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Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

Rancho Cappuccino Case Study: Is It Fair to the Livestock?

By Bryan Welch 

Tags: Beautiful and Abundant, Queries, Case Studies, Rancho Cappuccino, Fairness, Bryan Welch,

After a recent talk I gave in San Francisco, a man raised his hand and asked me how I could distinguish between “human slavery and animal slavery.”

Now there’s a provocative question.

I think we’re as humane as any livestock farmer can be. Our animals live natural lives in a clean place. They are well fed. We handle them as gently as possible, and as seldom as possible. We allow all our calves to stay with their mothers until they wean naturally, rather than separating them young so the cows will breed again sooner. We keep a bull so our animals don’t need to be trucked around or confined in a squeeze chute to be artificially inseminated. In fact, our cattle go their whole lives without being roped, run through a squeeze chute or hauled, at least until they are sold or slaughtered. We choose our slaughterhouses in part based on their humane treatment of the animals they kill. We look for facilities that handle the animals gently and take care not to traumatize them unnecessarily. There’s a surprisingly wide variety in the habits of people who handle livestock in close quarters all day. Some people are rough with them. Others take a lot of care with the animal’s feelings.

We don’t brand our animals or tag their ears. Because they have ample room, clean water and because we don’t haul in replacement stock very often, we virtually never require a veterinarian, so the animals don’t have to go through the disturbing experience of being confined and handled. Most livestock hates to be confined in small spaces or handled by human beings. I believe a lot of farmers cause problems during their birthing seasons by watching their animals too closely and upsetting the mothers’ sense of security. Imagine a human mother trying to give birth while being monitored, much less handled, by a predatory species.

Most importantly, our animals are never alone. Cattle, sheep, goats, mules, donkeys, chickens, turkeys and dogs are all social creatures that crave, most of all, the companionship of their own kind. In particular, they are happiest in the herd, flock or pack where they live in a stable social order. So we do our best never to keep any of these animals alone.

The cat’s another story, of course. He seems to like his luxurious solitude.

We aim to give our animals natural, healthy lives.

In the end, of course, they are killed for their meat.

Is this fair? That’s a fascinating question. All life ends in death, including yours and mine. Nearly every animal in the natural world – particularly the herbivore – ends its life in the jaws of a predator. In the natural world, they are either taken by a predator early in life before they become strong enough and fast enough to escape, or they are taken when old age begins to slow them down. It is natural, but is it fair?

So far as I can tell, human beings are the only predator that shows any concern for the comfort of its prey. Other predators commonly begin to devour their victims before they are dead. Some swallow their prey alive. In times of plenty it’s not uncommon to see predators toying with prey, seemingly for sport. I’m convinced that the prey’s feelings are not a consideration for most predators.

So in a sense, to be killed by human beings is a lucky break for an herbivore if we achieve our goal of killing them quickly and humanely. Otherwise, they are inevitably dragged down and mauled by something less considerate.

Photo of male lambs by Bryan Welch

Most of our livestock would not survive long without our care. The sheep and goats depend on the protection of our donkeys and mules, who naturally become members of the flocks and instinctively protect their friends from roving predators. Without that protection, the sheep and goats don’t last long. They are not fast, strong or shrewd enough for the wild.

All the livestock depends on hay in the depths of winter. Even if they could roam freely across the landscape, they are not well equipped to feed on the dormant grass beneath a foot of crusty snow. Survival rates would go way down without the hay we cut, bale, and deliver.

I think our mules and donkeys might do OK without our help. Horses and donkeys thrive in the wild elsewhere. Domesticated sheep, goats and cattle don’t typically survive very long in the wild, though, unless they have their own predator-free island in a warm climate.

Without intentional breeding and human care, the sorts of animals we raise wouldn’t exist. There would be bison here where we live, elk and whitetail deer in place of cattle, sheep and goats. In the absence of human beings, there would be mountain lions, wolves, bears and coyotes to prey on them. If human beings hadn’t come to North America, there might be saber-toothed cats, dire wolves and cave bears, too. Mastodons and camels. Giant porcupines and ground sloths.

