Friday, March 30, 2012

Pig in a Poke: Gestation Stalls and Old-style Free Range

Companies such as Hormel, Smithfield, and Cargill have made plans to gradually end or cut back on the use of gestation stalls, and when McDonalds called on pork producers to change the system,  McShockwaves rippled through the industry. As with many ag issues, the topic is complicated.  Production techniques vary: some farmers use stalls extensively, some minimally, and some not at all.

Many say confinement production and stall use are good because pigs are protected from weather and predators, they are treated medically and fed properly, and the sows don’t roll onto and kill their babies so frequently. Detractors say such confinement is unnatural, many hogs are condemned to lives in a “straight jacket,” and the practices lead to overuse of medicines and additives.

Whatever your views on pork consumption and hog production, it is best to read a variety of insightful articles and science-based reports from all sides, as the changes in the industry will have social and economic implications. This site contains many links to articles explaining the pork producers’ perspectives.  This one explains the “natural techniques” used on a well-known American pork producer’s farm.  And this site gives an example of how pigs are raised using varied techniques on a hog farm in New Zealand

I have to admit, I didn’t give any of this much thought back when I was growing up on a small, Midwest farm.  Our pigs were basically free-range by default—sort of like they were mischievous school kids and we were caring but rather detached playground monitors.

Now that I look back, I have to agree with the common consensus that claims pigs are intelligent.  Oh sure, they would act dumb—beady eyes, gaping mouths, hours wallowing in mud and rooting in feedlot filth. But they played the game just right.  They would get us to feed them corn, bed their hog house with straw, and clean their area with pitchforks and manure spreaders. And for entertainment, they cleverly figured out how to escape and then they’d enact some type of Babe-the-squealing-pig rodeo game with us.

I can picture angry sows coming at me when I got too near their babies (this necessitated a scoop shovel or a quick hop over the fence); I recall hog droving days when we would move the herd a mile down the gravel road to Uncle Pat’s farm (pigs have a phobia about crossing bridges); and I remember when my brothers and I took care of three “runt pigs” that had been bullied to near death by the others (we raised them in a separate pen, and eventually watched them board the truck for the slaughterhouse—no Wilbur-the-terrific-pig ending).

I like pigs, but I’m happy as a hog in fresh clover that I don’t have to take care of them.  Dedicated pork producers have to be concerned shepherds, economic wizards, and medical assistants. When I was six or seven, Dad took me to a neighbor’s farm, and I watched in a trance as Doc Walker performed his vet magic by doing a cesarean and saving an ailing sow and several of the babies. A few years later, Doc was in our pasture with Dad and Uncle Pat, huddled over a dead 250 pounder. His field autopsy showed that a deadly nightshade weed had poisoned the animal.  And years later, I returned to the farm for a visit and, with my wife and two small children, we watched my brother-in-law assist a sow that was struggling to deliver 18 baby pigs.  Twelve lived.

I have a lot of respect for those who put their all into pork production, and I think farmers, food companies, and consumers will work out ways to keep hog farms safe, affordable, and humane. I’ll rely on them to figure out what’s best for the pigs.  Like I said, I agree they’re intelligent, but I did my time working with them.  As Will Rogers supposedly pointed out, "You should never try and teach a pig to read for two reasons. First, it's impossible; and secondly, it annoys the hell out of the pig!" by dan gogerty 

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