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Alternative Animal Husbandry

“Consumers are increasingly interested in knowing the story behind their food—especially when food production involves animals that are often treated by our industrialized food system as units of production rather than as living beings. Organic consumers are also looking for an alternative to the industrial food system—they desire a food system that treats the environment, family farmers and animals with respect.” The Cornucopia Institute. 2010

Concern for animal welfare is not a new thing. With the aid of topical books and movies, and the rise of organic and local food movements, the 21st century has seen an increased awareness and concern for the treatment of farmed animals. This article will look at some of the prototypes for farm animal well-being, and the organizations that monitor and help consumers choose producers with standards of care that “treat animals with respect.” This article does not seek to advocate a particular diet choice.

Animal Welfare Paradigms
The first time I heard the word “paradigm,” uttered by a college professor far more learned than I could ever hope to be, I had no idea what it meant, or how it was spelled. After looking it up, I dismissed it as an overly pretentious word for “model.” But over many years I have come to embrace the subtleties of the word, and accept that it means a system, framework, or outlook, based on research (scientific paradigms) or philosophy and values (social paradigms.) Importantly, “A paradigm does not impose a rigid or mechanical approach, but can be taken more or less creatively and flexibly.” (The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy)

I’m boring you with this word discussion because paradigm is a good descriptor for the approaches researchers and regulators are applying to farm animal well-being these days. My research for this article turned up thoughtful, research-based ideas and standards for animal care that seem to have different roots, but aren’t in conflict and appear to still be evolving.

The Five Freedoms
In 1964 English author Ruth Harrison published Animal Machines, a book that detailed the ugly realities of post-World War II factory farming for the British public. The book galvanized Britons on the issue of animal suffering. The government responded; the drive for reform led to the formation of a parliamentary committee, called the Brambell committee, to examine intensive animal production, and the eventual passage of farm animal welfare legislation in 1979 guaranteeing animals the “five freedoms.” These freedoms, and the human response, are

  • freedom from hunger and thirst, by supplying adequate water and food.

  • freedom from discomfort, by providing appropriate shelter and comfortable resting places.

  • freedom from pain, injury or disease, by providing rapid diagnosis and medical care.

  • freedom to express normal behavior, by providing space to move about and the company of like animals.

  • freedom from fear and distress, by providing conditions to avoid mental stress and suffering.

The freedoms, which were considered minimum standards for care, became and are still the paradigm for numerous animal-welfare recommendations, codes, and legislation adopted in Europe, North America, and Australasia, as well as in the World Animal Health Organization’s Office International des Epizooties (OIE) guiding principles. In America, the work of the Animal Welfare Institute describing and certifying high welfare alternatives to inhumane animal agriculture echoes the five freedoms. Their work advocates “…a philosophy of respect that provides animals on the farm with the environment, housing, and diet they need to engage in essential instinctive behaviors, thereby promoting physiological and psychological health and well-being.”

Three of the five freedoms pertain to the physical care of animals; two relate more generally to the psychological needs of animals. Recently, the emotional needs of farm animals have received much attention, with the goal of creating laws, guidelines and standards of care that will “give an animal a life worth living.” (Farm Animal Welfare Committee, UK Dept. of Environment, Food and Rural Development. 2013)

Temple Grandin and the Core Emotions
Temple Grandin, PhD, is an American expert in animal science. She is famous for her research, industry consultations and advocacy of humane treatment of farmed animals, especially livestock. She has designed equipment and management systems for the food animal industry to reduce animal discomfort and stress. She has authored numerous books and scholarly papers on animal issues. In Animals Make us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals (2009), Ms. Grandin says that:
“I believe the best way to create good living conditions for any [captive] animal…is to base the animal welfare programs on the core emotion systems in the brain...the environment animals live in should activate their positive emotions as much as possible, and not activate their negative emotions any more than necessary.”

