Editors note: Dr. Ted H. Friend is with the Department of Animal Science at Texas A&M University, College Station and isa Texas AgriLife Faculty Research Fellow. One of his earlier research projects was for the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), which involved alternative gestation systems for sows. His lab has published animal welfare-related research on all livestock species, canines, and elephants and tigers.
When animal agriculture is faced with an inevitable change the public wants, why doesn't it take credit for it like any good politician would?
The latest example is the ruckus over sow gestation stalls, but we can also learn a lot from the veal industry.
The recent NPPC survey reporting that 17% of swine farms with over 1,000 sows do not use gestation stalls was surprising to me. For years I have told students in my undergraduate class that group gestation was not practical on large farms because of aggression between sows and difficulties in controlling feed intake. So what are the 17% doing with their roughly 2.1 million sows that seems to be working?
Even if we assume that only a portion of those farms are effectively mitigating aggression and controlling feed intake – exactly what are they doing? Some colleagues involved in swine production in Canada told me about 6 years ago that large groups with dump or trickle feeding can work well, but I discounted them because they did not have published data,sounded a bit like animal activists, and were Canadians.
I subscribe to two swine industry trade magazines, but wonder why we do not see articles in the trade press about successful group gestation systems given that it is such a huge issue. The World Pork Expo would also be a good venue to reach producers and exchange ideas.
All that we seem to hear in the mainstream is that switching to group gestation is premature and needs more research. Several months ago, a group of us at Texas A&M gathered to hear a FASS webinar on the issue of sow gestation, but again all we heard about were potential problems. I was disappointed not to hear a debate with people who were having success with group gestation systems.
Over the years, many of us have argued that farmers care about their animals and are the original animal activists. But that claim lacks credibility when we look back at how doggedly we fought the idea of mandatory stunning in the 1970’s, and even claimed that it would be the end of the family farm.
Most slaughter plants were already stunning at that time; however it was the principle of being told what to do by the government that gave producer groups and some individuals a cause.