Originally written November 2019. As meat prices rise, I thought it would be good to bring this article back up.

More and more Americans are shopping for meat that has been humanely raised and handled. The farm-to-table movement has led many people to start asking questions related to animal welfare, while others are starting to understand that better quality meat as better for their health.

These shifts in consumer behavior have to lead to a boom in the meat industry as more people want higher quality, humanely raised pork, beef, and poultry. And even though more people are wanting to purchase higher quality products, many are holding back due to the price difference between humanely raised meat and traditionally raised meat. 

If You Want Better Quality, It’s Going To Cost More

As a shopper, when you visit your local farmer’s market or butcher, you may notice that meat is usually double to the cost of what you find it for in a traditional grocery store. Chicken can start at $6+ per pound, lamb starts at $9+ per pound, pork and beef start at $10+ per pound. It may leave you saying, “Why does it cost so much!” Well, let’s start with the fact that’s it’s important to know is that the farmers that are raising their animals humanely aren’t trying to gouge their prices using terms like “grass-fed” or “pasture-raised.” So, what exactly are you paying the extra money for? A lot more than you may have thought.

cost of organic, quality meat, chicken, pork

Cost: Space Per Animal

When it comes to animal feeding operations, stocking density is maximized so that there is revenue coming from every inch of space (this often at the detriment of the animals). The stocking density results in stress to the animals, violence and even cannibalism, and disease. To combat this, large, industrial operations use methods that can be considered inhumane to animals (debeaking birds, docking the tails of pigs, and feeding antibiotics to negate diseases that will occur in confined, unsanitary conditions.)

For animals that aren’t raised in commercial/feedlot environments, living on farms provides more space and stress is greatly reduced. In general, these sorts of farms use a smaller portion of their property and rotate their herds around to areas that haven’t been grazed for a while. This rotational grazing method is good for the environment and the animals. Although this is better for the animals and nature, the farmer makes less revenue than if they had stocked their property more densely. Meat that is grass-fed allows the animals to live the lives they are supposed to live rather than being crowded in a feedlot.

Cost: Finishing Time

Industrial producers of meat turn over a profit much faster than farmers who raise pasture-centered livestock or poultry. They use growth-boosting antibiotics and hormones, fattening feeds, and highly productive breeds. This allows them to slaughter their animals at a younger age and turn a quicker profit

Commercial MeatIndependent Farms
Commercial chicken harvested at just six weeks  Chickens take at least eight weeks before they’re harvested.
Commercial beef is harvested at fourteen months. Grass-fed beef can take up to two years before it’s harvested. 
Commercial pork is harvested at five to six months.Pasture or farm-raised pork is harvested at seven to nine months. 

*the age of pork varies depending on their use. 

Consideration: Nutritious or Fattening?

When it comes to feeding, industrial farmers use slaughterhouse by-products to feed their livestock. They may also use waste from commercial bakeries. Neither of these methods provides much in the way of nutrient density. Humanely raised animals are fed diets that mimic their natural diet. In some cases, this can result in less cost for feed because sheep and cattle will graze at no extra cost to the farmer as long as they are in a pasture where the grass is green. 

Poultry and hogs, omnivorous species, have their diets supplemented with the natural food sources available on the pasture. However, because this diet is less fattening and healthier, it takes the livestock longer to be ready for slaughter which means the overall cost of feeding is higher. And depending on the composition of the diet, the costs can go up significantly. For example, pigs and chicken raised on organic, no corn and no soy diets are three times more expensive to feed. If you add that cost to the slower growth time, you see the impact of the animal’s diet on its end cost. 

Consideration: Mass Production

A highly saturated mass-production agriculture industry is one that has four or more companies controlling at a minimum 40 percent of their market. 

  • In the beef industry, there are four companies control 83.5 percent of the market. 
  • In the pork industry, four companies also control roughly 64 percent of the market. 
  • In the poultry industry, just three companies control over half of the market.  

This means that production costs shrink as their production rate grows. Mass producers are able to implement assembly lines to speed up production and buy larger orders of feed and medicine, so their prices are reduced.

Smaller, independent farms aren’t able to achieve these ‘advantages’ because of the limited scalability of their operations. They have to buy supplies and feed in smaller quantities and deliver the food themselves. This results in higher costs which prevents them from being able to compete with price points that mass-produced meat has. 

 independent farmers raising organic, grass fed beef and livestock

Consideration: Passing the Environmental Buck

Although the industrial food production industry is often touted as being efficient, they have a number of negative externalities. These negative effects are absorbed by the communities around the producer rather than the industry that is causing them.

