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Editor’s Note:

Watch for an article in the July Banner from a farmer’s perspective!

Caring for Animals (Continued)

In the April 2008 Banner article titled “...Also Many Animals,” the writer quotes several misleading statements. In many years of raising pigs on what you may call a "factory farm," I have never seen a pig "go mad." My piglets are not "taken" from their mother; rather, they are encouraged to nurse as soon as possible after birth. The sow's colostrum is the best thing for a newborn. Much effort goes into making pork safe and nutritious.

Harlan Spronk. Edgerton, MN

I own a hog farm that has 500 sows (female hogs). We raise pigs from farrow (birth) to finish (weighing between 250-280 pounds). We are a family farm of five who are all involved in the work.

Yes, as Christian farmers we are commanded to be good stewards of the creatures God has given us to reign over. And most farmers, myself included, would tell you that humane treatment of livestock and the success of their farm go hand in hand. After all, the healthier our hogs are, the more successful our farm will be.

Our farm uses the gestation stalls talked about in the article. These stalls give each animal equal opportunity for food and water to grow and allow baby pigs to grow inside the sows without injury from sows fighting each other in group pens. Sows that are grouped together in pens tend to form a type of pecking order, causing dominant hogs to get more of the feed and water, so any animal that is a little slow or thin will fall behind and could become sick or lame.

Sows in gestation stalls are given their own ration of feed that differs from pig to pig depending on the physical condition of each. And if on occasion an animal becomes sick, it can be treated and observed better than if the animal were in a group of pigs in a pen.

The sows are kept in climate-controlled barns with temps between 65-70 F, even in the dead of winter. In the summer sows are kept cool and comfortable with sprinklers and fans.

Newborn pigs are put in farrowing stalls, which are used to keep sows from laying on their young. The baby pigs are kept warm with heat lamps and warming mats. Allowing a sow to give birth in an open area leads to more baby pigs being laid on and killed by the sow. So not using farrowing stalls seems cruel to me if I look at from the point of view of the baby pig being laid on by its 500-pound mother.

At three weeks the young pigs are weaned from the sow—not right after birth as asserted in the article.

It always amazes me how people not involved in farming day to day seem to know the best way to care for my animals, the best type of meat to purchase, and whether or not my animals are happy.

I understand the concerns brought up by the article, but as a farmer I believe that the proper welfare and the way I am caring for my animals go hand in hand with good business practice and how I believe Gods expects me to be a good steward of the animals under my care.

—Carl Helder and FamilyHamilton, Mich.

Rev. Leonard Vander Zee attacks modern agriculture practices based on information he read from Matthew Scully, an environmentalist. He based his opinions on secondhand information, not actual life experiences. I would like to set the record straight.

Modern agriculture practices today put animal welfare as a top priority. Animals housed in modern livestock buildings are never threatened by the harsh elements of the weather; they are kept in a climate that is always comfortable, which is important for a hog since their bodies don’t have the ability to sweat. Our climate-controlled barns ensure quality air for our animals and our farmers.  My children’s favorite place on our farm is inside our hog barns working with their dad. The air inside our barns is just as safe as the air they breathe at school.

Animals housed inside barns are also protected from being attacked by predators. Our animals have a consistent supply of food and water available to them at all times, and they do not have to fight the “bully” for enough nourishment for their bodies.

Our farrowing stalls protect our sows and enable them to give birth without being stepped on by other sows; this allows the sow to have a comfortable environment in which to give birth to and focus on her newborn litter. Our piglets stay with their mother until they are able to eat pellet feed, which will give their bodies the nourishment they need to be strong and healthy.

We also have heat lamps in every sow stall to provide added warmth for the newborn pigs and we adjust the height of the lamps as the pigs grow. These are all measures to ensure the comfort of our animals; if these animals were outdoors, they would not have this opportunity to thrive, especially in harsh weather. In the summer, our barns are the coolest place on our farm thanks to modern technology. We provide them with air conditioning, just like you have in your home, office, and car.  This is a humane way to care for animals.