But we do live here and I can’t figure out any reason that we have any less right to live here than any other species. I don’t think our existence, in and of itself, can be defined as “unfair.”

Neither could I define it as unfair to eat meat. If it were, then the very existence of predators would be an offense. The whitetail deer is not morally superior to the coyote. Without predators, the ecosystem would be grotesquely overpopulated, a zero-sum environment where every creature was jostling with every other creature for a few plant-based or carrion-based calories. Predators are a necessary and beautiful part of our elegant system. A world without them would not be a less painful, less traumatic place. The pain and trauma of mortality would merely take slightly different shapes. There would be more disease. Death, on the whole, would take longer.

There is, of course, the argument that a vegan diet uses less of the planet’s resources. That’s fundamentally true, and if our goal is to maximize the human population while minimizing our consumption then the vegan discipline certainly makes sense. Eventually, though, human population growth consumes the entire surplus, anyway. All the grasslands and forests get plowed up to grow carrots, corn and soybeans.

And if one accepts the ethic that requires us to consume as little as possible, as individuals, then aren’t we stuck in that tiresome old austerity paradigm? Don’t we all end up in sackcloth eventually?

On the other hand, since human beings can feel empathy for the animals we consume, do we have a moral responsibility not to consume them?

That is, I think the best argument for vegetarianism. Since humans can conceptualize the pain felt by our prey, should we nurture our empathy and refrain from eating meat?

I think about this question a lot. In a few days I’ll load five of my young rams into a trailer and take them to be killed. A few days after that they will be in our freezers. I held them when they were babies. Over the past nine months I’ve watched them grow from two-pound, curly-headed sprites into 80-pound monuments of ovine masculinity, created from grass. They are out there in the snow this morning, sparring and bucking, sharing a big bale of hay.

Each of them has a personality and I care about each of them as individuals. When I take them to be killed, I’ll feel that familiar twinge. It is a specific sort of pain I would not feel if I were a vegan, or if I purchased my meat at the store.

So which is the more genuine demonstration of empathy: To refrain from predation altogether or to consume meat feelingly, with genuine sadness and appreciation for the creatures we consume?

More on this next week.

Bryan Welch is the Publisher and Editorial Director of Ogden Publications, the parent company of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Connect with him on .

For further optimistic discussion about our future, read Beautiful and Abundantby Bryan Welch and connect with Beautiful and Abundant on Facebook. 

8/5/2013 2:35:16 AM

This article was so riddled with strawman arguments, it is difficult to engage in a true debate. Regardless, it is nice that the author actually gives these issues thought (and feelings).

spencer lo
10/3/2012 8:21:01 PM

Hi Bryan, you are clearly a thoughtful and reflective farmer. I encourage you to read the following which attempts to address your central ethical questions head on:

bryan welch
3/6/2012 11:37:12 PM

Yes, one of the things that we find most enriching about the experience is the profound sadness we feel at the deaths of the animals. Although the Vegan doesn't usually feel that, their consumption displaces and kills animals, too. I think that sense of awareness is valuable, how ever you sustain yourself.

bryan welch
3/6/2012 11:32:48 PM

Thanks, Annie.

bryan welch
3/6/2012 11:31:23 PM

Thanks a lot, Ronald. Nice of you to say.

bryan welch
3/6/2012 11:31:00 PM

We butcher in the early winter before we start feeding hay. They are all 100-percent grass-fed mouflon/katahdin crosses, and that's how big they are at that time of year, more or less. Some of them might be 120 lbs, down to 80. And we think the meat's terrific.

