Just about everyone has an opinion about what pork producers individually or as a body should do about the gestating sow stall issue. Here is mine. Part of my career experiences was as general manager of a 30,000-sow operation. That system used all sow stalls as most did back then almost 20 years ago. Everyone in the industry knows of the value of keeping sows in stalls to prevent fighting and to individually feed the sows so each receives its allotted ration. Of course, some of the new penning arrangements also allow for individual feeding, which helps prevent the boss sow situation whereby a more aggressive sow eats her neighbor’s share.

I always thought the National Pork Board’s approach to this controversy was the correct one. They simply state that every producer should have a choice and that there are several alternatives, all of which have their unique set of advantages and disadvantages. Whether you agree with this approach or not depends upon whether you subscribe to the welfare activists’ assertion that the stall system is inherently inhumane. Personally, I do not, so that is why I like the choice argument. However, if your starting point is that stalls are inhumane because they do not allow the sow her basic freedoms, then the choice argument is not valid as it would allow a practice you find unacceptable to continue.

This issue certainly has its share of strong opinions on each side. There are particular groups of producers and indeed entire state pork organizations taking a strong stand to oppose any change that would compromise their ability to protect sows in stalls. Others seem to have accepted that change for the industry is inevitable and have looked at ways they can adapt their operations to include an alternative to gestation stalls, while still maintaining some of the advantages such as individual feeding and minimization of fighting.

One such system uses feeding stalls in open pens. This system requires additional space in addition to the cost of retrofitting, but would allow individual consumption without boss-sow intervention. My understanding from many who have experience with these systems is that most of the sows spend a significant time in the stalls anyway as a way to protect themselves from their overzealous pen mates.

There is some expansion of sow facilities taking place in the United States and in other countries such as China. It seems to me these producers have the added challenge of figuring out what to build that will have a sustained lifetime. In China, all new units are being built with stalls. However, I would be curious as to know what most U.S. producers are using in their expansion plans.

Our free-market economy allows the marketplace to influence decisions such as these. When so many retailers and foodservice concerns have taken the position that the pork they buy will be from stall-free operations by a defined date, the critical mass of these markets has the opportunity to effect a change. However, until it becomes a vast majority of producers who have changed their operations, the ones who have made the change are at a distinct financial disadvantage when compared to the producers who have decided to stick with the status quo. In addition, these producers would be at a competitive disadvantage when compared to China’s pork producers, with all other factors remaining equal.

I am sure more discussion will ensue before any finality is reached for the U.S. pork production industry. It will be interesting to watch and even more interesting to see where the industry ends up in regard to this issue within the next five and 10 years.