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ILO Fact Sheet

Intensive Livestock Operations
An Introduction

What is an Intensive Livestock Operation?

There is no industry or governmental definition of an intensive livestock operation[1] (ILO), but there are some characteristics that distinguish them from farms. Most “large scale farms” are actually ILOs, for they demonstrate the three characteristics which best define an ILO:

Number of animals – the concept of animal units is used, where a beef cow is deemed an animal unit. Although the value varies, a hog in Canada is generally 5.0 units (compared to the U.S. value of 2.5), and an ILO is generally regarded as 1000 hogs. This cannot be the sole factor however as it leads to factory farms with 999 units sneaking under the radar, even though the operation looks, and smells like an ILO.

Industrial structure – illustrated by absentee ownership, vertical integration, money going out of state or province, corporate control, and contracted land. In a large scale hog operation one must look at how much manure is produced and how much land is available.[2]

High volume efficiency - ILOs are sometimes referred to as Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO), which puts forth another accurate image of what an ILO is. The feeding operation will usually do all it can to cut costs while not compromising quality. This involves use of antibiotics, elimination of hay in crates, and cramped living conditions for more livestock and limited animal movement. It is essentially run as a factory.

The Environmental and Health Nightmare

Traditional agriculture practices viewed solid manure as a precious fertilizer that was applied to crops, which were in turn fed to the livestock. However, this was when farmers had low livestock numbers (rarely more than 200), and therefore manageable amounts of manure were produced. The ILOs of today cannot practice this cyclical method of waste management as they produce massive amounts of manure liquefied as part of the factory cleaning process. The liquid manure is stored almost exclusively in open-air lagoons, which is either an earthen walled hole in the ground, clay, or a concrete walled pool. Lagoon walls, certain to crack result in manure seepage into the soil.

The major environmental problems related to ILOs are primarily due to liquid manure, and the massive amount of it produced.

I. Land degradation

Manure is predominantly sprayed on monoculture corn, a crop that requires more nutrient than other crops, and this need is intensified by the nutrient depleting effects of monoculture and pesticide use. However, the amount of manure applied is excessive and only partially taken in by the growing corn, so the result is a further reduction in soil fertility, the opposite of the desired effect.

80% of the water pollution in the province of Quebec has been directly linked to intensive hog production [4]

II. Air quality

Poor air quality can be linked directly to animal waste. Air pollution and odour occurs from the manure storage facility, the hog factory, and the spreading of manure on the field. The decomposition of liquid manure emits nearly 400 different volatile organic compounds.[3] ILOs are also a major contributor to the volume of greenhouse gases release into the atmosphere.

Studies have shown people living near an ILO have more chronic respiratory diseases. Dust from these operations has been linked to aggravation of asthma, damage to lungs, carriers for viruses. Odours from these sites can permeate neighbouring homes where they persist, even in human skin.

III. Water quality (ground and surface)

The excessive spreading of manure on crops, in quantities that cannot be fully absorbed by the plants, leads to problems with runoff into both groundwater and surface waters. The high amount of nitrates in manure is detrimental to many aquatic organisms from algae to fish. The contamination of freshwater resources with bacteria such as E.coli can have a disastrous effect on human drinking water.

IV. Antibiotics

When animals are kept in confinement at high densities, never going outside, with poor ventilation infectious diseases are inevitable. In order to reduce herd losses while maintaining intensive production, antibiotic use became the answer. Far from a solution, it is a short-term answer with many problems.

Sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics are placed in all feed and water for animals in confinement, but because of the constant dose, the chance of microbes developing resistance is greatly increased. When you consider that many of the same drugs are used for both animal and human diseases, the impact of resistant bacteria is quite stark significant to humans as well. Bacteria, such as Salmonella and E.coli, can transfer their resistance between species, so one resistant strain of bacteria can become many more. It is for this reason that the Canadian Medical Association is calling for Canada to ban (subtherapeutic levels of) antibiotic use for livestock growth promotion.[5]

Economic Factors

When an ILO settles into another rural community, the local economy and its diversity is crushed. All tourism for the town, whether that by a Bed and Breakfast or artisan’s gallery looses its business as people opt to not visit the town. Local farmers are pushed out of business as they cannot compete with the large corporation. The town’s economy disintegrates, and the funds generated by the ILO are held in corporate offices in city centres, not in farmers’ pockets.

A study conducted on the economic impact of ILOs found that communities with ILOs had a 55% decline in growth. [6] This economic decline is caused by many factors including air and water pollution, health impacts, reduced real estate value and ultimately depopulation in the community. This exodus of the community works in favour of the ILO, as the major voices of the complaint have left the scene.7

These operations use and hire very few people and more often import those who run their facilities. Large-scale industrial livestock facilities are also most likely to purchase their supplies from far-away distributors, bypassing local providers. [7] The typical ILO has many costs that would not be found with small-scale hog farming. These costs, which are swallowed by the taxpayer, include:

- Increased road traffic (including rail)
- Increased environmental monitoring
- Increased health risks and community and health costs
- Increased accidents
- Increased road repairs
- Decrease in tourism

The primary push for new and expanding ILOs within Canada is to compete with global markets. Canadian hog exports accounted for 2.2 billion dollars in 2001,[8] with 60% of Canada’s pork exports destined for the US.[9] Unfortunately, global market pressures have been pushing provincial governments into supporting ILOs. This is another threat to small and medium sized farmers, who are asked to meet the same working standards as ILOs. Most small farmers are not able to afford the changes necessary to meet regulations written for ILOs, and are thus in a position of debt or die. When debt is chosen, contracts with ILO operators are often made, resulting in absentee ownership, simply to stay afloat.