We use antibiotics only when necessary to improve the quality of life for our animals. Our climate-controlled facilities have decreased the amount of antibiotics needed because we are able to secure the animals’ environment and prevent diseases. They don’t need to be wormed or de-loused, as do animals that are raised outside. This is not only safer for our animals, but for our environment as well.

Our barns cost more than the houses we live in; it takes years to pay for them. The true benefit is for the animal, not the farmer.

I hope I never see a day when the majority of our food comes from countries like China or Mexico, like the majority of my children’s toys do today.  If people continue to attack agriculture with inaccurate information, you will force family farmers like me out of business; and our food will be imported from countries that have no regulations to provide safe food.   

—Chris ChinnClarence, Missouri

Most modern, large farming practices restore and redeem creation by preventing and controlling disease, thereby producing the safest, most abundant food in history. Hormones, antibiotics, and food-borne illnesses are closely regulated, tested, and monitored b the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. While the thought of “happy” sun-bathed pigs and chickens makes people feel good, stewardly companies address the needs for good food and water, the fear of predation, and avoidance of pain and suffering. Try turning loose your own dog, cat, or fish to the wild open range or stream—I assure you this is not compassionate dominion; your food may not think so either.

—Dan Altena, VeterinarianVisalia, Calif.

Although I now belong to the United Methodist Church, I still receive The Banner and was very pleased and impressed to see this article. I have personally become a vegan because of the inherent evil and cruelty to animals that are “factory farmed.” I am a member of PETA and the Humane Farming Association and participate in animal-rights activism work where and when I can. I have given a copy of this article to my son-in-law, who pastors a large United Methodist church in Florida—suggesting that the Methodist Church take a more open, visible, and verbal stand against factory farming.

I commend you for your courage to speak out against evil. And the animals, who cannot speak up for themselves, surely thank you too.

—Carol L. VroonGainsville, Fla.


I really enjoyed the articles "...Also Many Animals" and "Taking the Long Way Home," found in the April Banner. We so often become trapped by the conveniences of our society, such as owning gas-guzzling vehicles and purchasing cheaper factory-farmed meat and pesticide-laden produce. These are just two examples of ways we put our own immediate comfort ahead of God's will for us to be stewards for the earth. Not only do we harm God's creation by poorly managing and wasting resources, we hurt ourselves. No matter how advanced technology gets, or how much we try to control what God has created, we are still a part of his creation. Thank you for reminding us to put our own comforts aside and start thinking about the big picture!

—Rebecca RoosmaPort Alberni, British Columbia

I was inspired by this article. The story Rev. Vander Zee tells of the hog farmer who revamped the way he raises hogs is a fantastic example of a Christian working to transform his part of the world.

In the past few years I have been learning about the horrors of factory farming. What I have read about factory farms is so unimaginable that I was initially skeptical about the reality of it until I began seeing pictures and videos (courtesy of the Humane Farming Association, the Humane Society of the U.S., and yes, even the sometimes-extreme PETA). How great it would be if we all followed Vander Zee’s example and, whenever possible, bought meat, eggs, and milk from sources where we know the animals are allowed to graze, root, and hunt and peck as God intended them to. Yes, as Vander Zee points out, it does cost more. While it can be somewhat of a financial sacrifice, it is good stewardship of the animals and the environment, and that is worth a lot.

A huge thank-you to the Banner staff for the excellent articles you have published on our roles in caring for God’s creation. No one should care more about the well-being of this world—and all of its inhabitants—than Christians. It’s exciting to know that our daily choices can make a difference for the Kingdom.

—Kelly Van EeYpsilanti, Mich.

The second half of this article seems built around sentimentally treating food animals as pets. This seems to be a reflection of the nostalgic trend in our suburban culture. But if a pig should not be kept in a crate and have access to sunshine, what about gerbils and guinea pigs? Where is the moral outcry about a goldfish confined to a gallon-and-a-half of water on someone’s desk, with no room to exercise its natural instincts? Why is it wrong to keep a chicken in a cage and not wrong to keep a parakeet in a cage?

