A small but growing niche of Georgia’s livestock and poultry farmers is intensely focused on humane and sustainable practices.
Agriculture is Georgia’s No. 1 industry, generating more than $70 billion a year, and its reach is felt throughout the state. For decades, Georgia has famously laid claim to the title of the nation’s “poultry capital,” where three out of four of the 159 counties have poultry or egg operations. But other animal agriculture – including beef and dairy cattle, pork, goats, sheep and even catfish and honeybees – accounts for a significant portion of the state economy, as well. Georgia’s agricultural practices reflect national standards – and have the potential to influence them.
Most of the farms across the state that raise livestock and poultry follow conventional industrial farming practices designed to maximize production and reduce costs. These large-scale farms often raise the animals indoors and supplement their diets with nutrients and other substances to maximize growth and minimize illness. Because of the efficiency, these farms provide meat, poultry and dairy products that can be sold to consumers at relatively low prices, keeping them affordable for more people. As this type of farming has evolved, so has a small but passionate group of farmers who are intensely focused on the welfare of their animals and the sustainability of their land. The practices these niche farms employ – from pasture-raising to symbiotic pairing of different species – are more expensive, often less efficient to scale and result in higher prices for products. However, these farmers believe that consumers are increasingly willing to pay more for humanely treated animals and sustainable farming practices.
“Conscience has a price,” says Richard Watson, cofounder of Hart Dairy near Waynesboro, who has a Ph.D. in animal nutrition and grazing techniques. “Not only are consumers looking for products that are better for them and their families, but they are looking for a product that will also make them feel good about what they’re consuming. In general, people are willing to pay because of the upside potential, both in terms of animal welfare, but also in the environment.”
A Triple Win
Watson is from New Zealand where he says almost all animal agriculture is pasture-based. More than two decades ago, he and Hart Dairy cofounder Tim Connell became interested in transferring the pasture-based model to Georgia, which has a climate that’s “just about better than anywhere” for growing grass on which to raise dairy cattle, he says. In 2007 they bought the first of their 2,000 acres for a New Zealand-style dairy farm, which is “a milking parlor surrounded by a bunch of fields that are fenced into paddocks with water troughs.” It took time to work out the foraging system and develop a herd of cows with the genetics appropriate for grass-based production. (He says most cows in the U.S. are fantastic for what they do, which is produce a lot of milk in freestyle barns, but they are not good for permanently living on grass and converting grass into milk.)
Over time, the partners’ $30 million investment has yielded an environmentally sustainable dairy with grass-fed cows that are outdoors every day of the year, with a football field of space for every 1.3 cows. The cows are not even milked indoors. Instead, they are milked twice a day in an open-air shed. Watson lists a variety of benefits of pasture-raised cattle. These include the longevity of the animals – 12 years vs. the five-year average life span of a conventional U.S. dairy cow – and the nutritional benefits of the milk.
“There’s nothing wrong with conventional milk,” Watson says. “It’s one of the best, most complete sources of nutrition. It just so happens because our cows eat grass, it creates a lot of other compounds and components. Things like powerful antioxidants, higher [levels of] vitamin A and E and a higher ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. So, it’s got a few things over and above what is already a superfood. We’re talking like 400% more of these things in grass-fed milk than conventional milk.”
Hart Dairy’s practices earned it the first Certified Humane® designation in the U.S. for pasteurized dairy cow milk. This global certification is the result of an extremely rigorous protocol, “a 60-page document that covers every aspect of animal welfare and care,” he says. Hart Dairy milk, which is sold throughout the Southeast in Publix, Albertsons and Sam’s Club stores, also has other humane certifications.
Along with humane treatment of the animals and a nutrient-rich product, Hart Dairy is committed to regenerative farming practices. These include rotating about 1,000 cows among 3,000 acres of pasture for better soil health, and growing grass and other plants on every acre to help sequester greenhouse gases. A seven-year study conducted by UGA revealed the operation sequestered 3.5 tons of carbon a year, on average, putting the dairy on track to be climate positive by 2023. “After about six or seven years, we had soil carbon that was similar to a virgin forest,” Watson says.
