The sow housing dilemma

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Women at risk due to personal health issues or of potentially losing a child are often confined to bed rest for months during their pregnancy. Wouldn’t protecting the life of a baby pig by keeping sows in a confined area during gestation be a fair analogy?

Why has it been ignored that the pork industry has had veterinarian oversight for years, and these animal welfare experts have helped producers develop and incorporate best management practices?

Rather than a debate between gestation stalls and open pens, why haven’t the activists pushed for having all animals outside, in their natural habitat?  

In reality, does this issue have anything to do with housing, or is it simply another way of encouraging consumers to eat less meat, which remains the ultimate goal of many activist groups?

What is the industry’s best step going forward?

click image to zoomDirection The swine housing issue is as simple as it is complex. From the standpoint of the research, it’s simple. Producers and industry professionals alike know gestation stalls are a viable option based on sound science. Yet from a “politically correct” position based on a combination of factors, some producers have either incorporated alternative housing systems or are considering doing so.

Through email correspondence with a representative of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), a request was made for research to back up the organization’s claim that gestation stalls were inhumane. In response, an article on the HSUS website was sent. This 211-page document, called “The Welfare of Intensely Kept Pigs – Report of the Scientific Veterinary Committee Expert Working Group,” was adopted in the European Union in September, 1997.

Pick and Choose
Few people are likely to read the full report, however if they did, they would be surprised. HSUS selectively chose to support the one or two instances in which suggestions were made to eventually move away from gestation stalls. However, for the most part, the report is fair, balanced and thorough.

Of the 94 conclusions and recommendations, the overriding theme is the importance of quality stockmanship. Pros and cons of multiple systems are illuminated, and recommendations of one system over another are minimal.

Take a look:

The person responsible for the pigs should ensure that their welfare, including their health, is safeguarded by the use of appropriate housing, feeding, care, vaccination, preventive medicine and veterinary advice and treatment. Pigs should be inspected daily by the caretaker for signs of poor welfare…

Conclusions about welfare should always be based on all available evidence, properly weighted, and should not rely only on, for example, preference or other trials in experimental conditions, or epidemiological surveys. When recommendations about modified practices are produced, the relevance of experimental studies where effects of only one or a few factors have been varied, must be carefully considered. On practically operating farms, effects of such single variables may be exaggerated or compensated by other factors, and the stockman factor is central in the effective functioning of a particular system. It is therefore normally desirable that on-farm surveys are carried out before definite recommendations are issued.

It should be borne in mind that selection has modified many aspects of pig biology.

The welfare consequences of keeping pigs in large groups (more than about 15-20 pigs for growing finishing pigs and sows) are not well understood. Adequate individual inspection is important for welfare and is more difficult with large groups.

When pigs are kept in large groups, sufficient measures must be taken to allow individual inspection of the animals.

The quality of stockmanship has large effects on the welfare of pigs in any housing system. A skilful stockman can compensate for many bad effects of certain housing systems and a poor stockman cause problems in an otherwise good system.

Every person who is in charge of pigs should be licensed for this occupation. Such licensing should follow proper training and certification.

The mixing of unfamiliar sows may cause welfare problems because of fights between the animals.

The advantages for welfare of the confinement of sows in stalls over group-housing of sows are as follows; since pigs are not mixed, fighting with associated stress and injuries is prevented, each sow is certain to have the full ration of food available to her, sows can all feed at the same time, care-taking is made easier and signs of morbidity, such as feed refusals or vulval discharge, are easy to detect and can then be treated appropriately.

The major disadvantage of group-housing is that injuries such as bites to the vulva or skin can occur, and it is also possible for these sows to slip on the floor. Fighting or injury could lead to embryo loss in extreme cases, and detection of health problems is more difficult. In general, better stockmanship is necessary to prevent these adverse affects.

These basic premises are ignored by activist groups, even though the full report is published as “supporting research” on the HSUS website.

Consumers Don’t Know

As is so often the case with controversial issues carrying activist support, common sense and practical understanding are rarely included in the conversation. That’s part of the rationale: create fear and distrust in the minds of consumers. There were stirrings of this fear more than a decade ago. Research conducted by Roper Starch Worldwide, showed sizable gaps between consumer perceptions and how farmers perceive consumer perceptions. More than 1,002 consumers were interviewed, along with 704 farmers. Among the findings, 71 percent of farmers and 67 percent of consumers agreed that the agriculture community did only a “fair” or “poor” job of explaining the benefits and drawbacks of farming techniques to the public.

More importantly, the study showed consumers are more likely to label the most widely publicized farm practices as “never acceptable” rather than “always acceptable,” indicating that as more negative information is publicized, more consumers will find farming practices unacceptable.

Sound Husbandry Practices
Regardless of which housing system producers choose, the overriding constant is to provide the safest, most comfortable environment for pigs and the people who care for them. It’s evident the members of the EU Scientific Veterinary Committee Expert Working Group had the same thing in mind, but animal rights groups selected the points that most closely fit their agenda and ignored the others, giving a biased view of the issue.

The other important take-home is that the pork industry in particular, and agriculture in general, must do a better job of helping consumers understand how food is produced, why certain practices are performed and housing systems are used, and how farmers are doing everything they can to produce safe, healthy food for an ever-expanding population.

Sound animal welfare incorporates best management practices through proper training of employees, buildings that provide protection from the elements and equipment that is conducive to mindful oversight of the animals. Many U.S. housing systems, whether pens or stalls, easily fit this criteria.

This discussion will continue in the next issue, as PorkNetwork provides an EU pork industry perspective.


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Tonia    
Waterloo, Iowa  |  June, 10, 2013 at 10:01 AM

I'm a bit of a johnny-come-lately to the Ag world, having lived in the city and being several generations removed from the farm. I've spent the last three years working in Ag Comm, and I think this does give me something of an unusual perspective, so I'd like to offer a bit of insight into this. Before I started working with farmers, I didn't even know what animal husbandry was. Ag people know how important it is, but consumers may not even know it exists. If we want to make the argument in public that stalls (which people can visualize) are secondary to husbandry (which most people cannot) we need to move the whole concept into the general discussion. Until consumers start to see animal caregivers as CAREGIVERS, they will be easily distracted by scary-looking equipment and images of "factory" farming. We need to spend more time demonstrating the commitment and passion that farmers have for their livestock. Until animal husbandry is part of the public vocabulary, it will never win the public debate.


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