Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Untitled Blog (Because there is no fun way to introduce Castration)

Last week’s Mercy for Animals Canada (MFAC) video that was featured on CTV’s W5 inspired me to start blogging again and this post marks the halfway point of my response.  I want to thank MFAC for lighting this fire underneath me, no longer are farmers going to stand by silently while activist groups like MFAC try to destroy our family farms and rural communities while making the world’s most vulnerable people less food secure.  I hope that silence is something I am never a part of again, going forward I’m going to let consumers know that I grow food for them with pride.

Today I’m talking castration (most males will be covering their crotch in reaction to this term).  It is not a pretty topic but like my previous two posts, I am going to attempt to tell why we do it while highlighting alternatives that are being developed.

A long time ago humans discovered that domesticating animals was far easier then always chasing after them with sharp sticks.  Shortly after we made another monumental discovery, male animals just don’t taste as good and can also become aggressive when they reach sexual maturity.  Male pigs (Boars) are one of the worst offenders on both accounts.  Boars can have a build-up of androstenone (the hormone that helped Mark McGuire hit his homeruns) and skatole in their fat.  When the pork from these males is cooked the aptly named ‘boar taint’ releases a gross smell while also making the meat taste pretty disgusting.  Out of all of this, castration became common practice for anyone rearing pigs.

MFAC’s video correctly mentioned that the process of castration is done without anesthetic or pain killers in Canada.  I can totally understand why this seems a little barbaric on the surface and I cannot deny that there is acute pain at the time of castration.  We need to dig a little deeper however.  For anyone that has ever had a general anaesthetic you know that for the next day or two you feel pretty crappy. This is no different for pigs and in the case of young piglets; the administering of a general anaesthetic can even cause death. Local anaesthetics are also used in certain global regions where legislation pertaining to castration exists (The EU has banned castration without the use of an anaesthetic or analgesic, complete ban is coming in 2018) but again there are issues, a survey of Norwegian pig farmers and vets found that only 19% of producers and 54% of vets felt that the local anaesthetic had a positive impact.   On a less scientific note, my brother told me of a conversation he had with a person who worked in the Danish pig industry.  This person was very familiar with common on-farm practices and said that many Danish producers did not administer the required analgesic on the pigs because there was no evidence that it actually improved the pigs’ welfare.

I can tell you what my preferred solution is…when travelling throughout the UK in 2008 I visited farms and it was the first time I had ever seen intact males other than breeding boars.  My jaw dropped when I found out that they didn’t need to castrate because they shipped the pigs before they reached sexual maturity.  I would bet that most pig farmers would love this plan.  Not only would we get to quit castrating (the least favourite job of almost every pig farmer) but we could also ship a smaller market hog. You see, for every additional pound the pig gets just a little more stubborn.  The problem with this plan is it would make pork more expensive for consumers because it decreases the efficiency of our processors by lowering the amount of pork they can process over their fixed assets.

Another promising area to be explored is to genetically engineer a boar taint free pig.  Researchers at the University of Guelph have already marked the genes that cause boar taint and it would be very feasible/not complicated to create a GMO pig that wouldn’t need to be castrated and could still be shipped at the weights demanded by the North American processing industry.  The problem with this solution is there widespread consumer mistrust of genetically modified animals.  We have already seen the decline of the University of Guelph EnviroPig (a pig that reduced the amount of phosphorus in its manure, thus lowering its environmental impact) because consumers reject GMO animals and the project could not be commercialized.

Since painkillers aren’t that effective (and at times are actually detrimental) and consumers don’t want to eat GMO pigs, what the heck are we supposed to do?  The last area I am going to share is probably the best course of action if we are going to actually stop castrating pigs.  There is a product produced by Pfizer that has been used globally for over a decade however it was only approved in 2011 here in Canada.  The product, registered as Improvest here in Canada, uses the pigs’ immune response to inhibit the production of the hormones that bring on sexual maturity. Since I’m not a scientist, I’m not going to try and explain how it works but below you will find a link that can give you more information if you are interested.

Improvest Info Centre

Personally, I am glad that we are developing alternatives to castration.  Remember, farmers are the original animal welfare advocates, long before groups like MFAC started to spread misinformation we were there in the barn figuring out how we can actually make an animal’s life better while still working to ensure that people had enough food to eat.

#FarmProud my friends…


Moving on to the Maternity Ward, Swine Style

Today’s installment is going to take place in the Farrowing barn, I am going to discuss the farrowing crate and then talk about a few other systems that are coming into use to meet demands for enhanced welfare production systems.

So let’s get started by talking about why we use farrowing crates.  The farrowing crate was introduced around the same time as the gestation crate and for pig farmers it was a real game changer. Until the introduction of specialized farrowing crates, pigs farrowed (gave birth) in loose pens bedded with straw.  These farrowing pens had some serious deficiencies:

  • While it happens rarely and generally only with gilts (a female that has never birthed before) there can be instances of savaging where the sow attacks her own piglets.  When a 600lbs sow decides she is angry at her 3lbs piglet the results can be horrific.
  • The sow, like most mothers, does not always take kindly to strangers handling their offspring.  Pens can make it difficult for the farmer to care for the piglet if the sow gets overly aggressive and at times can be downright dangerous.
  • Anyone that has ever watched a sow lie down knows that it is not the most graceful process and often ends by flopping to one side.  It all happens quickly and piglets can’t always get out of the way in time. The end result is that more piglets die as a result of crushing in a farrowing pen versus a farrowing crate.