While I presume the author meant well—and he is entitled to his opinion—based on the article’s oversimplification, I doubt he has the experience, practical knowledge, or expertise to write credibly on the subject. By generating misinformation, an atmosphere of suspicion is created about food and the people who produce it that is unwarranted. A more productive discussion could take place focusing on question such as these:

  • As Christians, where do we get our basis for our understanding of what is humane and acceptable care for animals?
  • How important is the knowledge of an animal’s basic nature and uniqueness in determining compassionate care?
  • Should Christian standards of care be different for “edibles” than for “pettables”?

As a Christian farmer, I believe we need to constantly evaluate and refine how we care for animals, but we need to do so in a fully informed and balanced biblical manner.

—George H. BiermaSioux Center, Iowa

My wife and I are members of the American Farm Bureau Federation Young Farmer and Rancher Committee, and I am also a fifth generation pork producer from southern Michigan. I, along with my dad, uncle, and cousin, make a living raising pigs on our family farm. This recent article is a bit misguided and does not paint an accurate picture of pork production today.

We, as pork producers, have the welfare and care of these animals as our top priority. Not only are we Christians who respect all of God’s creation, we are also business owners.  It would not make good business sense to treat the very thing providing our family with an income in a way that harms or keeps it from reaching its full potential.

With scientific research and technology, pork production (along with all facets of agriculture production) has come a long way from the days most people envision when they think of a family farm. As with any industry you want to name, the world’s need for safe, reliable goods (food in this case) has demanded more efficiency and better tracking of the goods we produce and consume.

Less than 1 percent of our population is involved in production agriculture, and most of the population is now at least three generations removed from the farm. This has led to an increased number of consumers that expect a safe, healthy, and reliable food source and a decreased number of people producing it. With this in mind, we as agriculture producers have a big job to do in educating the average consumer about what we do and why we do it. Judging by this article (and many like it), we are not getting that job done. As a young farmer, I hope to do as much of that as I can, because my generation has the most to lose.

I am always happy to talk about our operation and our industry and to answer any questions our “non-ag” friends have. I’m including links to some websites where you can find facts about our industry, which should shed some light on our management practices and the science behind  (National Pork Board) Pork Producers Association)

—Josh Norton

I was disappointed that Rev. Vander Zee has concluded that the way we produce pork is wrong. My first reaction was one of deep hurt, but after I read the article again I realized that I really agree with the basic premise of the article that we do need to take good care of our animals. However, I believe that the conclusions reached are misguided.

In the early 1970s we were a young, third-generation, pork-producing family just learning how to get hogs out of dirty lots and into sanitary environmentally controlled buildings. A lot has happened since then, but I have yet to observe “pigs going mad” or piglets separated from their mothers at birth.

We have just come through a rather severe Iowa winter.  We had to battle the snow and the cold, but it was rewarding to see our pigs warm and dry.

We now market delicious pork from coast to coast and even export some. We have hosted customers and other visitors from all over the world to show them that our animals are well cared for. If you come for a visit, you will see that our pigs appear quite happy and content, even though they have never seen straw or mud or snow.    In addition, we will also show you how we collect the manure and spread it evenly on the cornfields so that we have to use very little commercial fertilizer.

    —Ken and Gerri Van Gilst
Oskaloosa, Iowa  

The readers of The Banner must understand that the Midwest farmer is not only very conscious of his responsibility of caring humanely for his animals because they are God’s creatures, and not only does he have great expense in providing feed, bedding, medicine, and shelter for his animals, he has the added responsibility of providing a well-nourished, disease-free, and affordable product. That product not only allows him to provide for his family and support Kingdom ministries and Christian education, but also feeds approximately a 100 people in the world other than himself. I wonder how many urban poor, young families, and starving people in famine-stricken, war-torn countries are able to spend a little more to buy meat, fish, and eggs like Rev. Vander Zee?

