Pork producers and consumers alike are increasingly talking about gestation-sow housing since some major U.S. grocers and restaurant chains, including McDonald’s, have cited plans to stop buying pork that can be traced back to gestation stalls.
However, according to Steve Dritz, DVM, and Joel DeRouchey, livestock specialist, at Kansas State University, lost in the conversation is why pork producers began using stalls in the first place. “We’ve seen increased pressure from outside influences on swine producers to change their management practices,” DeRouchey says. “For those working in the barns, working with the animals – they love the animals and they care for them on a daily basis. They want them to do as well as possible.”
A gestation stall does confine a sow during its pregnancy and allows the producer to feed so that he meets individual nutritional needs, Dritz points out. When sows are in groups, some will eat more than they should, while others will eat less than they need.
Also, because pregnant sows can be aggressive and physically harm one another, sows kept in gestation stalls are protected from other sows. “The sow can stand up and lie down,” Dritz says. “The one major drawback is that she cannot turn around.”
Dritz points to his recent trip to Europe where he learned that on farms where sows can voluntarily move in and out of gestation stalls, the animals chose to spend 80 percent to 85 percent of their time in stalls. Studies that looked at stress hormone levels between housing systems found no differences in sows that were free to move about versus those housed in gestation stalls.
While there is no difference from a production standpoint, “from a health standpoint, there is no question that gestation stalls protect the animal and prevent injuries,” Dritz adds. “That’s a point that is missing in many of the messages.”
Gestation stalls do make it easier for producers to monitor each sow’s health and to administer vaccines and medication, if needed. “Let’s take it back to what’s best for the animal. If I truly don’t believe that stalls are best for the animal, then that’s what I shouldn’t be doing,” De Rouchey says.
There is some confusion that the current “sow-stall” issue includes farrowing crates—it does not. Farrowing stalls, of course, are used during the birthing process. They allow space for the sow as well as protection for the piglets from being crushed. Piglets have a safe creep area and ready access to the sow’s udder for nursing.
“There is no current debate on farrowing crates,” DeRouchey says. Studies show there is 25 percent to 30 percent piglet mortality in open farrowing situations versus 6 percent to 8 percent in farrowing crates.
“We have to constantly ask ourselves from a research standpoint, are we doing what’s best for the animal?” Dritz points out. “Many in this industry have made that decision and it’s one I’ve dealt with personally – I’ve seen both systems and I think both can be a very effective way to raise pigs.”
Another factor that gets muddied in the discussion is the perception of farm size-- stall housing tends to gets associated with only the largest producers. “Some people don’t like the large size of some farms. It’s important to remember, however, that the operation’s size doesn’t matter. Sow housing affects small producers as well as the largest ones,” DeRouchey adds.
People tend to think that a move from sow-stalls to pens would favor “small operations.” However, the opposite is likely true, as operators running large systems are more likely to be able to afford the conversion as they can spread the costs out over more animals.
“There’s a grave concern that if production moves to pen only – if that’s mandated-- many of our small producers will exit the business because of the capital costs required to convert existing facilities,” DeRouchey notes. “This could have a backward effect where it may lead to further consolidation of the industry.”
He points to similar actions in the poultry industry, regarding housing, and notes that the dairy and beef industries aren’t immune either.
“When we talk about the general public and their perception of livestock management practices, they’re generally supportive of our farmers and ranchers that raise these species,” DeRouchey adds. “The majority of the changers or big influencers are from organizations that have the goal to abolish animal agriculture and ending meat consumption. Therefore, we also have to understand that the debate is being influenced by organizations with another agenda besides animal welfare.”
The hear more from Dritz and DeRouchey, go to www.ksre.ksu.edu/news. Click on “K-State Radio Network.”