Humane: A Matter of Perspective
At the 850-acre Hillcrest Farms near Dearing, the fourth generation of the Rodgers family is also committed to humane and sustainable animal agriculture. “Animal care is our No. 1 priority, says Mark Rodgers, co-owner and general manager. “We house our [cows] in a freestyle barn with sand beds and really comfortable fans so we can control the heat – they don’t like hot weather. Everything we do is to keep our cows happy. Happy cows really do give more milk.”
He says that the barn’s floors are covered in an upcycled rubber product for the cows’ comfort and they are on their own milking timetable, managed by an automated milking system. Basically each of the approximately 350 cows giving milk sidles up to the state’s first robotic milking system when she feels the need, as opposed to being milked two or three times a day at a specific time.
“We’re not actually taking the milk from her,” Rodgers explains. “We’re trying to capture the milk when she wants to give it to us.” He says once the cows figure out the system, they love the robots, which clean and prep them and stimulate milk production. It helps that they get fed pellet treats while they are being milked.
When their milk supply begins to wane, the Hillcrest cows go on a five-week vacation in the pasture. “They really don’t like it,” Rodgers says. “They get mad because they don’t want to be outside; they want to come back in the barn where you’ve got fans and climate control and it’s not in the sun.”
Hillcrest Farms grows about half of what its cows eat, mainly corn and sorghum, and the rest is purchased from neighboring farms. Like Hart Dairy, Rodgers rotates cover crops to regenerate the soil and reduce water runoff. “We’ve got a crop there 365 days a year sequestering carbon,” he says. Using the cow manure as fertilizer eliminates the need for synthetic fertilizer and maintaining permanent hardwood trees on the property helps protect waterways. In 2001, the operation received a Governor’s Pollution Prevention Award.
Radically Traditional Farming
Bluffton’s White Oak Pastures, established in 1866, is also committed to regenerative land management but this family-owned farm takes the practices further. Beef cattle is one of 10 animal species – although the biggest in terms of sales – raised on the farm’s 3,500 acres. In the 1990s, Will Harris, the current patriarch, transitioned from conventional industrial cattle farming to pasture raising sheep, hogs, goats, rabbits and poultry in addition to cattle. These animal species are rotated side-by-side throughout the pastures, taking advantage of synergistic relationships.
“Now we operate a system with prescribed grazing,” says Jenni Harris, Will’s daughter, who is in charge of marketing the operation. “The point of that system is to look at the land and decide what the land needs. So if there is heavily wooded forest, hogs should be used to open it up. If there is brush or weeds in the pasture, small ruminants are the right tool.”
Harris calls it radically traditional farming, which to her means “a return to those traditional practices where emphasis was placed not only on the animals, but on the land and our rural community.”
She says the farm’s animals are allowed to express their instinctive behavior and that is good animal welfare. Included is natural breeding, not artificial insemination. White Oak’s genetic preferences are for animals that do well on grass, are parasite-resistant and take good care of their offspring. “Those are the types of things that we select for, not loins, texture and taste,” she says. “We believe animals that fit the land are the best animals for our program.”
She says White Oak products, which are sold at Publix, Whole Foods Market, Kroger and through an online store, are more nutrient-dense because the animals lived in the way they naturally evolved, eating a natural diet. At the end of their lives, White Oak animals are processed in an on-farm abattoir designed by Temple Grandin, animal behaviorist and recognized authority on humane slaughter. “[My dad] sought her out – and other experts – to make sure that the $2.5 million investment he was making in on-farm processing was one that was built with the highest intention,” says Harris.
Controlling the Quality
The highest intention also describes the hog operation at Thompson Farms in Dixie. The family believes in giving their 200 or so hogs room to do what comes naturally, like rooting in the dirt, lounging in the mud and grazing on green grass. From birth to processing, these hogs live their lives outside and are never confined to crates or cages.
