SPRINGFIELD, MASS., FEB. 6 -- A referendum to improve the lives of chickens, calves and other farm animals is headed to the state legislature even though its sponsors acknowledge that Massachusetts farmers are among the most humane.

"Even a couple of cases are a matter of concern," said Stephen B. Ronan of the Coalition to End Animal Suffering and Exploitation and a sponsor of the referendum.

"But the fact that conditions are good here means you could impose high standards," he said. "Massachusetts can be held up as a good model of humane care."

The Humane Farm Animal Referendum, if passed, would be the first state law requiring that farm animals be treated humanely, according to supporters and opponents.

The bill would require the Department of Food and Agriculture to regulate surgical procedures such as castration and de-beaking, methods of transportation, slaughter, diet and housing.

A leader of the referendum's foes, Jay Slattery of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, said it was not needed because of the care with which the state's 5,100 farmers treat their animals.

"If animals are under stressful conditions, they can't produce," said Slattery, who administers the private organization representing 92 percent of the state's farmers.

About 70,000 signatures were certified for the referendum, many more than needed to send the proposed law to the legislature.

If the legislature does not approve the proposal by May, the sponsors can put it on the November ballot with another 8,000 signatures.

Ronan said the initiative would outlaw such practices as suffocating or grinding male chicks to death; crowding four and five hens into a small cage with barely space to move or flap their wings; and raising calves in cramped cages.

Slattery said his agency knows of only one egg farmer who grinds chicks to death, "and that is being changed." He denied an allegation that veal producers in Massachusetts keep calves in cages too small to allow them to turn around.

"We don't have the type of large 'factory farm' the referendum is talking about, where the farmer never sees the animals," he said. "They're out there with their animals three, four, five times a day."

He warned that the referendum could drive farmers out of business.

"The state spends millions of dollars every year to get farmers to stay in the state. It even buys their land so it won't be developed. This sort of thing is going to leave farmers with the feeling that the public doesn't care anymore. They'll say, 'Let's take the developers' money while the housing market is up.' "

Among supporters of the referendum is a Leverett farmer who sells eggs from 100 hens who "wander around and have quite a good time doing it."

"It seems to me something damaging happens on all fronts when you take tiny forms of life and permit them to die as if they were bits of unimportant matter," said Portia Weiskel, an organic farmer who also serves as the town farm inspector.

Weiskel said, however, that she understands the dilemma posed by unwanted farm animals such as roosters. She said she solves the problem by giving them to neighbors to eat.