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