According to Andrew Thompson, one of the family farm’s owners, giving the animals the best life on the farm is key to controlling the quality of the pork from start to finish. “We’re able to control what they eat at all stages,” he says, “and we don’t try to rush to get them to slaughter size. We’re just more interested in quality and the older the hog is, the better the quality of meat is.”
Every two to three weeks, the pigs are rotated onto new pasture to prevent overgrazing. With 200 acres, the farm’s pastures are able to rest for months at a time.
Like White Oak Pastures, Thompson Farms has its own on-site slaughterhouse, which was built in 2012 out of necessity. Thompson says there were a number of small slaughterhouses in South Georgia in the 1980s. “But then Smithfield came in and bought most of them out and shut them down. And so we were left really with nowhere to take [the hogs]. That’s what got us into processing.” The quality of Thompson Farms’ pork is evident in the farm’s more than 10-year relationship with Whole Foods, which sells animal welfare-certified meats. That means Thompson Farms’ pork must measure up to the strict standards governing how the pigs are handled, fed and processed. They are not fed antibiotics or steroids. “The meat is healthier for consumers without all that stuff,” he says. In addition, all the feed is non-GMO.
As owner of the first certified organic pasture-raised chicken farm in Georgia, Shaun Terry knows the rigors and cost involved with the certification process. He went through it for his 25-acre Grateful Pastures meat poultry farm near Mansfield, which was certified in 2019, and again recently as co-owner of the 25-acre No Mad Hens laying chicken farm next door. At both operations, chickens are allowed to forage for grass, seeds and insects as they would naturally but are sheltered from the elements and predators.
In pursuing the organic certification, he says, “I’ve always been committed to using organic feed. I want to support healthy, ecologically stable land use on more than just my farm. Buying organic feed is the way we can do that because any other feed – even non-GMO feed – is sprayed with pesticides and utilizes synthetic fertilizers. The certification process is the way for me to say we’re doing everything we possibly can at the highest quality and it’s a way to portray that to the customer.”
Terry, a former financial advisor turned farmer, developed an innovative method for his meat chickens to forage on grass. He built tent-like mobile shelters sitting directly on the grass that are towed by a tractor to fresh pasture every day. Each of the seven shelters lets in the sun and provides shade for about 130 chickens. At the laying hen operation, modified trailers with wire bottoms protect the approximately 700 chickens at night but doors open each morning, allowing the hens to roam freely in the pasture.
Most of Terry’s poultry products are sold at farmers markets around Atlanta, and he says his chickens are totally different from conventionally raised birds. “They live outdoors, they’re exposed to sunlight and they have higher levels of vitamin D because of the sunlight exposure,” he says. “They eat a highly varied diet and there’s a lot more nutrients incorporated into the meat. But the better way to tell the difference is just to taste it. When you eat a piece of our chicken, you can tell it’s good for you.”
Taste, nutritional content, humane certifications and environmental sustainability all play a role in differentiating meat and poultry for consumers. However, these practices have not been proven to make our food any safer than that produced by conventional industrial farms in the U.S..
“I would like to differentiate the safety of animal-based foods from marketing claims that are made regarding humane handling and sustainable practices,” says Dean Pringle, UGA animal science professor and beef cattle farmer. “Whether it’s coming from a specialty program or from a conventionally raised animal source, the food is equally safe.”
He goes on to stress that a large number of the state’s beef and pork growers adhere to quality assurance programs and have received certifications that verify humane handling standards and specifications. What’s recommended in those quality assurance programs “completely meets the needs of those animals from a nutrient standpoint, from a health standpoint,” he says.
“The real issue is trying to differentiate your product,” Pringle continues, “and there’s plenty of information about consumer attitudes that suggests that they would like to have the choice to purchase products that are labeled as humanely raised or grass-fed or no antibiotics ever.”
He doesn’t see humane and sustainable animal agriculture practices ever replacing conventionally produced livestock products. “But there’s certainly evidence to suggest that the demand for them and the interest in them is growing.”