New USDA data reveal that the largest factory farms keep growing in number

The largest factory farms that are bad for farmers, the environment and public health keep growing in number, according to new data the Department of Agriculture released today.

For cattle and broiler chicken farms, the number of the largest factory farms has grown since 2012. In 2012, there were 1,124 cattle farms in the U.S. with 5,000 cattle or more per farm. But that increased to 1,270 mega factory farms in 2017 and 1,453 in 2022, according to the USDA’s Census of Agriculture data – a 29 percent increase.

And the largest chicken farms increased by 17 percent, from 6,332 farms with 500,000 or more birds in 2012 to 7,211 farms in 2017 and 7,406 farms in 2022. The number of the biggest hog factory farms increased greatly, from 3,006 in 2012 to 3,600 in 2017 but went down slightly to 3,540 in 2022.

Across all three animal types – cattle, chickens and hogs – the number of animals produced in the largest factory farms increased. There were 28 percent more cattle produced in the largest facilities in 2022 than in 2012, 24 percent more hogs and 24 percent more chickens. 

Particularly striking was the growth in the sheer number of broiler chickens produced in factory farms with 500,000 or more birds – almost 1.4 billion more chickens were produced in these huge operations in 2022 than in 2012. 

The USDA’s data also show a shrinking number of farms overall for cattle and broiler chickens in 2017 and 2022 than in 2012. 

For broiler chickens, the number of farms decreased three percent between 2012 and 2022. There were 32,935 broiler chicken farms in 2012, which decreased to 32,751 in 2017 and 31,877 in 2022. More birds were concentrated to fewer broiler operations because at the same time that the number of farms went down, the number of animals increased by eight percent, from almost 8.5 billion birds in 2012 to 8.9 billion in 2017 and almost 9.2 billion in 2022. 

For cattle and calves, the number of farms dropped from 913,246 in 2012 to 882,692 in 2017, with the biggest drop in 2022 to 732,123 farms – a 20 percent decrease in the number of cattle farms between 2012 and 2022. 

The total number of hogs and pigs grew between 2012 to 2022, but the number of hog farms actually went up from 2012 to 2017, and then back down in 2022. 

A concentration of livestock in larger numbers produces more animal waste, which often pollutes our water and air. These environmental damages are also dangerous for public health, with toxins from animal manure sickening people and poisoning wildlife. 

And the largest livestock operations are also bad for the climate. Cows release methane to the atmosphere through their burps, and cattle and hog manure releases methane and nitrous oxide, two greenhouse gases more powerful than carbon dioxide. 

The USDA’s new data show that without policy changes, factory farms will continue to get bigger and bigger, wreaking havoc on public health, the environment and the climate.

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