Personal Essay: What a factory farm looks like

by Rachel Atcheson

Have you been inside a factory farm?” It’s the question I’m most often asked as I give presentations to students about large industrial farms. Until recently, the answer was “no.” Instead I relied on the experiences of two trusted friends who worked as undercover investigators at several facilities. At each one they witnessed the same cruelty and appalling conditions.

I finally had the chance to see it myself when a friend asked me to help him film a dairy farm for a documentary. The facility was certified organic, and I was hoping to see fields of grass and healthy, well-treated cows in an environment that bears some resemblance to the bucolic imagery on milk cartons.

What I saw was a crowded feedlot lined with dirt, mud, and manure. The stench from piles of waste was overpowering, and the cows’ legs and hides were caked with feces. A conveyer belt of 75 cows rotated on a milking machine the size of a city intersection. Each cow entered the machine three times a day and had tubes put on her udders to be milked. It would be inefficient for a human being to do the work. I saw cows who had the tubes fall off their udders; no one put them back on. I knew what that meant for them: the mother cow would not be milked for another eight hours, effectively condemning her to hours of pain and discomfort from swollen udders.

Many people forget that dairy cows produce milk because they have given birth, just like human moms. The mother cows and calves are separated days after birth. Down the road from the milking station, hundreds of calves were tied to hutches and allowed three feet of rope to move. Another was discarded, dead on the side of the road.

Each of the 1,000 milk cows on the farm I saw is a mere milk machine for the industry, and their bodies are taxed year after year by an endless cycle of births and milkings. They hung their heads as they walked. I don’t need to be a cow to recognize unmistakable sadness and despair. It hit me that each one would be dead in at most a few years—slaughtered after just a fraction of her normal lifespan. The moment a cow’s body is spent and her milk production begins to decline, she will be rendered into low-grade beef.

I’m glad I saw it for myself. No undercover video or second-hand description of a factory farm could quite do these horrors justice. Most of the animals we see in videos are already dead, so sparing them from a miserable life and gruesome death isn’t possible. To see the living with my own eyes—and to know what fate awaits them—was unbelievably, crushingly sad, but I walked away a better advocate because of what I saw that day, and a stronger resolve to help.

The next time that a student asks me if I have seen the conditions on a factory farm, I’ll tell them, “yes.” While not all of us will be able to have the experience I did, we can all be a witness.

Our desire to shield our eyes in the face of cruelty, whether to humans or animals, is natural. We’re avoiding discomfort. But when we look away for too long, and hide from reality rather than confront it, we chip away at one of our greatest qualities: our empathy.

Rachel Atcheson is the Director of Campus Outreach at the Humane League.