Problems with Canadian Agricultural Subsidies

Canadian agricultural subsidies are output based. For example, if farmer A has 10 hogs and farmer B has 1000 hogs, farmer B receives 100 times more agricultural subsidies than farmer A, even though both farmers experience many of the same fixed costs such as a truck and a barn. This model has three major flaws:

It encourages large-scale production.

It offers no increased financial incentive for farmers using more sustainable practices.

In the current system of large-scale vertically integrated agri-business, the subsidies paid by taxpayers aimed at improving the lives of farmers, are literally going into the bank accounts of billionaires of large agro-industrial firms.

Employee Safety

The few individuals who gain employment within the agro-industrial sector possessing jobs in an ILO, slaughterhouse, or meat packing plant are subject to conditions that put their physical and mental health at risk. The continuous breathing air within the confinement areas can lead to major respiratory illnesses, or even more severe illness. In fact, the anaerobic decomposition of liquefied manure yields gases which have lead to human and animal fatalities.

Animal Treatment

The treatment of animals within ILOs is deplorable. The life of a hog follows this general scenario:

  • Nursing sows are laid on crates upon which they cannot turn over. Her young are in a neighbouring crate with access to her teats only. This has been suggested to inhibit socialization of the piglets.[10]

  • Piglets are weaned at 5 to 15 DAYS old. This is in stark contrast to traditional farming practices that wean pigs at 8 to ten WEEKS old.

  • Early weaning also effects the piglets’ development of crucial antibodies in their immune systems. [11] This weaning also ensures the pigs’ dependence on sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics until it leaves for the slaughterhouse.

  • At 10 days old, it tail is removed because the stress of the confinement causes hogs to become very aggressive, and the extreme stress of the barn leads to tail biting and often more injuring behaviour.

  • Piglets are subject to teeth clipping also to reduce injuries due to biting. Industry claims that this is to deter piglets from biting their mother’s teats. This was disproved by a study comparing clipped and non-clipped piglets, and neither group bit the sow. [12]

  • Hogs are highly intelligent, with strong instincts to root and explore. Instead of providing for this temperament, ILOs keep them in a state of confinement in a cage with just enough room to physically fit, with no hay, straw, or toys for mental stimulation.

  • Hogs demonstrate stereotypic behaviours when raised within ILOs. This is behaviour such as sucking on bars, and circular head motions, brought on primarily out of boredom.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The first step in raising hogs sustainably is banning the sub therapeutic doses of antibiotics. This change would put an end to overcrowded pens, early weaning and other unnatural stress aspects of hogs’ existence, because an ILO could not exist without antibiotics.

If, we, as a society, want to preserve small scale family farms we need to change our taxation and agricultural subsidies to reflect changes in the industry. Despite our agricultural history and the negative social, environmental, and economic impacts of industrial agriculture, there are only 246,000 farmers left in this country. Canada has fewer farmers, bigger farms and more corporate-owned or vertically integrated ‘farms’. Factory farms are not farms. Factory farms like ILOs are industries and should be taxed as such, not subsidized.

At the provincial level, many provinces are pushing towards the enactment of a moratorium on the expansion of ILOs, as seen in Quebec. Although this can be seen as an important first step, there is a significant need for independent scientific research into the environmental and health effects of intensive hog operations as well as open political debate on the subject.

What Can You Do?

Write a letter to your MP, to the Minister of Agriculture, and to the Prime Minister, demanding a ban on the use of sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics on farm animals;

Write your provincial MPP (or MLA), the provincial Environment, Agriculture and Health Ministers and demand a moratorium be placed on the expansion of Intensive Livestock Operations;

Contact the mayor and city council of your municipality to express your concerns. Encourage them to pass an anti-ILO declaration for their community and pass a by-law banning the construction of mega-hog barns; and

Be a responsible consumer – if that means that you boycott Maple Leaf, and Smithfields only buy pork from small farms, don’t eat pork, or buy organic pork – feel good about it.


[1] Fulton A., Mausberg B., Campbell, M. It’s hitting the fan: the unchecked growth of factory farms in Canada. Environmental Defence Canada. May 2002. The term ILO, in the context of this fact sheet, is designates the intensive production of hogs.

[2] Characteristics taken from an interview with Karen Hudson, consultant for GRACE factory farm project, by Prairie Farmer Magazine, January 2003.

[3] Halverson, Marlene, The Price We Pay For Corporate Hogs, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, March 2001 (Second Printing), p. 61.

[4] Information taken from “Bacon: le film” by Hugo Latulippe, National Film Board, 2001.

[5] Agricultural Antibiotics and Resistance in Human Pathogens, Canadian Medical Association, November 1998

[6] Weida, Dr. William J., The Hog ILO, Its Implications for Rural economics in Canada and the US, 2002, p. 1.

[7] Lawrence, John D., et al., A Profile of the Iowa Pork Industry, Its Producers, and Implication for the Future, 1994.

[8] Taken from Canadian Pork Council,

[9] Canada’s exports to Japan have doubled to 22% of Japan’s market. Percentage’s acquired from:

[10] Beattie, V.E., et al. Influence of Maternal Experience on Pig Behaviour, Applied Animal Behaviour Science 46, 1996, pp. 159-166.

[11] English, P.R., et al. The Sow: Improving Her Efficiency. Farming Press Ltd., 1984.

[12] Gardner, Jennifer The Welfare of Pigs: Review of Recent Literature, Department of Animal and Poultry Science, University of Guelph, 1999.


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