She explains that core emotions are a study area in neuroscience. Core emotions “drive behavior” and may be the best guiding paradigm for understanding how to improve animal welfare among farm, domestic, zoo and similarly captive animals.
The “blue ribbon” (most important) core emotions, according to neuroscientist Dr. Joel Panksepp of Washington State University, are seeking, rage, fear, panic. In addition to the blue ribbon emotions, animals, at certain times in their lives, express the emotions lust, care (as in caretaking and maternal love) and play.

Seeking and play are positive emotions. Seeking refers to the pleasures that come from 1) exploration or hunting for something good, 2) anticipating receiving something good, and 3) curiosity about new things. If you own a dog you know they loveto sniff open ground, go crazy when you pick up your keys or their leash, and will drag you half a block to check out a new person or dog. All these are seeking behaviors. Play, generally pertaining to young animals, produces “feelings of joy.”

Rage, fear and panic are negative emotions. Rage is like frustration, such as occurs when animals are restrained and lash out. Fear is self-explanatory. Panic occurs when there is a loss of social/parental attachment, like babies crying when a parent leaves, separation anxiety in pets, separation of bonded animals and the loss of a loved one.

Ms. Grandin writes that animal caretakers can use the core emotions to create a better life for any animal by following a “simple” rule: “Don’t stimulate rage, fear, and panic if you can help it, and do stimulate seeking and play.”

Her book chapters provide detailed examples of animal care practices for cows, horses, pigs, chickens and other poultry, dogs, cats, and zoo animal that fulfill her simple rule, Some of these practices reflecting core emotion research are now in use. I strongly recommend this easy-to-read book if you want to deepen your knowledge about concrete things you can do to create a good emotional life for your pets. It also provides a good framework for evaluating food providers.

Pasture Perfect; the healthier food and environment paradigm or, it’s good for the animals, good for the farmers, good for the planet, good for you
Jo Robinson published the book Pasture Perfect in 1998. It is into a third edition, published in 2011. The book’s subtitle is “How You Can Benefit from Choosing Meat, Eggs, and Dairy Products from Grass-Fed Animals,” her outlook is from the vantage of human health and nutrition. Her website,, provides a national database of grass-fed animal food operations in addition to information about the superior nutrition and taste of such foods. I should clarify that Ms. Robinson advocates eating foods produced in ways close to their original, or wild counterparts, with a minimum of human inputs, not going out and gathering foraged foods; e.g., heirloom organic produce and grass-fed meat are better choices than conventional, industrially-farmed food. Ms. Robinson, authors Michael Pollan, Joel Salatin, and others see animal agriculture, superior food quality, and environmental and rural protection as a system. The demonstrable 10-year increase in the production and sales of grass-fed products can be attributed, says Ms. Robinson, to “Millions of consumers…realizing that the food choices they make can improve their own health and also enhance the well-being of rural communities, farm families, animals, and the planet.” In this paradigm, animal welfare is improved because pasture-fed organic production is incompatible with harsher industrial farming practices.

Organic production systems seek to be earth- and animal-friendly. In conjunction with input from concerned consumers, the American Humane Association (AHA) and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the National Organic Standards adopted in 2002:

  • Require preventative health care practices such as adequate feed, nutritional supplements, sanitary housing and freedom of movement.

  • Prohibit withholding medical treatment in cases of animal illness.

  • Require access to outdoors and call for conditions that accommodate the natural behavior of the animal, including grazing requirements.

  • Require appropriate clean and dry bedding.

Organic producers also “must provide…a total feed ration composed of agricultural products including pasture and forage, that are organically produced and organically handled.”(NOP) Organic feed must not contain: animal drugs, including growth-promoting hormones; plastic pellets for roughage; urea or manure; mammalian or poultry by-products; feed, feed additives, or feed supplements in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and CosmeticAct; sulfites, nitrates or nitrites added during the production process.

Ruminant animals—cows, sheep and goats—must have mandatory access to (organic) pasture during the grazing season, which must be at least 120 days per year or more as allowed by climate. Producers must have a pasture management plan and manage pasture as a crop to meet the feed requirements for the grazing animals and to protect soil (i.e., erosion from overgrazing) and water quality. Sheep used to produce certified organic wool must also be raised to the same NOP livestock standards.