For example, these companies continue to destroy habitats to make more space for more food production. The lagoons full of manure leach methane gas into our air and pollute waterways when they leak or overflow. Feeding the animals antibiotics fosters antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and fertilizers and pesticides used to treat the food sources for their livestock is yet another source of pollution. 

Because companies aren’t legally obligated to take into consideration the best interests of the planet or the community in which they are located, the costs of fixing these issues get passed on to everyone else. Fortunately, ethical farmers don’t have the need to pump manure into lagoons and they don’t have to apply fertilizer to the land because their animals are naturally doing this for them. It will be hard to find an ethical farmer that gives antibiotics or hormones to healthy livestock. And in terms of what these animals are fed, these same farmers don’t use pesticides on their land because they know a healthy population of insects is an important part of their pasture. Rather than taking shortcuts that have a negative impact on the land and planet, these farmers are humanely raising animals which results in higher production costs.

Cost: A Closer Look at the Specifics

When it comes to the most common types of livestock, each has its own specific reasons for the increase in costs that you see at the store.

Beef – From the time a calf is born until the time it is ready to slaughter, the cost to take care of the momma cow is roughly $350 annually. Keeping the bull is another $350, and raising the calf is another $350. That’s $1,050 just for one year. In year two, the farmer spends another $350 to raise the steer, uses $50 in fuel to haul a steer to the butcher, and pays $300 in butchering fees. Now take into consideration that the average steer weighs around 1,100 pounds but yields only 38 percent of its weight in retail product. That results in 420 pounds of meat that is turned into steak, premium cuts and roasts. Of that 420 pounds, nearly 40 percent of that meat will be used as ground beef or a lower-cost product.

This means that to just break even the farmer has to sell the meat for $4.17 per pound. That is not even taking into consideration any cost the farmer might have had to maintain his land, pay hired help, pay taxes on his property, etc. We all know that profit has to be made, so the price is going to increase from there.

Chicken – Some 95 percent of all factory-farmed animals in the U.S. are broiler chickens. The breeds of chickens used for this grow too fast and too big. Because of this, their bones, lungs, and heart often can’t keep up, so they suffer from lameness and heart failure. They aren’t allowed access to the outdoors and tens of thousands of chickens may be crammed together in one building. Because factory-raised chickens often suffer from muscle disorders, their meat may have up to 224 percent fat content and also be lower in protein. Where does the extra cost go?

For a chicken that has been humanely raised, the cost is roughly $5.27 per chicken compared to $1.73 per chicken at a mass production farm. Considering that the average chicken yields just two pounds of edible meat, that means the humanely raised chicken must sell for at least $2.64 per pound just to break even, compared to $0.87 per pound for the mass-produced chicken

Pork – Who doesn’t love breakfast bacon or a juicy pork chop? You need to be careful where your pork is coming from though. Pasture-raised pork is extremely nutrient-dense. While commercial pig operations feed their hogs a diet of grains, this isn’t what pigs prefer to eat. A pasture-raised pig gets a variety of grains but also gets grass, tree leaves, vegetables, fruits, and often scraps from other local farm businesses (like cheesemakers and dairy producers).

The average pig eats some 500 pounds of grain. If the producer is feeding conventional feed, this costs roughly $265. Organic feed can cost as much as $447. The farmer also has to pay for extra labor, transportation to get the pig to the butcher, and processing fees. This adds up to a cost of roughly $831 for pasture-raised pork compared to $649 for the mass-produced pig. If one pig yields approximately 123 pounds of saleable meat, to break even the pasture-raised pork farmer must sell his meat for $6.76 per pound just to break even compared to $5.28 per pound for the conventionally raised hog

This adds up to a cost of roughly $831 for pasture-raised pork compared to $649 for the mass-produced pig. If one pig yields approximately 123 pounds of saleable meat, to break even the pasture-raised pork farmer must sell his meat for $6.76 per pound just to break even compared to $5.28 per pound for the conventionally raised hog

If You Demand Better Meat, You Have To Be Willing To Pay For It

Now that you have a better understanding of the differences in the quality of life and costs of livestock at a smaller farm compared to industrial farms, do you still have questions as to why humanely raised meat costs more? Yes, the cost may be a bit more, but if you eat meat, the higher costs may be worth the investment if you want what you’re eating to have a positive impact on your health and our environment. So the question to ask yourself is, “why are you not willing to pay for it?”

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This article was written by Melissa Hobbs with contributions from Macala Wright. Melissa’s family runs an independent cattle ranch in Kansas.