—Rev. Robert TimmerInwood (Iowa) Christian Reformed Church

Christian farmers know the importance of being good stewards of the resources God has entrusted to us. We spend many hours of hard work caring for our animals and for the soil so that we might pass our farms and heritage down to the next generation.

I believe the church’s role is to go into all the world and preach the gospel. There are many people that need to know that salvation. Why is the church spending time preaching “political correctness” instead of salvation?

—Mike Ver SteegInwood, Iowa

This article leads readers to believe that most farms are owned by large corporations. In fact, 98 percent of the farms and ranches in the United States are owned by families, including the one that my wife and our three young children live on.

As a Christian, I take great pride in caring for God’s creatures. Technology has allowed us to raise more food with less inputs, so that American consumers need to spend only 10 percent of their annual income on food. Many of the technologies that farmers and ranchers use to raise livestock have made animals much more comfortable.  Research is very clear on the fact that animals are most productive when they are most content, which is why we provide them with protection from the elements, nutritious feed, and clean water.

Animal welfare is a top priority for livestock producers because our human welfare depends on it.  

—Troy HadrickVale, S.D.

I’ve just come back from checking the pigs on my son and daughter-in-law’s farm, as they are away for the weekend. I come home feeling a certain amount of guilt.

After showering into this immaculate young pig nursery, I see the computer screen telling me that the next feeding should begin in four minutes. I look out of the office window into the “kitchen,” where a stainless-steel blender combines grain, protein, and liquid dairy by-product ingredients precisely as prompted by the computer, feeding each pen of 30 piglets 16 times per day—just like their mamas used to do. The pigs scurry about on soft, perforated plastic flooring, clean and dry, or sleep contentedly in their own designated sleeping area. The centrally heated barn is totally vacated every eight weeks, hot water pressure washed, and disinfected. The sparkling facility is then ready to accommodate its next group of pigs.

After “showering out” of the nursery, I drive over to our own finishing barn and “shower in.” Street clothes are prohibited in the barns; only coveralls are worn. The finishing pigs are in larger pens. Temperature probes prompt the computer to lower the wall panels, flooding the barn with sunlight as “chimneys” ventilate the barn naturally, without the use of noisy electrical fans.

Computer-controlled gates keep the pigs within their own weight ranges. Feed is formulated using grain and bakery by-products, and the pigs have the option of how they will enjoy dinner—porridge or dry or a bit of both, as feed is always before them. In this barn the production cycle takes 15 weeks, then this barn too is hot water pressure washed and disinfected. By using stringent bio-security protocol (keeping things really clean), and by using this all in-all out method, disease is minimized and pharmaceutical needs are all but eliminated. Production records are meticulously kept to satisfy the quality concerns of the end meat purchasers. Manure is stored in the concrete “basement” of the barn and applied sparingly to fields in the spring to fertilize the crops.

If things are so great, then why do I feel a sense of guilt? I feel guilty knowing that these pigs have it better than probably half the children in the world. They are happy, clean, well-fed, warm, and healthy. (Yes, a farmer can tell if animals are happy.)

It troubles me to come home and read another fear-mongering fantasy about the factory farm. Our barns are not an anomaly. Today’s pork is a healthy, efficient source of meat protein. I find it strangely hypocritical that our big-box consumer society thinks its food should come from “Old MacDonald’s Farm,” where, by the way, pigs could root around in their own filth and chickens could peck undigested grain out of cow pies.

—Ray DykstraGorrie, Ontario

Historically, North Americans have paid the least of anybody in the world to eat, and we have been able to provide for the needs of so many of the world’s less fortunate. Our farming practices enable us to do that. The idea of free-range chickens and organic, field-raised meat is an incredible waste of land and resources when we need to focus on getting the most out of less and less acreage. I will say this—farrowing crates have been legislated out of existence in several states, but the idea of going back whole-hog, so to speak, to the mom and pop farm is ridiculous. In order to survive, farmers have to produce on a large basis. Economies of scale dictate that.

I would recommend that everyone read Matthew Scully’s book mentioned in the article. It is inciteful. Another good read is Saving the World with Pesticides and Plastic by Dennis T. Avery. It is compelling.