Organic poultry must be raised cage-free and have access to the outdoors and to areas for scratching and dust bathing (a.k.a., natural behaviors). Litter, if likely to be eaten, must be organic.

Though feeble in comparison with farm animal regulations in the EU, our US organic rules do promote better treatment of animals, and a meaningful alternative to confined, factory-farmed animals. But, the organic rules are lacking in measurable standards for humane living environments and treatment. Fortunately, many producers and animal welfare groups have taken it upon themselves to develop standards that go beyond the minimum and certify exemplary producers. We’ll look at some of these efforts later.

A case study: bringing paradigms together
In July 2012, Alex Risch, assistant east side grocery manager, wrote a Reader article about his quest to provide customers a soy-free egg laid by humanely treated chickens. (Even pastured chickens are fed supplements that may include soy.) Customers wanted what they believed would be a healthier product, devoid of GMO soy, and potential allergens, I think the story is a wonderful melding of the three paradigms I outlined above. Here is Alex’s story, with my editorial injections in brackets.

Before I could proceed, I had to determine exactly what a “humane” egg is. By most accounts, the Co-op already sells humane eggs. New Century, for instance, scored an admirable 4 out of 5 eggs on the Cornucopia Institute’s Organic Egg Score Card, and Phil’s eggs are Certified Humane by HFAC (Humane Farm Animal Care). In fact, I felt comfortable saying that all the brands we carry do well by their chickens, including Pasture Patterns and M&M Organic Farms, both of which are certified organic and allow their flocks meaningful time on pasture. So what was there to improve on? [Read more on these labels later. Nearly all well-being standards start with the five freedoms.]

It really boils down to one thing: flock size. Chickens are happiest when they can recognize every bird in their flock. [Temple Grandin would assign this fact to the both the fear and panic emotions] This is how they maintain pecking order, the social system that governs their day-to-day activities and ensures harmony within the group. Ideally, flocks wouldn’t grow larger than about 12 birds. Any more than this and chickens can’t identify their place in the pecking order [fear, panic], leading to fighting, death, and even cannibalism [rage]. For this reason, it’s actually more humane to trim beaks in large production flocks that often contain thousands of birds.

However, research shows that beak trimming can cause chronic pain and inhibit a chicken’s instinctive need to scratch and peck at the ground. It was clear that the most humane flock was one small enough for the birds’ beaks to remain intact.

With this in mind, I contacted Michael Miller from M&M Organic Farms. Aside from being a great vendor to work with, I knew him to be up for trying new things. I asked him about the possibility of raising a small flock of hens with intact beaks, fed organic soy-free feed. He was open to the idea, and we spent the better part of the following year meeting with livestock nutritionists and other experts to determine the feasibility of such an undertaking.

While I knew from the beginning that 12 birds wasn’t a practical size for a production flock, the trick was figuring out exactly how small we could go. The flock had to be small enough that the birds wouldn’t require beak trimming [freedom from pain], but large enough to turn a profit [sustainable farming]. Michael calculated that the magic number was 300. With enough space, 300 birds can break off into smaller social groups, achieving something close to the 12-bird ideal. [Minimizing panic, fear and rage.]

The other point we agreed on was access to the outdoors—not just by the loose standards of organic certification, but meaningful time on pasture for the entire flock. [NOP is a system that sets a floor, not a ceiling, but it is the only governmental program that supports farm animal welfare.]

We were also successful with regards to welfare. Michael reports that there have been no instances of pecking or cannibalism, and the flock enjoys over 1500 square feet of vegetation-covered ground. Michael lets the birds out in the morning after they lay eggs, and doesn’t close the doors again until they return to roost at nightfall. That’s not to say they have to stay out that long, as they can return to the barn at will to avoid predators [minimizing fear], or if the sun becomes too hot [freedom from discomfort].

Who watches the farm?
In the absence of US national government oversight, most of us rely on stamps of approval from trusted certifiers to insure our food actually has special attributes we may desire, e.g., the product is organic, fair trade, humanely raised, GMO-free, etc.

