Zabel: Group housing or individual pens?

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John F. Kennedy said, “The goal of education is the advancement of knowledge and the dissemination of truth.” I love educating people on agriculture, especially animal agriculture. Most people have no idea what goes on at a pig farm. Some people take it upon themselves to “educate” the general public about pig farms, but in many cases, these people don’t even work in agriculture nor have an agricultural background. I take pride in what I do and I love explaining my job to people.

I work in the breeding department at a nucleus farm for DNA Genetics. This particular farm uses gestation pens to house sows. I have worked for two other sow farms and they used individual pens to house their sows, too. There is a lot of debate on how sows should be housed during their gestation period. I think I have enough experience in sow farms to give the general public the unbiased truth about how we should house our animals in facilities.

Animal activist organizations are pushing for swine producers to house their gestating sows in pens. I have made a list of pros and cons concerning these pens. The pros of pens are that the sows have freedom to move around and socialize. The cons of pens are a decrease air quality, feed wastage, increased labor, and a decrease in proactive animal care. Sows fight because they need to establish dominance, and this creates lameness and “fall behinds.”

Individual maternity pens are what animal activists are trying to get banned. The cons of individual pens are that sows cannot turn around and they have limited total movement, as I mentioned previously. On the other hand, caregivers are able to provide proactive animal management, because the herdsman can more easily see if a sow is falling behind. In addition, air quality and diet control are improved because workers can see how much a sow eats or if she is off feed. 

Ultimately, it’s the swine producer/farmer who should decide on what type of sow housing is best for his or her operation. Today, consumers are being persuaded by organizations like HSUS, when they should be basing their opinion on the facts. Pen gestation and individual maternity pens are both acceptable ways to house sows when managed properly. Producers and farmers are the experts who care for animals on a day-to-day basis, not HSUS.   

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Keith    
Iowa  |  June, 26, 2014 at 09:06 AM

It's possible to have the best of both worlds. We pen the sows in stalls for most of the day with their litters but let them out for about an hour in the am and an hour in the pm with access to pasture most of the year and and outside concrete lot with. This gives them adequate exercise and socializing and they're always ready to come back to their stalls. Aggressive sows are culled We've been doing this since 1965 with good results. How we raise animals is not strictly an economic issue, it is a moral one as well.

Thom Katt    
Midwest  |  June, 26, 2014 at 09:46 AM

Keith, I believe sows behave much differently during the farrowing and nursing phase than they do during the breeding and gestation phase which is the focus of the opinion rendered above. Do you use the same let out system during the breeding and gestation phase? I would also wonder if you and Ms. Zabel would be willing to give a numeric indication of performance. How many services per sow? How many pigs born, how many born live and mummy? How many pigs weaned per sow per year. Lastly, I am curiuous about the condition of the pasture for your sows. How many per acre? What percent of ground cover? How do you manage manure? In 1965, I was growing up on a farm that fed pigs in open lots and had neighbors that ran sow opeations outdoors. It was environmentally devasting to those lots. Nothing but bare dirt, considerable ersion and manure carried down gradient to streams with each storm. The only wildlife in those pens was English sparrows picking up spilled feed. The hogs were constantly covered in mud. We moved to confinment in slatted, open front barns built on skids that we pulled across the a field. Pigs were clean. Manure was incorporated. Eliminated almost all contact with birds and terestial parasites. Days to 220 pounds was drastically cut. Best of all, it only took 20 minutes to load 25 hogs where as it took about 2 hours of chasing to do the same from an open lot. I'm not fan of gestation stalls. But there are very, very few people that can operate an open air sow system that provides adaquate animal well being and sufficient environmental protection. I suspect you are the exception rather than the rule.