Stew's Random Disk 005 P1080684

Above are 2 pictures I have taken in my travels of pig farms around the world. The crate system picture is from Harper Adams University in England.  As the sow lies down she uses the bars to slow down the process, allowing piglets to get out from under her while the area where the piglets are lying (called a creep area) uses a heat lamp and heated pad to provide supplementary heat so that the piglets don’t need to cluster underneath the sow to keep warm.  The 2nd picture comes from an outdoor sow farm in Spain; while there are still crush bars present it doesn’t give the same level of protection for piglet because the sow still has to lie down without the assistance of the horizontal bars in the crate system.  Furthermore, outdoor systems like this one cannot provide a specialized creep area for piglets as it requires electricity to run the heat lamp and heat mat.

There are certain producers involved in niche programs here in Ontario that use farrowing pens to meet the enhanced welfare requirements of their end customer.  I know a few of these farmers and they tell me that you can expect an aditional 1-2 pigs per litter increase in crushing losses when you take away the farrowing crate.  Our farm acutally has a pen that can house upto 4 sows in the event that all of our crates are full and we have found that it is incredibly challenging to get piglets through the first 48 hours alive when we don’t have the use of a farrowing crate, especially in the winter months. (Our pen is in the 2nd floor of our bank barn).  Without the aformentioned creep area, the sow is the primary source of heat for the piglets and crushing losses can be terrible as the piglets will huddle under the sow to keep warm and then are not quick enough to get out from under her when she lies down to nurse.

That being said, because the demand for enhanced animal welfare is increasing.  Globally, producers and industry partners are investing in research of new farrowing systems that increase the mobility of the sow while attempting to lower the amount of piglets lost to crushing.  To close I wanted to show a few pictures of new systems that have been developed.

360_freedom_farrower freestallfarrowing

The image on top is of a 360 Freedom Farrower developed by Midland Pig Producers in the UK.  This crate takes a similar amount of space as a conventional farrowing crate while still having specialised creep areas to reduce crushing.  The 2nd image  is of a Sowjoy Freestall Pen developed by Den Hartog Industries in Iowa, USA.  Again, it provides a creep area for the piglets while giving the sow room to turn around and move.

Last but not least I wanted to show a video my sister filmed a little while ago of piglets being born,  it shows the farrowing crate system at our farm while letting you see things being born which still fascinates me every time I’m lucky enough to see it

Stonaleen Farrowing Video

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Talking Gestation Crates

At the end of last week’s blog I promised that I would try to address what I felt were “misrepresentations” of my industry in the video released by Mercy for Animals Canada (MFAC) and featured on CTV’s W5.  So here it goes, the first installment of my response.

I decided to start with the gestation crate, they have become the #1 target of animal rights activists and the criticism has started to spill over into the mainstream.  In the past 6 months numerous major retailers and restaurant chains have made public pronouncements that suppliers will need to phase out the use of gestation crates in the coming years.  Many of these announcements have been light on substance; no one seems to know if it a complete ban or something more like the EU ban set to come into effect in 2013.  (EU producers will be able to use stalls for 28 days post breeding and then again 1 week before farrowing). When I asked one major processor if they had any details yet from the retailers/foodservice chains in question I was told that these pronouncements were made without really thinking about the details, it was more of a PR move to try and stay ahead of activist pressure…so no, they really had no idea how it would shake out.

For someone with no experience working with pigs it seems like a no brainer that these crates are an inhumane way to house pigs but if that was the case why did we start using them in the first place?  Animal activists like MFAC will try and tell you that it was driven solely by greed, factory farmers intent on making millions at the expense of their livestock’s welfare.  The ironic thing is that when crates were introduced in the 1970s’ and 80s’ it was the expert opinion that crates improved the sows’ welfare.  One person who has been in the business since the early 70s emailed me and shared stories of their system back then.  It wasn’t rare to have to remove a sow from group housing because she had been bullied by a boss sow or someone in heat. (when sows are in heat they have a tendency to try and mount each other and it can easily end in injury if a sow slips or one of the sows gets overly aggressive.) This story even came from the idyllic mixed farm setting where they only had 20 sows.  Stalls gave farmers the ability to individually monitor each sow allowing them to be very proactive if the sow needed any special attention. Stalls greatly enhanced the welfare of the sows that found themselves at the lower end of the pecking order in a group environment; no longer did they have to worry about fighting for their lunch or trying to hide from the bully in the pen.