Finally, Rev. Vander Zee, feel free to run around and overpay for your free-range chicken dinner. But don’t judge me as less committed for enjoying my corn-fed, corral-housed rib eye steak.

—Murray Minnema, DVMVisalia, Calif.

Growing up, I saw many an outdoor pig with welts following a bad sunburn or being dug out after a storm, so when it was my turn, I chose to raise pigs indoors. The pigs were housed in nice buildings, with controlled temperatures and access to water and feed. They received my daily attention. Not only were they protected from inclement weather, including snow and ice, but most important, they were protected from predators and contact with other wildlife that could sicken them. I concerned myself with the welfare of my animals, as my brother and many pork producers of today do.

Science and experience have helped my brother and I understand that the type of facilities or the size of the operation does not affect the well-being of animals as much as the husbandry skills of those involved in their care.

As a pork producer, I know animals, and the animals I cared for were well-provided for and had their spatial, nutritional, health, and environmental needs satisfied. I do not know when and if an animal is happy. I don’t know if anyone can. I believe caution is needed before we apply human descriptions to animals. We must remember that God created human beings in his own image, but he did not create animals in his image.

—Bernard Ver SteegSioux Center, Iowa

As a veterinarian, retired university professor, and research scientist, I found the article “…Also Many Animals” to be very timely. Currently, there is considerable interest in the subject of animal welfare and rights, and this area has been of genuine concern to me for numerous years. I was selected by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) to be a member of their initial Animal Welfare Committee many years ago. Further, I served with the Governmental Relations Division of AVMA in Washington, D.C., for a time, and met with national congressional representatives regarding introduction and passage of appropriate legislation to ensure humane and proper care and use of animals.

Fortunately, those responsible for animal production have, over hundreds of years, determined what methods of husbandry are optimal. Over this time span, many different methods have been practiced; some of them were retained while others were abandoned, resulting in continual improvement in animal care and production. Thus, it has been well substantiated that raising livestock under free-range conditions is often both harmful and dangerous to our farm animals and is not in the best interest of consumers.

Free-range poultry are subjected to eating bugs, worms, and various other harmful dietary items. Further, they may drink from water sources polluted by infectious agents or poisonous chemicals. Additionally, they are subjected to parasitic infestations from wild birds as well as fatal attacks from various predators. Poultry housed under controlled conditions are provided with adequate environmental conditions, appropriate sanitation practices, nutritious and safe diets, and required health care. Our American populace would be well-advised to consume poultry products from animals reared under confined situations.

The situation differs little when one considers domestic food animals such as cattle, swine, and sheep. Leaving them to roam freely exposes them to hurtful elements such as excessive cold or heat, snow or ice, rain, hail, and lightning. Frequently, they consume weeds or other harmful plants. Additionally, they may be exposed to parasites from wild animals, foul water sources, numerous farm chemicals, and various predators such as wild dogs, coyotes, and wolves.

Modern confinement husbandry methods provide livestock with adequate sanitation and protection from danger. Such animals are healthier, better fed, and safe from harmful influences. Thus, using confined cattle, swine, and sheep for food or milk is highly preferable.

Vander Zee quotes distinguished professor of philosophy, Bernard Rollin. Rollin indicated that modern swine husbandry practices, using gestation crates for sows while having their young, were inappropriate and inhumane. The exact opposite is true. Sows generally plop down indiscriminately when they wish to nurse their piglets. Before the advent of these crates, they frequently crushed and killed some of their baby pigs as they lay down carelessly. Obviously, animal welfare would be better served if Professor Rollin provided advice for those in his discipline and left the care and use of livestock to those with considerable experience in this area.

There is no doubt that some farm animals are treated inhumanely. However, essentially all competent livestock owners know such treatment only causes poor animal reproduction, growth, health, and performance. Thus, inhumane treatment of these animals is indeed rare.

—John B. Mulder, DVM, MS, MEd.Leawood, Kansas

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