Thom Katt    
Midwest  |  June, 26, 2014 at 09:46 AM

Keith, I believe sows behave much differently during the farrowing and nursing phase than they do during the breeding and gestation phase which is the focus of the opinion rendered above. Do you use the same let out system during the breeding and gestation phase? I would also wonder if you and Ms. Zabel would be willing to give a numeric indication of performance. How many services per sow? How many pigs born, how many born live and mummy? How many pigs weaned per sow per year. Lastly, I am curiuous about the condition of the pasture for your sows. How many per acre? What percent of ground cover? How do you manage manure? In 1965, I was growing up on a farm that fed pigs in open lots and had neighbors that ran sow opeations outdoors. It was environmentally devasting to those lots. Nothing but bare dirt, considerable ersion and manure carried down gradient to streams with each storm. The only wildlife in those pens was English sparrows picking up spilled feed. The hogs were constantly covered in mud. We moved to confinment in slatted, open front barns built on skids that we pulled across the a field. Pigs were clean. Manure was incorporated. Eliminated almost all contact with birds and terestial parasites. Days to 220 pounds was drastically cut. Best of all, it only took 20 minutes to load 25 hogs where as it took about 2 hours of chasing to do the same from an open lot. I'm not fan of gestation stalls. But there are very, very few people that can operate an open air sow system that provides adaquate animal well being and sufficient environmental protection. I suspect you are the exception rather than the rule.

Jeff Schoening    
Iowa  |  June, 26, 2014 at 07:20 PM

Hi There is one matter in the blog that I am not clear on. Would you please elaborate on the comparison of air quality in individual pens versus group pens. thank you Jeff

Jeff Morten    
Kansas  |  June, 27, 2014 at 08:38 AM

I can say that my experience shows in every case when taking producers from stall gestation to large pen group housing the production has been increased along with the air quality. The key is to have a great design based on the animal behavior that will accommodate eliminating aggression, recreation time, adequate feed time, social needs, etc. We have "designed" satisfaction to these needs in the barns. The reason systems have aggression is a direct result of a poor design. Simply put, if a sow has enough space (around 25') to move away from a boos sow the situation is resolved. We find that the animals in our systems are much easier to move around and get into crates as needed because of their human interaction from an early age. As for the feed wastage, we have nearly eliminated it altogether as it is dosed out in very small portions as the sow eats. The labor we find is not increased or decreased. It is just a different kind of labor. After implementing our system in a few dozen barns in North America I can say with all confidence when all things are equal (feed, genetics, management, etc) we have matched or increased production in every case. If you have feed waste, poor air quality, aggression, and increased labor, then you clearly have a very poor design. This is my opinion. Take it with a grain of salt.

Terry Ward    
Pa.  |  June, 27, 2014 at 09:22 PM

“So our animals can’t turn around for the 2.5 years that they are in the stalls producing piglets. I don’t know who asked the sow if she wanted to turn around…" That's all we need to know. But y'all keep on tryin. How's that working for you by the way?

michael    
kansas  |  June, 30, 2014 at 05:25 PM

Good comments and thanks. Being much, much, much, much older than you, I've raised pigs in everything from a creek-side pasture-woodlot to full confinement with crates and rfid electronic feeding systems (which I personally think are the only efficient pen/group method available). I would only slightly modify your description of pros & cons to say they're the Exact Same Thing ... i.e.; Good = Socialize / Bad = Socialize. Like people, when "free to move about" they choose to associate or isolate and cooperate or compete aggressively. Unlike people, they have no natural agreed upon rules or enforcement agents to keep them from injuring each other and destroying & polluting their shared or separate environs. The blissfully ignorant foodies and animal rightists are oblivious to, "nature, red in tooth and claw", and how livestock producers work to provide for the safety and health of our animals - often by saving them from their own "animal" natures. Maybe if they had to battle Fluffy or Spot to the Death for the best food and a prime place to lie down, they'd understand?

michael    
kansas  |  June, 30, 2014 at 05:42 PM

Terry Ward, the Pig Whisperer, stops by to share her deep, spiritual connections, superior intellect and complete moral superiority to all other humans. We're honored Terry, and are bowing to your omnipotence even as we type away. Please, Please, Please keep educating us with your nasty, self-righteous, bitter, sarcasm and bigotry. How's that working for you?


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