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Ask Dr. Brazil: What is the definition of a factory farm?

In this video and post, Ranch Vision founder and large animal veterinarian Dr. Rich Brazil, DVM breaks down the meaning of the often-used phrase "factory farm."

Terms like "factory farm" are often used to malign animal agriculture and to create a negative impression of farmers and ranchers, but few pause to question what they actually mean. When we examine this descriptor a little more closely, the answer is both shocking and revealing.

What Is REALLY Happening in American Animal Agriculture?

As a large animal veterinarian for 37 years, I have studied animal agriculture both in the United States and internationally and understand the industry well.


When I heard the phrase "factory farm," I found it distressing. This language brings to mind a cruel and dangerous operation—animals in unsanitary cages and environmentally destructive management practices. When I read that 94% of U.S. meat comes from these so-called “factory farms,” I was even more disturbed.


But I know that the vast majority of ranches and farms in the United States are classified as small (89%) and family-owned (98%).

I also know that in my role as a veterinarian, I have been called in by law enforcement to deal with cases of animal abuse. But one place I have never seen animal abuse is on a commercial agriculture operation. Farmers and ranchers care about their animals, and they also have their financial wellbeing tied to the welfare of their animals.


So which is it? Both these depictions of American agriculture can’t be right. I decided to dive deeper, and here’s what I learned.

"Factory Farm" Is a Phrase Without Meaning

I believe the phrase “factory farming” is an empty, emotionally manipulative phrase designed to evoke exactly the type of reaction I first felt when I heard it.

The fact is, there is no regulatory or quantifiable definition the phrase "factory farming."

Pro-vegan news platform Green Queen says: "There is no internationally agreed-upon definition of what factory farms are."

While there are dictionary definitions that describe how the term "factory farm" is used, there is no real or measurable explanation that would, for example, exempt a small, family-owned farm or ranch--no doubt not the sort of operation a well-meaning consumer has in mind when trying to avoid or outlaw animal cruelty, environmental mismanagement, or unsafe food production.

Myth or Fact: "94% of Meat in the U.S. Is Produced on Factory Farms"

Because, as we've established, there is no definition of a factory farm, the constantly-repeated statistics about the percentage of meat produced in these facilities is meaningless. It is a claim designed to mislead consumers.

Sometimes, these phrases are associated with the regulatory terms animal feeding operation (AFO) or concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO), which then allows activists to falsely claim that "almost all" meat produced in the U.S. is grown on "factory farms." But what are AFOs and CAFOs?

Let's break down these terms.

The Truth About AFOs and CAFOs

AFO is the official regulatory term for a farm by the Department of Agriculture (USDA). It has nothing to do with animal welfare, and is not designed as a negative or derogatory label. It is simply an industry term to define what happens on a livestock farm where animals are being raised and fed.

CAFO is not an agricultural industry label, it is an environmental impact label given by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). A CAFO is an AFO, a farm, that has been designated a potential source of surface water contamination by the EPA, perhaps because it is near a river, stream, or even a drainpipe. That's all. Again, this term has nothing to do with animal welfare, animal treatment, animal health, etc. It is merely a regulatory term to do with potential livestock impact on the environment.

Only when animal rights activists replace these benign regulatory terms (AFO and CAFO) with the scaremongering title "factory farms," can they make the completely misleading claim that "factory farms" are the source of almost all meat produced in the U.S. Do you see the game now?

AFOs and CAFOs are just farms and ranches. The title isn't scary enough, so activists came up with their own to redefine safe, healthy, good American farms and ranches and make them seem dangerous and immoral.

Most U.S. Farms & Ranches Are Small & Family-Owned

These are some facts about the real state of American animal agriculture:

  • 89% of all farms and ranches in the United States are classified as SMALL

  • 98% of all farms and ranches in the United States are FAMILY-OWNED

  • The average herd size of a U.S. beef operation is 40 head of cattle.

This is a positive message; our national story of independent American agriculture is one we should all be proud to tell. Unfortunately, the truth is, the honest, hardworking farmers and ranchers who feed us are outnumbered. Less than 2% of Americans work in production agriculture.

The Deception Is Intentional. Who Is Behind This?

Animal rights activists are not hiding the ball. They want to end meat consumption altogether.

"Factory farming" is a survey-tested phrase meant to evoke horrible images of mistreated animals in cages, in order to falsely suggest that most U.S. meat is produced in terrible, cruel, unsanitary conditions. The end goal? Animal activists want to end animal agriculture.

They state this openly. Direct Action Everywhere says on their website that their goal is to end animal farming in the United States by 2030.

Language Has Consequences: Sonoma County, California Set to Vote on "Factory Farm Ban"

This may seem like a small issue, but it’s not—there are real world consequences.


In a war of ideas, the first battle is always over language. We should not concede terminology to bad actors or allow extremists to define our industry.


This November, voters in Sonoma County, California will decide on the nation’s first “factory farm ban.” The group behind this ban is connected to Direct Action Everywhere—the extremist organization hellbent on banning animal agriculture altogether.


A recent official report in California found that this group may have intentionally started the avian flu outbreak in Sonoma County that resulted in the culling of 250,000 chickens and ducks.


These activists are not interested in better farming practices. They want to criminalize meat eating and end animal farming.


This “factory farm ban,” if passed, will simply result in banning farms and ranches, most of which are family farms and family-owned ranches.

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