn’t make others wrong – it means they make different choices. It means many that live in the cities make choices, in action, that mean a higher density out of the city too.
As always, perspective matters!
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