High welfare farming addresses the needs of animals first, ensuring that every animal has access to clean water, fresh air, appropriate feed and a stress-free environment. The opportunity to exhibit natural behaviors such as ranging, foraging, rooting, and grooming is also a requisite.
Access to pasture or foraging areas is critical in meeting the animals’ innate behavioral needs, and is fundamental to this kind of farming approach. As animals are social creatures, high welfare farms are designed to allow them to form natural family groups and hierarchies while offering protection from extremes of temperature, thirst, hunger, and fear.
Diet is another key aspect of high welfare farming: Animals are fed a natural diet according to their metabolic systems, rather than providing complex rations designed solely to maximize “productivity.” In a high welfare system, farmers focus on promoting health rather than simply treating disease. Farmers work to enhance animals’ natural immunity to resist everyday disease challenges rather than relying on veterinary intervention.
Unlike high welfare farming, factory farming systems often feed farm animals low doses of antibiotics to maximize growth rates and suppress diseases that would inevitably spread in overcrowded and unhealthy conditions. But this exposure to low levels of antibiotics has led to the development of antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria, which presents a significant threat to public health. In high welfare systems, however, farmers use antibiotics solely to treat sick animals, not to reinforce poorly designed systems or promote unnatural growth.
Animals bred exclusively for productivity traits, such as high growth rates, will be more susceptible to disease and may suffer from physiological problems. However in high welfare systems, farmers select breeds for their ability to thrive in the local farm environment. Because the farming system is designed to suit the needs of the animal – rather than maximizing productivity at all costs – high welfare farmers don’t rely on painful mutilations (such as tail docking piglets to prevent biting) deemed “necessary” when large numbers of animals are confined in small spaces.