Erin Brenneman
Erin Brenneman

For those who will never see a real working farm, hearing “the sow can’t even turn around” is all they will be able to picture. And it’s true.

In a farrowing or gestation stall, a sow does not have the ability to turn around. I can explain the reasons why we use this practice, all of which make sense and are actually meant for the protection and comfort of the animal. None of these reasons are simply because “we just don’t want her to be able to turn around,” but would anybody listen?  Most likely not. It is human nature to “connect” with the bad things; to be interested in the sick, twisted, and bizarre. The good and explainable is, well, just boring. 

I’ll be honest, if I came across something titled, “Why we use farrowing stalls and why they are good” I would most likely skip over it and move on to a juicier title. Even if I chose to read it, if I were a skeptic and firm non-believer of the practice in the first place, I wouldn’t think much of it and by no means would my mind be changed.

Who really wants to have what they believe in be debated or proven wrong?

I like to be proactive in the industry, showing people what we do every day rather than being reactive and defending all of our practices all of the time. That would be flat out exhausting and unnecessary because it would get me nowhere. No one will get me to change my mind about how I raise and care for the animals, just like I will not change anyone else's mind who opposes what we do. 

Everything is a matter of opinion and everyone is entitled to their own opinion. I am not here to change that or convince anyone to think otherwise. I am simply here to tell my story. I want people to refer to someone like me when deciding what to think about the farmers who raise their food. Unfortunately, not everyone is going to be able to go onto a pig farm and see what it’s like to form that opinion.

I am a huge Sherlock Holmes fan.  There is a great line that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle writes for Sherlock that states: “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly, one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”  

I would like to think I am the farmer of these pigs and the provider of those facts. I work with the animals, see them every day, and deliver what I believe to be the best care for them from my experiences. I would hope this is a more reliable way of going about things than from a theory put out by an activist with so much bravery behind their keyboard and zero experience in pig farming.

So while I consider myself a fairly passive person I am not going to debate why stalls are good and others are wrong. Rather, I feel it is my obligation to tell you what I experience and how I feel about what I do and let you make your own decision. Without further adieu, let's go back to the statement that caught most people's attention in my title.

“The sow can't even turn around.” This is true. There is no hiding or debating that a sow in a farrowing or gestation stall is not able to turn around. 

Is she unhappy about it? Well here is one thing that is true: I can’t tell you that she is happy there any more than someone else can tell me that she is unhappy. We simply don’t know what that sow is “thinking.” So what do we have to go off of? 

After receiving my Animal Science degree at Iowa State University I have done my fair share of studying animal behavior. One thing that always is a good indicator of animal "feelings" is mannerisms, or the way an animal acts in stressful and non-stressful situations. Repetitive actions like pacing and chewing are displays of discontent and boredom.

Being a big horse lover, I am familiar with the behavior of a bored horse in its stall called “weaving.” If you are not familiar with this mannerism, here is a link to an example of it on You Tube.

I personally believe that a weaving horse is a good example of a mannerism displayed when an animal is bored and not receiving enough stimulation. That is simply my personal opinion. I can honestly say that I have never seen a sow do this or anything similar to this.

It is true, however, that sows are mouthy and curious animals. They explore their surroundings with their noses and mouths and I have seen them chew around the bars (but not repetitively, and certainly not all day long).

I have seen an angry sow with hair raised on her back like a spooked cat. I have walked pass a sow and had her bark at me in a protective manner (much like a guard dog), warning me to keep away from her piglets.

I have personally put paper warnings over an aggressive sow’s stall stating "Watch Out, I Will Bite," much as you would in a horse barn on the stall of a horse with a sour attitude. But these examples do not represent the case of every sow on the farm. It is one in a hundred, or maybe even two hundred depending on a full moon or a big change in barometric pressure and weather.

A typical sow in a farrowing pen or gestation stall, to me, looks to be comfortable. I'm going to play it safe and state that I cannot tell you this for a certain fact – I can only tell you what I observe. After being with sows every day for 10 years, I can say that sows spend about 95 percent of their day lying quietly and calmly. In the farrowing house, they are nursing their pigs quietly on their sides, or are up eating and drinking a little bit.

 In gestation pens, they are usually sleeping, with fresh food and water readily available in front of them. The room is always a comfortable temperature and there is no panting, screaming, or banging on the bars at all. There is no real indication that they are stressed, if you are using animal behavior and mannerisms as a gauge.

Click here to read part 2 of Brenneman's "The sow can't even turn around" blog series.