In recent months, major retailers and restaurants, including McDonalds, ConAgra Foods and Kroger, have announced plans to move toward sourcing their pork products from suppliers who raise their pigs without the use of gestation crates. This push for crate-free pork is a major concern for producers, who must not only decide if a shift to group housing is the right decision for their animals, but if it is even economically feasible for their operation.
Like any good debate, there are two sides to consider. Animal rights activists, among others, claim that gestation stalls are inhumane and unacceptable. Producers, as well as industry processors, can be found on both sides of the debate.
Some, like Tom Dittmer, originally made the shift from group housing to crates because of aggressive animal behavior. When Dittmer began farming in the ’70s, his sows lived in pastures with huts for shelter – but he eventually transitioned to indoor housing and gestation crates.
“The reason the industry switched to crates wasn’t because we wanted to harm our animals…We did it because we thought it was best for the animals.”
On the other side of the fence are individuals like Paul Willis, who oversees a group of farmers raising pork for Niman Ranch, which rebukes animal confinement of any kind.
Read the rest of this New York Times story with Dittmer and Willis here.
For further debate on the topic, visit this page from CNN’s eatocracy site.
At the end of the day, there are a few important lessons here. First, as producers, we need to inform ourselves on both sides of the debate and know not only where we stand but why. Often what consumers are really looking for is an open line of communication and a genuine interest from producers who not only listen to their concerns, but respond to them. It is also important that we recognize there are several approaches to animal production, and one is not necessarily better than another. This point was emphasized in the National Pork Board’s response to McDonald’s announcement last February that the fast food giant plans to transition away from conventionally raised pork:
“…the National Pork Board maintains the position, supported by the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, that there are numerous ways, including sow gestation stalls, to provide proper care for sows. Each housing system, including gestation stalls, open pens, free-access stalls and pastures, has welfare advantages and disadvantages that must be considered by an individual farmer. Regardless of the type of system used, what really matters is the individual care given to each pig – a mainstay of our industry's Pork Quality Assurance Plus program.”
If group housing is something you are considering, two swine researchers from Minnesota offer management tips for that transition here.
As with political propaganda in an election year, the amount of available information on sow housing can be overwhelming – and the information you do find will likely be conflicting. Although at times it can be exasperating, it is our job to be informed. Take time to read all sides of the debate, and make a decision that you can support with a mix of reliable information and practical experience. You, after all, are the pork producer.
Look for more industry insights to come!