My family’s farm uses both systems.  Our original sow barn (375 sows) uses a system that mimics the incoming EU sow welfare mandates.  We use crates for 28 days post breeding and then following a positive pregnancy check the sows are moved into loose pens of 20-25 sows.  We group our sows by size and then try to feed the pen according to sow condition.  Our new (to us) rental sow barn uses gestation crates exclusively with the exception of a small loose area for breeding.  Being able to work in both settings has given me a unique perspective on the issue.  I am not especially fond of keeping the sow confined for the duration of their pregnancy but I can definitely see why certain producers are still strong advocates of crates.  I have yet to have a sow in the confinement barn that has been hurt by another sow and I can treat any problems very proactively because every day I can individually inspect if the sow is eating/drinking.  We do not have this luxury in our group housing system.

Now that I’m 650 words in you are probably wondering when I am going to explain where I felt the video misrepresented the stall.  While the MFAC agent shooting the video worked in that barn for almost 3 months he somehow failed to include footage of what a gestation crate barn looks like for approximately 23 hours and 30 minutes of every day.  They chose to only show what that barn looked like in the period right before feeding.  Now I’m going to excuse this oversight on their part, MFAC wants to destroy family farms like mine and it hard to get consumers to rally behind your cause if you show footage of sows contently sleeping in their stall. But the public deserves to know that sows are not in a constant state of stress in a stall so I set out to do some undercover video of my own.  Below you will find 4 clips that I shot in our barn at different parts of the day.

Feeding Time

Sows are quite vocal in telling the farmer that it is time for lunch


Once the feed is out the noise level changes dramatically as the sows eat away

1 Hour Post Feeding

By now, most sows have started to lie down again, a few are still up drinking

4 Hours Post Feeding

Nap time!!!

While I doubt I am going to be winning an Oscar anytime soon, I hope that these clips help you to better understand a gestation crate.  Whether confined or in a loose housing system, a sow will spend the majority of her day resting (While I have never experienced it, I am told that being pregnant can be an exhaustive experience) and the gestation crate allows her to be free of fear from bullying and as such, can spend her day sleeping or resting.

MFAC missed the boat on gestation crates.  Farmers started working with public researchers to improve group housing systems long before animal activists started to attack our industry.  While there are no official statistics kept on loose housing it is safe to bet that almost 25% of Ontario pig farms are already using loose housing and almost all new sow construction in recent years has employed a group housing system.  As the industry goes forward, gestation crates will be phased out as producers build new barns or renovate existing systems.  Ontario Pork, the organization that represents the 1700 pig farmers left in Ontario has prepared some excellent video in regard to this topic and uses 4 real life examples of Ontario farmers using group housing, I encourage you to check out the OP Group Housing page

I want to close with one last nugget for you to chew on; one of the people who emailed me in response to the W5 episode stated that they were not a huge fan of gestation crates. The person understood why they were used but just didn’t like the fact that the sows were confined for the majority of their life.  Along with the email they attached the picture found below…

Office Building

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Time to Speak Up

“While what we are about to show you is from one farm in one community, we’re told this can happen and is happening across the country,” stated Lloyd Robertson to a prime time audience on Saturday night.  I don’t know if I’ve ever had such a strong motivation to start writing…that night I was tempted to sit down at my computer and bang out an angry retort.  In the end I decided to give myself a cool down period to make sure that I didn’t say anything stupid in the heat of the moment (not that I’ve done that before).

I am a 6th generation Canadian farmer; my family has fed Canadians almost as long as Canada has been a country.  Like my predecessors, I have a strong respect for the livestock I care for and the land that I farm.  But one thing transcends this level of respect, the call to feed the world.  It is impossible to explain this call – it is an intense feeling of responsibility to feed people while making sure that we are doing it in the most sustainable way possible so that coming generations will be able to grow food.  If farmers fail at their job, people starve.  It is a heavy burden.

In Canada today most people get out of bed never worrying about going hungry, there is always a meal around the corner at the grocery store.  This strong sense of food security is what allows Canadians to worry about paying for a house, a car, university tuition, or the welfare of the animal they are eating.  If the vast majority of Canadians didn’t know how they were going to pay for their next meal do you think they would worry about sows being confined in a gestation crate?  No, they would want to make sure that they could buy a piece of pork as cheaply as possible so that they could feed their family.

I am not trying to use poverty as a justification for the practices shown in the video published by Mercy for Animals Canada (MFAC) however I feel it is important to point out the bind that farmers have been put in.  For the entirety of human history non-farmers have demanded that food be produced as cheaply as possible and when the population exploded in the second half of the 20th century we were forced to industrialize our farms.  This desire for cheap food is what has made the romanticised pastoral farm a thing of the past. Farmers did the best with the knowledge they had at the time.

Today we live in a different time, a vocal minority has some serious issues with the way we raise our animals and their concerns are not without cause.  Producers have already started investing in research to help lay out the best way to transition to loose sow housing, alternatives to castration are being developed, etc.  You see, the farmer’s pursuit for the betterment of animal welfare never ends.

In the coming days I am going to try and give a little more insight into why we do what we do and how we can make it better.  I am not trying to convince those at MFAC that eating animals is ok; we have a fundamental philosophical divide in that regard.  What I will try to do is prove to the meat eating public that what they saw on Saturday was a misrepresentation of my industry.  Like much of our “news” today, this video used snippets of truth to cast sweeping generalizations about the pork industry…stay tuned to hear my side of the story.

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