Mom at the Meat Counter: A lesson on pig housing and maternity pens

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What if I told you that twice a day, I tie my four-year-old to a chair and leave her there for an hour?

No matter how she pleads or cries or protests, she has to be tied down. Some days I strap her to a chair for nine hours or more.

Before you call Child Protective Services, think about a car seat. It is against the law for me to transport my small child anywhere without strapping her into a car seat. She may not like it, but it’s best for her.

Everyone understands the dangers of not using car seats. No one will argue that they are not needed to keep our children safe. People understand how dangerous car wrecks can be. We haven’t always used them (my parents weren’t strapped in car seats), but people now agree that they are needed to keep kids safe.

People don’t know much about pig farming.

Most people think of Wilbur or Babe when they think of pigs on farm: cute little pink pigs that make smart-alecky remarks to the sheep. But, that’s not reality. Real pigs are much different.

· Did you know that grown sows (momma pigs) can weigh as much as 500 pounds?

· They are huge animals. They may stand 4 feet tall.

· They can be very dangerous animals. Pig farmers can tell very scary stories about a pig hurting or even killing someone.

There has been a lot of news in social media and on the Internet about gestation stalls, or maternity pens, used in the pork industry. Several food companies and restaurants have declared that they will be phased out in the next few years and some states have even passed legislation banning them.

Most people know very little about pork production and why gestation stalls are used. People see pictures and hear terrible stories about farmers ‘abusing’ pigs and think, “Wow, how can we let this happen?” The problem is that we are not hearing the whole story. So, I decided to write a post about them, to help explain.

What are gestation stalls?
Gestation stalls are small pens that farmers put sows (momma pigs) in while they are pregnant. They provide each pig with a specific amount of food and all the water she wants, but there is not a lot of room for her to move around. They can lie down, but not turn around. They are artificially inseminated (bred to the boar) in those pens and stay there until they are about to have their babies. Then they move to a different type of pen.

Why do farmers use them?
First, they use them to protect the pigs from each other. Just like people, pigs pick on each other. If you have a group of pigs together in a pen, they will fight to establish a hierarchy, to determine who is boss. In the case of sows, some will become ‘bully sows’ and will literally fight and pick on inferior sows until they are physically separated or one dies. These pigs stand waist-high and may weigh as much as 400 or even 500 pounds. A 200-lb man is no match for them. Fighting sows are very dangerous.

Second, farmers must control how much feed the pigs eat. Also like people, pregnant sows are very hungry. But, unlike most people, they don’t know to control how much they eat to keep from getting obese. If allowed to eat all they wanted, the pigs would be morbidly obese, they would shorten their lifespan, and it would be wasteful. If the sows were mixed, some sows would hog (no pun intended) all the feed and overeat, while others would starve. So keeping them separate allows the farmer to feed each pig exactly what she needs.

 Since I've been working on this post, I participated in a radio show with a pig farmer from Missouri, Chris Chinn. She was asked about gestation stalls and had a couple of points I wanted to share. She said that her farm used to use group housing and that the bully sows ate too much and had big babies and trouble in labor. She also said that the weaker sows had small, unthrifty babies. When they switched to gestation stalls, they found that they used less medicine because the sows didn't injure one another fighting.

Right before the sow has her babies, the farmer will move her into a farrowing crate. These are pens that are large enough for the sow to stand up and lie down, but she has to do it slowly. Remember these sows can weigh as much as 500 pounds. Their piglets may only weigh 3 or 4 pounds. They can walk soon after they are born, but not very well. If the momma pig lies down too quickly, she could squish her babies. 

Research shows that there are advantages and disadvantages of using gestation stalls. One study gave pigs the choice of remaining in a group pen or in a gestation stall and found that the pigs preferred to stay in the stalls most of the time. In a video of a farm in Indiana, the farmer has European-style gestation crates, where the pigs can choose to go in or out of the stalls. He says they stay in their stall over 90% of the time.

In response to all the pressure from food companies, some farmers have removed their gestation stalls and changed their barns to group housing. Others have installed European-style pens that give pigs a choice of where they can be.

Big changes in animal housing need to happen slowly. Don’t think that we can just ban stalls and walk away feeling good about our animal welfare practices.  Pigs and people will suffer if we don’t find acceptable alternatives.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) put together a task force to address sow housing that included several vets and a representative from HSUS. They concluded that any sow housing systems had advantages and disadvantages, and that farmers and animal scientists should work together to retain the advantages of the current systems and improve on them.

I hope that veterinarians, farmers and food companies can work together to determine what is truly best for pigs. I don’t think anyone has an easy answer right now. Even the animal welfare experts say that there are no easy answers when it comes to housing pigs.

I think this quote from Dr. Temple Grandin is very meaningful, “Nature is cruel, but we don’t have to be.” She said it many times. Animals are cruel to each other. Farmers do their best to keep animals happy and healthy. Just like parents with car seats.

Here are a few more resources about gestation stalls and pig housing:

· A good Q and A about gestation stalls and their history.

· A nice video about modern hog farming, including gestation stalls.

· A good video from Humane Watch about pigs and maternity pens.

· The report from the AVMA task force on sow housing.

