Animal Agriculture | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Animal Agriculture

Animal agriculture is the practice of breeding animals for the production of animal products and for recreational purposes.
Feed Lot in Saskatchewan.
These cattle are being grain-fed for about three months in preparation for slaughter. They are housed in separate pens to segregate the cattle by size, ownership, and sex. Image: Agriculture Canada.

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.)

Food Supply

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.


The potential for the rapid spread of animal disease was first recognized in the 19th century when the growing volumes of livestock shipped by railway and marine modes increased the likelihood of epizootic disease outbreaks (i.e. diseases spread between the same type of animal at the same time) such as aftosa (hoof and mouth disease), anthrax and brucellosis. The risk of contagious disease transmission is heightened in concentrated animal feeding operations and vaccination against many of these diseases is routine in Canada. Care is taken to administer the vaccine well in advance of slaughter and human consumption. In recent years the potential for animal diseases to infect human beings has become a public policy concern. This was best exemplified by the discovery of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in 2003 and as a result, Canadian cattle and beef exports were embargoed for over a year by most of Canada’s trading partners.

Artificial Hormones

Artificial growth hormones are used by most beef cattle producers in Canada and the United States to increase daily rate of gain and lean meat yield. These hormones have been banned in the European Union. Europeans justify the artificial hormone ban on the grounds that it has not yet been possible to determine the absence of health risks with certainty, while North American regulators believe that the safety of beef produced with artificial hormones has been established by scientific consensus and the weight of evidence. Nonetheless, some Canadian consumers are calling for beef that is free of artificial hormones and a growing number of organic beef cattle producers are prepared to meet this consumer preference with meat that is certified free of artificial hormones. Synthetic growth hormones are typically introduced as a pellet implanted in the ear, a part of the animal that does not enter the food chain. However one commonly used hormone, melengestrol acetate (MGA), is administered as a feed additive to slaughter heifers. In Canada, unlike the United States, artificial hormones are used only in the production of beef cattle. Artificial hormones are not administered to dairy cows or to any other food animal species.

Food Animal Marketing

Marketing of food animals marks the industry boundary between animal agriculture and meat processing, and the distribution channels vary enormously from one species to another. In Canada, provinces operate marketing boards that govern the commercial production and sale of market hogs, meat chickens, turkeys and fluid milk. Aged dairy cows (culls), sheep, lambs and goats tend to be sold at auction marts or direct to meat processors. Beef cattle are sold direct to packers, often on “forward contracts” in which the feed-lot operator agrees to supply a number of cattle with specified attributes such as age, sex and breed, and weight at a particular price per unit of live weight. Most broiler processors operate their own egg hatcheries; thus they have complete control over the genetics of the chickens that they buy from producers. In addition, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency oversees ante mortem inspection of food animals entering federally-inspected plants.

Meat Consumption and Livestock Production Trends

While red meat and dairy food consumption in Canada, the United States and most of Western Europe has been declining since the mid-1970s, at a global scale, human consumers are eating more meat per capita than ever before. And since the global population is itself growing, the world supports more domesticated food animals than they have historically. For these reasons, animal agriculture is growing globally, particularly in the production of pigs, sheep, goats and poultry in Asia.

Some Canadian consumers prefer not to eat meat from animals that were produced in concentrated feeding operations and processed through large-scale meat packing plants. Therefore, there is a small but growing market niche for small-scale, locally-oriented producers to supply food animals that meet the standards required to be sold as natural or “certified organic” meat. A number of relatively small-scale producers and associated processors certify that their meat comes from animals that are free-ranging on organic pasture and that have never been exposed to artificial hormones or pharmaceutical antimicrobials. Another niche meat market served by animal agriculture is the production of alternative or exotic livestock, food animals that have been imported to Canada recently from overseas or domesticated in Canada. These farmed animals include rabbit, bison, ratites (ostrich), ungulates (deer) and a wide variety of game birds (e.g., pheasant). (See Rabbit Farming.)

Other Types of Animal Agriculture

Two types of animal agriculture stand in sharp contrast to other forms of farm-based animal production: fur farming and beekeeping (apiculture). Unlike food animals, fur-bearing animals (mainly mink and foxes) are carnivores and fed an animal-based ration (including offal products from meat and fish processing plants, and meal from hatcheries). Fur farms raise animals for their pelts not for their meat. After some years of decline, the production of farmed fur pelts, over 75 per cent raised in Atlantic Canada, has been growing rapidly to serve buoyant export markets, mainly in China and Russia. Bees forage for nectar in agricultural regions and in addition to honey, provide valuable pollination services to surrounding farms. Beekeeping is concentrated in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

A number of economic and recreational activities involve farm animals of different kinds. While horses were once integral to farm life in a way they are not today (in 1931, 80 per cent of farms had horses, while in 2006 this number had dropped to 24 per cent) they continue to be used for a variety of purposes. Today, horses may be kept for recreational use, sports, the production of pharmaceutical products or farm work. In addition, many of these horses eventually make their way to farms where they are fed in preparation for slaughter. Canadian horsemeat is exported, mainly to Western Europe and Japan. Finally, a variety of other animals play a role in agricultural activities yet their numbers are not captured by traditional accounting or census frameworks. Guard animals such as dogs, donkeys and llamas are commonly maintained to protect flocks and herds from predation while barn cats are fed and sheltered to provide non-toxic rodent control wherever grain crops and animal feed are stored.

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