janet cruz
3/2/2012 12:34:17 AM

I have recently become a mostly vegan due to the overwhelming evidence that eating more than a minimum of animal protein is the cause of our epidemic of disease in the U.S. (Read "The China Study". Factory farming of animals is a travesty on animal nature, but humane free range animal husbandry does not demean the animals. I always remember the statement by one old Swede that, if he is to be reincarnated, he would like to come back as one of his neighbors cows, because they were so pampered. My family raises free range grass fed beef, and consider that the young ones who are sacrificed for meat are the price paid for a long luxurious life protected from preditors and starvation. They would not exist except for animal husbandry.

t brandt
3/1/2012 10:11:24 PM

BTW- excellent article, Bryan. Thanks... The web of life is complex and many urbanites tend to forget where their food comes from and, therefore, to not appreciate it like they might... It's interesting to note that the Plaines Indians, after killing a buffalo, would utter a prayer, thanking the animal for sacrificing it's life that they and their family might survive. Sounds like a tradition worth keeping.

t brandt
3/1/2012 9:59:32 PM

Because veganism is a religion, I will not try to dissuade you from your philosphy, but what makes you think plants that you maim or kill to eat don't feel the pain too?... Your take on unnatural slavery of animals is weak in itself (can I assume you know that Bambi doesn't really speak English to the other animals in the woods?) , it would also apply to plants, unless you're apt to cavort thru the woods collecting only naturally growing & reproducing species of plants for food.... While it is possible to remain healthy on a vegan diet, it is only possible for most vegans in developed countries to exercise their choice by relying very heavily on energy dependent transportion & storage technology for their food. ,,,Farming, of animals or plants, is a commensal relationship: we give them a safe, secure supply of space, food & water. They give us nutrients. It's just like the relationship we each enjoy with the E.coli in our bowels- or do you consider them slaves too?

annie bennett
3/1/2012 8:55:07 PM

This is a well written article and my only wish would be that all others treat their livestock like you. We all develop a full set of teeth in our mouths, some of which are incisors. I believe these to be meat tearing teeth, not just made for berries and lentils. Could I live without meat.? Yes, but for now I will buy from people like you, and concentrate on neglect, and research, and the myriad of other ways that animals suffer needlessly

jocelyn durston
3/1/2012 5:22:54 PM

As someone who has recently made the transition to veganism and who lives on a farm that houses animals that some farm members eat, I've wrestled with this topic too. However, the following two reasons are big ones that I feel are in need of reflection (and that helped me make the vegan choice): 1. Humans don't need to consume animal products to live a healthy life. We have enough resources and information now to get all the nutrients (and delicious flavour!) we need from a vegan diet. At least this is the case in developed, westernized countries (and in underdeveloped countries, most of the poor don't get access to meat anyways). As such, is it moral to take the life of or unnaturally confine an animal when we are not dependent on them for survival? Point 2: The large majority of the animal products humans consume are bred and grown specifically for human consumption and use. Therefore, comparing human consumption of animals with the circle of life that takes place among wildlife is weak. The coyotes don't contain and breed chickens and lambs so that they have an ongoing supply of them. Wild mammal, fish and bird populations reproduce naturally and their numbers are determined by the natural balance of things in their habitat. Your argument would be stronger if you were only referring to wild animals that you went out and hunted, but the human step of creating a cycle of reproduction purely for human gain does demean animal life to a level of slavery that is not found in nature. I encourage readers to honestly and openly consider these points and see if they can still find within themselves ethical justifications for consuming animals (particularly farmed ones). Thanks for the article. An important topic for sure!

steve wallace
3/1/2012 4:58:12 PM

but why are you butchering them at 80lbs,they are only half grown

ronald schweigert
3/1/2012 4:53:19 PM

What a GREAT article! It touches on what I have thought and felt on this subject for my entire life, and never really resolved. So it's good to read someone else's fine prose elucidating his take on the big picture of it all.

beavis green
3/1/2012 4:35:31 PM

"... until they are sold or slaughtered." = slavery