Animal agriculture is the practice of breeding animals for the production of animal products and for recreational purposes. While Canada still has many mixed farms on which animals are but one component in overall farm production and income, a large proportion of Canada’s main food animals are now raised in specialized, single-species farms and housed in confined feeding operations for a significant portion of their lives.
Animal agriculture is the practice of breeding animals for the production of animal products and for recreational purposes. While Canada still has many mixed farms on which animals are but one component in overall farm production and income, a large proportion of Canada’s main food animals (dairy cows, beef cattle, pigs, poultry and sheep) are now raised in specialized, single-species farms and housed in confined feeding operations for a significant portion of their lives. In addition to Canada’s domestic meat consumption per capita being relatively high, the country is also consistently among the top 10 global exporters of beef and pork products.
Advances in Genetics and Nutrition
Change in animal agriculture has been impressive. From the advent of genetically-informed breeding practices in the late 18th century, and nutritional studies of the effects of diet on animal growth, technological change in animal husbandry has greatly increased both the average size of farm animals as well as their productivity. For example, Holstein cows (which account for over 90 per cent of Canada’s dairy herd) have more than doubled their milk production over the past 50 years. Most broiler-sized chickens reach market weight at about 38 days of age in Canada, four times heavier than a broiler chicken of the same age in 1957.
Canadian breed associations (which maintain a register or “herd book” of pure-bred animals and set the standards for physical appearance of the breed) date from 1884 with the founding of what is now called Holstein Canada. In 1900, federal legislation established a nation-wide standard for pedigree records that gave breed associations the exclusive right to register pure-bred stock. Pure breeds such as Hereford cattle, Suffolk sheep, Yorkshire hogs and Leghorn laying hens have been improved by selective breeding, and are often crossed with other breeds to benefit from “hybrid vigour, ” combining the best features of two or more breeds. The breeding of cows and ewes that graze on extensive pasture land is typically left up to bulls and rams which make an important contribution to the genetics of the herd; indeed, ranchers are fond of saying that “the bull is half the herd.” However, the breeding of confined animals such as dairy cows, sows and hatchery hens is typically achieved artificially using semen that is collected from males selected to introduce specific reproductive or growth traits into the herd or flock.
Animal Production Systems
Prior to the Second World War, most Canadian farms were small in size, and included a broad and diverse mixture of grain, specialty crops, dairy and beef cattle, hogs and poultry. However, following trends first established in the United States and northwestern Europe, in the wake of the Second World War, most food animals in Canada are now raised by large-scale producers specializing in a single species and phase of the animal production process. For example, chicken hatcheries are typically separate in both ownership and location from chicken growers that raise chickens to slaughter weight. Egg-laying hens are housed separately from meat chickens and hatching egg production is completely separate from table egg production. Cow-calf operations that specialize in pasturing and breeding cows, and in raising calves up to weaning, are typically separate from feed lots that feed grain to cattle to prepare them for slaughter. By contrast, pig production has quite a number of different production systems in Canada. Some producers specialize in gestation, reproduction and the production of 10- week-old weaner pigs, while others with access to large supplies of grain concentrate on finishing pigs to market weight. However, an increasing proportion of Canadian hogs are raised in fully-integrated “farrow-to-finish barns” in which pigs are born, weaned, fed and finished to slaughter weight in a single, closely monitored, environmentally-controlled facility. Hogs are particularly vulnerable to infectious disease — one reason hog barns are carefully designed and controlled to minimize exposure to external sources of infection. (See also Pig Farming; Dairy Farming; Poultry Farming; Beef Cattle Farming.)
While horses and ruminant food animals (e.g. cattle, sheep and goats) obtain a significant part of their food supply from grazing on standing grass and sun-cured hay, food animals raised in confined feeding operations are fed a diet that is carefully formulated to maximize meat, milk or egg production at the lowest cost. Few hogs are now fed on human food scraps and cattle are rarely ever raised on an all-grass diet. Feed grains such as barley and corn, soybeans, silage and forage crops such as alfalfa are typically grown on the farm, but to some extent, all are augmented with commercial food supplements or industrial by-products to blend a ration that is carefully planned to maximize growth at each life phase and, in the case of breeding animals, to foster the development of healthy offspring. Antimicrobials (including antibiotics) may be included in the feed ration as a disease-preventing measure or they may be administered as an injection, typically to treat a bacterial disease.