For more information and to read more blogs, go to:

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Wisconsin  |  September, 04, 2013 at 09:56 AM

But I think you'll find that Temple Grandin is against gestation crates, so using her quote out of context is not helpful. The scientific evidence is such that a well-managed group system has welfare advantages over a crate system. Using examples of badly managed group systems to justify continued use of crates is not valid. And you are avoiding the moral issue of close confinement systems, and yes, there is a moral issue here that goes above and beyond productivity and the economics of production.

California  |  September, 04, 2013 at 11:20 AM

Andrew, Please document the scientific evidence you refer to in your response and if you would be so kind, explain the "moral" issues of close confinement. If there is a "moral" issue for our livestock, perhaps people should not live or work so closely in cities...

Wisconsin  |  September, 04, 2013 at 11:58 AM If you cannot see the moral issue with housing a sentient being, with 4 legs evolved for movement in a varied environment, in close confinement, then nothing I say will appease you.

Wisconsin  |  September, 04, 2013 at 12:09 PM

And bad analogy Scott. People working in cities have environmental choice and last time I looked, were free to move around the city, rather than confined in a space the size of a gestation crate.

Dr. Rannells    
Ohio  |  September, 04, 2013 at 12:43 PM

The issue is being missed here. What is at stake is big chain restaurants telling trained farm establishments how they should do business. That is simply out of line. I have worked both sides of this issue and can tell you that the farmers are far better prepared to handle this issue than any chain of fast foods. Take issue with their inability to control child nutrition, housing problems and social affairs before they are allowed to control farming issues.

Nebraska  |  September, 04, 2013 at 07:55 PM

I have been involved in both sides and it always amazes me how people can pass judgement on how someone else is running their business. When they know nothing about it, except what they hear and see in the bias media. I at one time worked around gestation stalls, farrowing crates verses the pen system. The stalls and crates are for the protection of both the producer and the animals. To say the animals are being abused by a producer is rediculous. What responsinle producer in his right mind would do that? Their livelyhood depends on it. If that animal isn't in peek condition it doesn't preform well just like people or athelets. Each animal gets a perfect well balanced diet plenty of water and enough excercise (even in the stalls) that they need to stay in condition, not so in a pen. I would vencher to say most peoples kids don't get that. To do away with this would raise food cost because effiencies will go down. I think the Ag sector has miss used their check off dollars. Intead of using those dollars to promote there product, they should have used it to educate people that are misinformed. That way people might reallize their hamburger, bacon, milk etc comes from American farmers and not the local grocery store. As far as restaurants inspecting how the animals are produced and cared for, that is happening in our area as we speak. I would like to challange the uninformed public to let the producers come to their homes and restaurants and tell them how to cook food. That would end the ecoli problem. Ecoli is not so much a problem with processing, as it is a problem with people not cooking their food properly and blaming some one else for their being uninformed.

Ohio  |  September, 06, 2013 at 08:54 AM

Andrew, you have obviously never worked with a group 3-4 hundred pound Sows in a group or you would understand the use of Gestation Stalls.

Connecticut  |  September, 06, 2013 at 01:35 PM

The unspoken goal of those opposed to gestation crates and other farming practices generally chosen for increased efficiency, is to make animal agriculture less efficient and animal products more expensive. They talk about bettering animal welfare, but quote only what science may support their positions. The primary purpose of animal agriculture is to produce human food. While an important consideration, animal welfare is melded to that goal, not the other way around.

Wisconsin  |  September, 09, 2013 at 07:07 AM

I have spent a lifetime working with group-housed sows. I do research with group-housed sows. I have a PhD in sow welfare with respect to housing systems. I have worked with sows in ESF systems, floor feeding systems, free-access crates, individual feeding stalls, even ad libitum feeding of high fiber diets, and sows in gestation crates. I do actually know the subject well.

southern oregon  |  September, 25, 2013 at 10:16 PM

to try to compare crates to a child's car seat is absurd. a farrowing crate would be more akin to locking your child in a closet for months on end while while feeding them a steady diet of soylent green. the reason for crates is not for safety, it is purely for greed in the name off efficiency. once you stop caring about how the pigs live and decide to focus only on cheap production of calories. then the crates allow you to safely manage more animals in less space with less labor. but at what cost? manure lagoons over flowing or leaking tons of pig sewage into the environment? just because you "can" do something does not mean you should. certainly if pork production went back to a pasture based system, a system that worked for generation, the price of pork at the store would go up. but the silent cost of confinement production would dissipate and disappear. how do you put a price on pollution and health, (animal, human, community and environment) 2 things that are completely ignored in a confinement system. no amount of 99 cent pork can balance that

Iowa  |  October, 06, 2013 at 07:38 PM

Andrew, where have you done this research? Would you please send me the results? I have looked at a great deal of research and would be interested in seeing yours. Obviously, there are pros and cons to all systems. In regard to your comment about Temple Grandin, I believe she has been quoted to say that the industry "should move away from crates" rather than she's "against" them. And as we've mentioned before, Temple is an expert in cattle handling and has less experience working in the pork industry. I appreciate your comments and will look forward to hearing from you.

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