The National Organic Program, for example, does require animals be allowed outdoors and exposed to natural daylight, as well as third party farm inspections for certification. But it does not stipulate that animals must be humanely treated. Unfortunately, products may be certified organic and still be obtained from industrial farms with inhumane practices. However, many producers, including CROPP (Organic Valley labels) and our local Sassy Cow Creamery have their own animal care standards that go above and beyond the organic minimum. The same is true for many small, local organic producers. If you want toknow more about a producer’s standards, please check their website or ask a grocery manager.

The National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA), of which Willy Street Co-op is an enthusiastic and active member, provides this guide to labeling systems that specifically address human treatment of animals:

The Animal Welfare Approved seal, from the Animal Welfare Institute, is used on meat, poultry, dairy and eggs that the nonprofit group has determined met their high standards for the humane treatment of farm animals. The Animal Welfare Approved seal can only be earned by independent family farms. The seal guarantees that humanely labeled products don’t come from agribusinesses that raise most of their animals under cruel and unnatural conditions while at the same time raising some products “humanely.” (This is called “double-standard certification,” and it serves the agribusiness by enabling it to maximize its profits and displace the family farmers who raise all of their animals humanely.)

The Certified Humane Raised & Handled label certifies that producers and processors have met certain standards set by Humane Farm Animal Care, an independent, non-profit organization. This label guarantees that the animals that produce the eggs, dairy, meat or poultry product are raised with sufficient space, shelter and resting areas, are handled gently, are given plenty of fresh water and a healthy diet, and are not fed antibiotics or growth hormones. Their ability to “engage in natural behaviors” is protected. Producers who comply with this program must pass annual inspections and meet environmental standards as well as the American Meat Institute Standards for slaughtering farm animals.

Free Farmed Certified means that the American Humane Association has inspected the farm from which the product comes. The certification is voluntary and fee-based. The purpose of the program is to “provide independent verification that the care and handling of livestock and poultry on enrolled farms meets the animal welfare standards set forth by the American Humane Association.” These standards strive to ensure that the animals experience a healthy life, free of disease and injury. This includes access to fresh water and a healthy diet, freedom to engage in normal behaviors in an appropriate and comfortable, cage-free environment. Adequate space, shelter, resting areas, and the company of other animals of their own kind must be provided.

The full NCGA page on Humane Treatment of Farmed Animals is available online at

Consumer Reports magazine has an online resource called Greener Choices: Eco-labels that include animal welfare labels in their eco-label scorecard. They rate both the Animal Welfare Approved and Certified Humane Raised and Handled labels as Highly Meaningful and verified, which I believe is a double very good. They also give high marks to a label called Demeter Certified Biodynamic, given to food products humanely raised according to NOP and the Demeter Association’s own biodynamic sustainable agriculture criteria. The full report card on these and other eco-labels is online here: This is a good resource if you are concerned about “green washing.”

At the top of this article is a quote from The Cornucopia Institute. Although not a labeling entity, this non-profit organization, based in northern Wisconsin, states their mission as, “The Cornucopia Institute, through research and investigations on agricultural and food issues, provides needed information to family farmers, consumers and other stakeholders in the good food movement and to the media. We support economic justice for the family-scale farming community—partnered with consumers—backing ecologically produced local, organic and authentic food.”
They have produced two extensive reviews of organic animal food products. Their organic egg report and score card titled “Scrambled Eggs: Separating Factory Farm Egg Production from Authentic Organic Agriculture” (October 2010), rates products on a 1-5 eggs scale. The ratings criteria include detailed, measurable humane treatment criteria such as indoor and outdoor living conditions and flock management. The listed brands Willy Street Co-op carries all received three eggs, a Very Good rating, and above.

Over a hundred dairy products were rated for the 2006 (but continually updated) dairy score card called “Maintaining the Integrity of Organic Milk, Showcasing Ethical Family Farm Producers, Exposing the Corporate Takeover—Factory Farm Production.” Dairies receive 1-5 cow ratings, animal treatment above and beyond the minimal organic standards are again stressed. Sassy Cow and Castle Rock brands both received 5 cow “outstanding” ratings; Organic Valley earned a solid 4 cow “excellent” rating.

