Producers should get choice on production practices
By Jennifer Carrico
Changing production techniques based on perception rather than fact can ultimately hurt the consumer who yearns for the taste of pork.
“The companies who say they will only buy pork products from producers not using gestation stalls will have a challenge to find enough pork to meet their needs,” said Buchanan County pork producer Sean Dolan.
Dolan, who owns a 600-head sow unit in northeast Iowa, said animal rights activists have tried to put their two cents’ worth in to tell hog producers how they should raise their animals even though what they are saying isn’t based on science or fact. This has caused a lot of discussion among hog producers.
“I believe hog producers should have the choice to raise their pigs how they choose. I don’t tell someone else how to do their job when I know nothing about it,” he said.
Jarrod Sutton, the assistant vice president of channel marketing for the National Pork Board, said NPB believes each producer should have the choice to raise their hogs in a way that they can give them the best care possible.
“There are over 100 different ways to house sows. Producers take good care of their animals and have the choice to raise them the best way possible,” Sutton said.
The issue of sows being housed in gestation stalls became headline news in 2012 when animal rights groups pushed food service and fast food companies to demand pork from producers not using the gestation stalls. Some of these companies followed these groups, yet others did not.
In 2012, McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s all said they would set a timeline for purchasing pork only from suppliers with documented plans to end their use of gestation stalls for breeding pigs.
Domino’s Pizza, however, rejected the proposal the others followed, saying they will allow producers to make their own choice on sow housing.
Sutton said he fears some of these companies made announcements before consulting experts about the way animals are raised.
“Sometimes these companies will come to us with questions, but often times, the executives are attacked by activists about their policies and they make these announcements before they actually know the scientific answer to these animal husbandry questions,” he said.
In 2007, Dolan needed to make updates to his 10-year-old breed-to-wean sow buildings. With all the talk about moving to group or pen housing, he decided to remove gestation stalls and put in a system of pen housing pregnant sows.
“I thought I’d be ahead of the game and I would see the benefits of changing my management practices,” he said. “I sure wish I had my gestation stalls back now.”
While he said the sows can rest and stretch out more in the pens, there are many drawbacks from the system as well.
In his current system, when piglets are weaned, the sows are put into breeding stalls, where they stay until they are bred, which is usually about a week. After that, they are sorted into pens according to age. Older sows are put together in one pen and bred gilts along with parity one and two sows are put in the other side of the barn. He also has a training pen where gilts are transitioned into learning how to eat from his trickle feeding system before they are put into the bigger pen.
“We like to keep the bigger, more dominant sows together so they aren’t pushing around the younger gilts,” he said.
The commingling of all the sows regardless of their age still causes problems. Dolan said one of biggest problems in the pen-style gestation is fighting among the sows, which causes injuries—sometimes causing those sows to need to be culled or even death.
“If a sow is hurt and gets down, she has to be removed from the pen immediately to prevent further injury or death. In gestation stalls, they obviously can’t be fighting. Every time two sows fight, pigs are lost and thus our productivity decreases,” he explained.
Another negative to the gestation pens is the difficulty of performing mass vaccinations, which are needed on a regular basis. Vaccinating in the pens makes for dangerous conditions for Dolan and his brother, as the sows are continually trying to move away from the administrator of the shots.
Pregnancy checking is also next to impossible, as sorting and scanning sows would take entirely too much time. Instead, he watches for sows that aren’t pregnant by having gomer or teaser boars in the alleyways. The open sows will migrate toward the gomers, notifying him of their status.
Dolan said the pen gestation doesn’t come entirely with negative production, as the sows can rest and find a comfortable place to lie. In the summer, he has misters running to cool the sows, and in the winter sows can stay away from the cooler edges of the buildings.
He can also easily access information on each sow with a mobile record-keeping device. The sows are tagged with electronic tags, and a scanner allows him to pull up all health, breeding and farrowing records on the sow very quickly while walking through the barn.
Dolan said if he were to build another building or have the funds to remodel the one he has, he would definitely go back to gestation stalls.
“I think the stalls are better for the animals when looking at the big picture and getting the maximum production from them,” he said.
The American Veterinary Medical Association and American Association of Swine Veterinarians, who are the U.S. pork industry’s animal care experts, recognize both gestation stalls and group housing systems as appropriate for providing for the well-being of sows during pregnancy.
Dolan pointed out that while producers with gestation stalls have seen a steady increase in pigs per litter, his pen-gestated sows have held at about the same production for the past six years.
“I think if I had gestation stalls, my production would be increasing as well,” he said. “I thought there might be a premium for changing my management practices when I did it six years ago, but the company I market my hogs through doesn’t ever question me about sow housing.”
One of Dolan’s biggest fears became reality recently, as he broke with porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome. A routine test shows he had the virus in his sow unit. With the pen-style system, it was hard to know which sows had aborted their piglets, which is one of the main effects of PRRS.
The process of getting the entire herd vaccinated and exposed to the virus has been very challenging, and he said it has had a drastic effect on his bottom line.
Dolan has seen both systems and is definitely a proponent of gestation stalls.
“I think it’s the best way to let the sows gestate for 3 1/2 months, get the proper nutrition they need and give them the proper room to let the babies develop in their stomach without being stepped on or fought. For now, I have to manage with the pen gestations that I have, but I would definitely like to make changes in the future if I can,” he said.
National Pork Producers Council Chief Veterinarian, Dr. Liz Wagstrom said removing sow stalls has no demonstrable health or welfare benefits to animals.
“In fact, the key factor that most affects animal well-being is husbandry skills—that is, the care given to each animal. There is no scientific consensus on the best way to house gestating sows because each type of housing system has inherent advantages and disadvantages,” she said.
Regardless of how pork producers raise their animals, producers as well as pork industry experts agree that each producer should be able to make those management decisions for their own operation.
“We believe it is important, now more than ever, for pork producers to tell their story. Consumers are far removed from the farm and without hearing firsthand accounts of how animals are raised, they are often swayed by incorrect information,” Sutton said. “Pork producers need to be proud of who they are and what they do. They are the best advocates for our industry.”
Jennifer Carrico can be reached by phone at 515-833-2120, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.