The Omnivore's Delusion

Mark Hawthorne (who's book you should read) posted a link to this article called The Omnivore's Delusion in "The American" which is a publication of the American Enterprise Institute (which you can google to find out more information).

Of course, I was a little excited by the title alone, but I tempered myself with the fact that the author is a farmer so probably wasn't penning a vegan treatise. I would suggest reading the article, it is well-written and thought-provoking.

I won't claim to know anything about non animal-based farming. My educational background is animal science and behavior, not tillage or crop rotation. I could probably research the author's claims on nitrogen further (or you could do it for me), but I really just want to comment on the animal stuff.
It seems that turkeys, at least young ones, are not smart enough to come in out of the rain, and will stand outside in a downpour, with beaks open and eyes skyward, until they drown. One night Niemann lost 4,000 turkeys to drowning, along with his dream, and his farm
Now, I won't flat out state that the author is making this up. I will say that this myth of turkeys drowning in the rain is just that, a falsehood. There isn't much empirical evidence to suggest turkeys drown in the rain. As a survival strategy, it would not be prudent. That is not to say young, impressionable, curious animals who lack group socialization don't do inappropriate things. Most turkey poults are born in incubators and never know the warmth of a mother's wing or the learned knowledge of the world. When they are presented with a new stimulus, such as rain, they may be baffled. Most likely they will run for shelter. At the sanctuary, in its 20 years of existence, we have not seen turkeys, wild or domestic, try to act out Ophelia's last moments, turkey style. It has little to do with intelligence.

Next comes the insult to porcines that, given the chance to act normally in a free-range/non-cage setting, mother sows just cannot help but to crush their piglets and eat them:
Which included lying down on my 4-H project, killing several piglets, and forcing me to clean up the mess when I did my chores before school. The crates protect the piglets from their mothers. Farmers do not cage their hogs because of sadism, but because dead pigs are a drag on the profit margin, and because being crushed by your mother really is an awful way to go. As is being eaten by your mother, which I've seen sows do to newborn pigs as well.

Piglets are crushed no matter the housing. Yes, on average, free-range systems can have a higher piglet mortality rate due to crushing (not always). Let's be fair, - humans bred pigs to be big and have large litters. An average sow weighs between 500-700 lbs and births 13-20 piglets. This is entirely unnatural and increases the risk of crushing. Some sows are sleepers, spending 11 out of a 12 hour period sleeping versus moving around, sleepers do not kill as many piglets. The type of flooring used can increase restlessness and thus increase piglet crushing, no matter the housing system. The 4-H sow mentioned above may have had reacted differently on different flooring or, had she been a snoozer instead of restless, the results might have been different.

Sows rarely eat their newborn pigs. The rate of infanticide is low and is actually higher in caged systems than in free-range systems. Frustration may increase aggression and infanticide. Mothers have been known to kill unhealthy young as well.

Yes, being crushed is an awful way to go. It isn't any worse than what is in store for piglets who survive - they are weaned early (stressful), housed with unknown pigs (stressful and dangerous), confined on concrete, transported through all weather conditions, and then brutally slaughtered. It isn't worse than spending 3-5 years in a cage so small that turning is impossible.

The author is right about one thing; caging sows saves money. It saves on feed since the sow isn't moving around wasting calories. It means more piglets to become fattened for slaughter. It means more animals be confined in one space, saving money on land. The bottom line is always money, money, money. Animal welfare and environmental stewardship becomes less of a priority when profit margins surface.