How violent can a farmer get with his livestock?

Answers to your questions about the news.
May 26 2010 6:09 PM

Cow Whipping

How violent can a farmer get with his livestock?

An animal rights group has released a video showing workers at an Ohio dairy farm punching cows, stabbing them with a pitchfork, and beating them with a crowbar. How violent is a rancher or dairy farmer allowed to get with his livestock?

In some states, as violent as he likes. Farmers, for the most part, are merely expected to abide by industry standards—that is, to treat their livestock as other farmers do. Lifelong confinement in small cages and using a hot blade to trim a chicken's beak, for example, are widely permitted as customary agricultural practices. (A handful of states, however, have recently prohibited certain confinement systems.) Acts of violence or mutilation are typically illegal only if they are unnecessary and out of the ordinary. Because stomping on a calf's head is hardly a tradition in animal husbandry, Ohio prosecutors could try to press charges, but at worst the dairy farmers will get slapped with misdemeanors. To face a felony charge for animal cruelty in Ohio, the perpetrator has to abuse a companion, laboratory, or zoo animal.

Federal law has very little to say about the treatment of livestock. The Animal Welfare Act applies mainly to research animals. The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act requires farmers to knock out livestock with a single blow, shot, or electrical charge before being butchering them, but the law only governs slaughterhouses, not farms. (It also doesn't apply to poultry, which represents more than 95 percent of slaughtered animals. You're free to kill your chicken any way you like under federal law.) The 28 Hour Law of 1873 requires that farm animals get five hours of R & R for every 28 hours of train transport, but few cattle ride the rails these days.

States have long been trying to reconcile the urge to protect pets and zoo animals with the need to let farmers do their jobs. Ohio law, for example, prohibits keeping animals "in an enclosure without wholesome exercise and change of air," unless they are livestock. Maine's anti-bestiality law bars using "any part of the person's body or an object to sexually stimulate an animal," but notes that the provision "may not be construed to prohibit normal and accepted practices of animal husbandry."

It's difficult to prosecute a farmer successfully for animal cruelty because what's "normal and accepted" is rather fuzzy. A farmer in Ohio who killed his sick and unmarketable pigs by lynching them with log chains from his front loader was acquitted when he found a veterinarian to argue that the method might not be any more painful than approved euthanasia practices like drugs or a gunshot.

According to animal advocates, there are also practical obstacles to animal-cruelty prosecutions. Local prosecutors in farming communities are often unwilling to press charges against their neighbors. The judge in the Ohio pig lynching case was, himself, a former farmer, and an Ohio pork producers association raised $10,000 for the defense. The prosecution had difficulty finding a veterinarian to testify, because many rely on farmers for employment.

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Explainer thanks Bob Baker of the ASPCA, Paul Shapiro of the Humane Society of the United States, and David Wolfson of Columbia Law School.

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Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.