Coming out of a weekend filled with dairy foods for the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, I was tickled to read a story about dairy farmers pampering their cows for the sake of increased milk production. Dairy farmers across the country are going the extra mile to make sure their cows are calm and happy, purchasing waterbeds, playing classical music, and even buying chiropractic massages for their dairy herd. While the science is not yet clear, dairy farmers have noted an increase in the quality and quantity of milk from their pampered cows. In other words, the massages seem to be working.
The idea that happier farm animals produce higher quality food is not new, and it seems to be catching on. Several small scale egg farmers have transitioned to a “pastured” system, allowing their chickens to roam freely to eat grass and bugs the way nature intended. These chickens are not simply “free range” or “cage free,” which are terms that unfortunately don’t have much meaning in today’s food market. “Free range” chickens have access to a small outdoor pen, but they are often so crowded in the hen house that they never find their way out the door. “Cage free” simply means that the hens are kept in large, often overcrowded indoor pens instead of smaller cages. Neither term indicates a substantial change in conditions that would improve the well being of the animals. By contrast, “pastured” eggs come from hens that are allowed to wander freely in grass pastures or large outdoor moveable pens, giving them access to hours of sunshine and fresh grass each day. In the case of pastured hens, a study was conducted in 2007 which concluded pastured eggs contained 1/3 less cholesterol, 1/4 less saturated fat, and 5 times the Vitamin D of commercially produced eggs. In this case, the eggs do turn out better when hens have room to roam and forage, as nature intended.
I spent my childhood on the beautiful Central Coast of California. In this idyllic, unspoiled countryside, I grew up watching happy cows wander peacefully through rolling hills of grass. My great uncle owns a small cattle ranch where the cows are free to roam on many acres of land. It made me happy to see these animals with ample room to graze, enjoying the sunshine and fresh air. It seems right and proper that farm animals, who help us nourish our families, should be given a comfortable life. In fact, in the Torah it says: “I shall provide grass in your field for your animals, and you shall eat and be satisfied” (Deuteronomy 11:15). This phrase was interpreted by the ancient Rabbis in the Talmud to mean that we must feed our animals before we feed ourselves, since we are their caretakers and they are providing food for us. It is one of many Torah rules that encourage sensitivity to the needs of animals.
Unfortunately, there is little room for sensitivity in factory farming. Before he retired, my father was a professor of agricultural business at Cal Poly University, one of the country’s leading colleges for agricultural studies. Once a year he’d take me to the Tulare Farm Equipment show in the California Central Valley. On the way, we’d pass by a massive feedlot for one of our state’s leading beef producers. These feedlots are utilized in the mass production of beef. Cattle are transported to feedlots for the last few months of their lives so they can “fatten up” on a mixture of corn byproducts and grains. I always fought tears as we passed by that feedlot… it was a sad place. Cows stand on mountains of their own feces crowded into small, confined pens. The cattle are often given antibiotics because the unnatural living conditions can lead to sickness. Sadly, most of the cows I saw wandering the hillsides of the Central Coast were eventually transferred to feedlots like these.
Recently there has been an increased interest in grass fed beef, which is pastured its whole life and never transferred to a feedlot. Cows that eat grass as nature intended produce leaner, healthier cuts of meat. Unfortunately, grass fed meat is generally more expensive and harder to find than traditional beef– and if you’re looking for kosher grass fed beef, the search becomes even more challenging.
My personal food philosophy is based on energy. Physics teaches us that everything contains energy, from a spec of sand to a bolt of lightning. There is no life without energy, and food is the energy that fuels us as human beings. It makes sense to me that the purer the energy we put into our bodies, the healthier we become. It’s one of the reasons I eat vegetarian most of the time, and only reserve meat for when my body craves it. If I were a dairy farmer, my cows would most definitely be pampered. What do you think… do happier animals lead to healthier, better quality food products?