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January 17, 2008

Gaining Ground for Sows

At The Humane Society of the United States, we've concentrated much of our anti-factory farming activity on three of the cruelest confinement practices—veal crates, battery cages, and gestation crates. We are seeing major changes in all three areas, and especially so on gestation crates.

When we pushed a ballot measure in Florida in 2002 to ban gestation crates, it seemed like the first step in a very steep and long climb. But it actually seems like we are now walking downhill, and the pace of progress is brisk.

This editorial from an agriculture industry publication—Lancaster Farming in Pennsylvania—is yet another example that industry leaders are accepting the phase-out of gestation crates and preparing for life after the crates are gone.

Crate Phase-Out Shouldn’t Hurt Pig Producers in Long Run

Dave Lefever
Editor

Tracy Sutton
Northern Editor

“Basically you’re asking a sow to live in an airline seat.”

That’s Temple Grandin, quoted in Wikipedia, the Internet encyclopedia, on sow gestation crates. The Colorado Pork Producers Association last month decided to voluntarily phase out the crates over the next decade.

Smithfield Foods, the nation’s largest pork producer, also disavowed the practice last year.

Sow gestation crates, or stalls, are 7- by 2-foot enclosures in which a sow may be confined during pregnancy, and in effect for most of her adult life.

Gestation stalls have been the science-backed industry standard since the late 1970s, according to Dr. Ken Kephart, Penn State professor of animal science, specializing in pig production.

Kephart expects the stalls to be phased out of the industry entirely over the next 10 years. The public, he says, “is the driving force” behind it.

Grandin, of Colorado State University’s Department of Animal Science and internationally known for her work on animal handling systems, told the Brownfield ag news organization that ending the use of sow gestation crates in pork production is the right thing to do. According to Grandin, the public just doesn’t like sow gestation crates and that’s reason enough to stop using them.

“Public opinion does matter,” Grandin said in an article from the U.S. Animal Health Association. “I think there are some things we can educate the public. I think we’ve done a really poor job in communicating with the public,” she added. “I think we need to be putting video tapes up on the Internet showing exactly how a farm works.”

Using animal health and productivity as a gauge, the gestation stalls have been successful, according to Kephart. One of the main benefits of the stalls, he said, is that the sows are protected from injury from other sows in an open pen. They can also receive individualized care in the stalls.

However, Kephart points out that new feeding systems are being developed in which sows could feed in open pens with minimal chance of injury from fighting with other sows. He believes that new technologies will allow farmers to continue to raise pigs with high efficiency once they retrofit their operations. One tangible advantage of keeping sows in open pens is that producers can worry a little less about temperature control, he said.

Sham chewing, bar-biting and and head-weaving are some of the sow behaviors the Scientific Veterinary Committee of the European Commission has linked with gestation stalls.

As animals with foraging instincts, sows in any confinement operation, not just gestation stalls, will tend to engage in behaviors such as “sham chewing,” Kephart said.

Paul Sundberg, a veterinarian and vice-president of the U.S. National Pork Producers Council, told The Washington Post: “(S)cience tells us that she (a sow) doesn’t even seem to know that she can’t turn ... She wants to eat and feel safe, and she can do that very well in individual stalls.”

According to Kephart, “what’s going on in (a sow’s) mind” is little understood, but the industry is working hard to find out.

“Twenty years ago, we didn’t even think about that stuff,” he said. “But more and more money is being spent to answer those questions.”

At the same time, doesn’t common sense tell us that our animals are sentient to some degree?

Grandin pointed out that the only Internet videos on animal handling readily accessible by consumers on such sites as YouTube tend to show examples of the worst kind of animal abuse.

“I’ve been around the industry for 35 years, and you know, we’ve got a lot of young people in the industry now that don’t know anything different than sow stalls, but in the ‘70s, all the sows were living in pens and they were just fine,” said Grandin. “And Smithfield switched over and things have been working fine.”

It looks like pig producers will be able to make this change and it will work out. Not only that, it seems like the humane thing to do.

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