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.

Veal was a growing industry when it reached its production peak of almost 3.4 million calves in 1986.  Veal was a very popular and expensive item, and was the favorite meal to serve on special occasions. 

Chicken was too “cheap” and beef was not particularly “classy.”  But the public was disturbed by the crates (now termed “individual pens”) and it became the favorite target of animal activists groups. Some vealers were very successful in raising calves in groups, but we mostly heard that it was impossible, as several defenders of the status quo emerged who polarized the issue.  

For example, the veal industry trade magazine,“TheVealer,” covered both sides of the debate among vealers until things changed drastically in 1985. The executive secretary of the American Veal Association (AVA) submitted an article that was published in “The Vealer” that favored phasing out crates.  The AVA president objected to the article and demanded that all future articles be submitted to him for approval (Alan DuVernay. Ten year history of “The Vealer.” March 1998 issue).

“The Vealer” then became the “independent voice of the veal industry” and soon ceased publishing, while hardliners eventually founded “The Producer’s Connection,” the “official voice of the AVA.”I remember back in the late 1980’s when there was a measure placed on the Massachusetts ballot to give veal calves room to turn around, a major spokesperson for agriculture declared that if the bill passed, it could jeopardize our national defense. 

I think the logic was that the precedent could lead to chaos in our food supply.  Despite a heroic defense of what an editor of one of our own agricultural industry trade magazines called the "indefensible," the veal industry was reduced to about 1/3 of its size in just a few years.  Perhaps more damaging to animal agriculture, however, was our loss of credibility with the public as worthy custodians of livestock. 

It has taken a long time for the AVA to finally accept the inevitable and encourage veal producers to adopt group housing for at least part of the production cycle.  The May, 2012 issue of “The Producer’s Connection”was happy to announce that the transition to group housing is “ahead of schedule." 

Interestingly, the May, 2012 issue also had an article attributing the industry’s reason for not previously adopting group housing to “machines that were crudely designed, unreliable …”. However, more than one vealer who converted to group raising told me in the 1980’s that there was discrimination against their calves and the difficulty in finding buyers for their calves was running them out of business. 

Getting back to the sow gestation issue, it would be very useful if some of the people who have been successful with open pen gestation systems could be given more access to a platform to get their ideas and experience out to the industry. 

Some of the drop-feeding systems for large pens look very promising, for example.  There has been some exchange of information in Canada, but little in the U.S.  Why is itCanadians always seem to work together on animal welfare issues and develop reasonable compromises while Americans seem to seek polarization? 

Once again, it looks like U.S. animal agriculture is going to be dragged kicking and screaming into another inevitable change, rather than working to make this into gravy.  When the writing is on the wall, why can’t we put our own spin on it and use it to build goodwill? 

Don’t get me wrong, however.  Despite animal agriculture’s inertia and propensity to surround ourselves with like-minded people, our balance sheet regarding animal welfare issues is still way ahead of the activists.  This is especially truewhen we factor in the decreased welfare that activist groups have caused hundreds of thousands of slaughter horses to suffer over the last 6 years. 

Major costs are projected by a few models when pork producers convert to group gestation.  However,some of those estimates are based on a mandated change instead of a phase-in over time when buildings need to be renovated anyway.

Some other cost estimates indicate that changing might even reduce costs and have benefits, but the type of data most researchers would like to see is still lacking.  Also, increases in the costs of commodities are usually passed onto the consumer, so why should pork producers be so concerned?  How much of the retail cost of a package of pork chops reflects the housing costs of maintaining that animal’s mother for about 3 months during gestation? 

Any increased costs of gestation of a sow will also be spread over about 10 market pigs, or 400 pork chops (figuring 40 chops per pig).

One concern that I do have, however, is that modern confinement systems such as crates for sows and veal, and battery cages for layers, do insure a consistent form of husbandry that requires minimal husbandry skills. 

Maintaining the ventilation, feeding and waste handling systems in confinement systems certainly requires expertise, but the actual knowledge needed to be successful with pigs, veal or poultry is greatly simplified and standardized. 

A lot of the problems vealers had when some tried group housing with computer feeding in the 1980’s was because the labor that was saved by investing in automated feeding needed to be spent carefully observing the groups of calves so that problems could be detected early. 

Successful vealers considered group housing and feeding as a means to redirect their efforts to work more closely with calves and improve their husbandry skills, rather than as an investment that reduced workload and labor costs.

Transitioning to pen gestation of sows will require a different management philosophy and increased husbandry skills, or overall welfare of the sows will likely not be improved.  However, pork producers are very resourceful and can raise pigs humanely as long as they know what the public is going to require.

Even if pen gestation does not work, giving it a fair try will at least allow animal agriculture to claim the high ground and say we gave it our best try because we care about the welfare of theiranimals.