If you are interested, the texts of these reports are comprehensive primers on the legal and ethical issues surrounding animal agriculture. Both the text of the reports and the score cards are online at (Off topic, but the Institute also has reports and score cards for organic cereals and soy foods.)

What more can you do?
I hope this article has helped you appreciate some of the current topics and resources found in humane animal agriculture. Want to know more about the products you buy? Your co-op is eager to talk to you anytime about the products we sell, and connect you with the people behind the good food they make. Ask questions at a store sampling table. Sign up and join us on a seasonal farm tour! Outside the co-op you can buy from family farmers who have proven that they have met specific guidelines. Check labels and look for the welfare seals mentioned, and check out the dairy and egg score cards from The Cornucopia Institute. Look at the producers’ websites. Many producers—Sassy Cow, DreamFarm and Pasture Patterns to name a few—have regular open houses and/or visiting hours at the farms. I went to some farms in the course of my research and I was so encouraged by the conditions I observed. Go see a sassy cow or a dusty hen yourself! Like the old song says, “the animals will love it if you do.”

Additional references

  • The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Michael Pollan. The Penguin Press c. 2006

  • “Farm Animal Welfare, Legislation, and Trade.” Gaverick Matheny and Cheryl Leahy. Duke Law School, Law and Contemporary Problems Vol 70. Winter 2007. Available at

  • “European Animal Welfare Laws 2003 to Present: Explaining the Downturn.” Nicholas K. Pedersen. 2009. The Animal Legal and Historical Center, Michigan State University College of Law. Available at

  • “Humane Animal Treatment: A Cornerstone of Organic.” Discussion of Organic Valley’s policies at

The Heartland Farm Sanctuary
The seeds for better treatment of farm animals can grow in unlikely places, but first they must be planted. A unique animal rescue organization atop a scenic ridge above Verona is planting seeds all over Dane County. The Heartland Farm Sanctuary, housed in a donated barn with adjoining pasture, helps farm animals and people “heal, grow, and have fun.”

Why a farm animal sanctuary?
Because pigs, sheep, goats, turkeys, roosters, horses and llamas find themselves abused, abandoned and homeless but most county and private animal shelters have do not have the desire, training, or appropriate housing and supplies to take them in. Heartland, established in 2009, believes farm animals also need a second chance at a safe, happy life.

Heartland provides transport, veterinary care, rehabilitation and shelter for life to rescued farmanimals. They house 60 animals in Verona. The residents include two stock pigs that fell off a transport truck when they were piglets and were found rooting in a Milwaukee garden. The animals have a good life, but they have purpose too, as ambassadors and buddies in animal assisted therapy and humane education programs run by the Heartland staff. Some of them hit the road as part of the Farm on Wheels, paying visits to nursing homes, libraries, schools, family shelters, and community events, and, of course, looking cute and giving unconditional love! Children and adults learn about humane care and the experience helps them develop empathy and compassion towards farm animals. Heartland also runs a summer day camp for children ages 7-12 and holds numerous barn tours: the next public barn tour is Sunday, August 11 at 1 pm. Register online at

Youth work
On a more serious note, at-risk, traumatized and special needs youth participate in barn programs that allow them to interact with and care for resident animals. According to Heartland literature.

“Working with the animals, youth will experience a safe, relaxed, fun environment where they can begin to establish a trusting, non-judgmental relationship with animals who also have a painful past. With this relationship, kids can begin to heal and value themselves, building self-esteem and taking the first steps toward a brighter future. Additionally, when children are abused they often turn around and start to hurt those smaller or weaker than themselves. By teaching empathy toward animals, we can break that cycle of abuse.” Rebuilding a child’s life sounds like a tall order for a sheep, but these animals are outstanding in their field.

Learn more and donate
The animals work for free but Heartland depends 100% on private donations, fundraising and volunteers to keep the ark afloat. Please visit to learn more about their activities and how you can donate money, time, goods and services to support their cause, or sponsor an animal!