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

Eating

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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13 thoughts on “Talking Gestation Crates

  1. Charles B Valery says:

    Open-access stalls allow the sows to move. I imagine that if pigs are allowed to use their legs and have a little rooting-around stuff and time, the animal activists won’t get the kind of film they’re getting. Keeping 3,000 sows in one place is about maximizing profit, which is being made by the big players (Smithfield, etc), and not about good farming. Anyway, people should pay more for food instead of buying big cars and so forth. Theres a big disconnect. More rural initiatives for better farming work should happen to, so stocksmen and stockspeople can feel proud of their work. Things are not good as they are.

    • J. Gerber says:

      You are exactly right that keeping 3000 sows in one lace is about maximizing profit but you are forgetting that you are also maximizing efficiency which in its self is good farming. To be successful as a farmer you must be efficient with all your resources or else you can’t make a living. Animal welfare issues however are not dependant on the size of the farm or the number of animals in one place. It almost always boils down to management. You can have a small farm and still have issues because of poor management and while larger farms have will have different management issues than small ones, they can provide the exact same level of animal welfare as a small farm. Also i have to address the fact that you continually refer to stock people who are not proud of their work. While i understand that there may be some, everyone i know that deals with livestock (in all sectors) are happy with their work mainly because if there is something that they saw as a problem with their operation or with one that they worked on the either took it upon them selves (in an owner operator situation) or worked with their boss to work out a way to solve the problem (in the case of a hired hand). To me a stock person that is not proud of their work has not fulfilled the requirements of their job. You also talked about the science that supports group housing and while there is some you forget that like Stewart mentioned it was research that led to gestation crates being introduced in the first place. You also forget that the benefit that is shown, and is statistically significant, is not overall that substantial and in many cases still uses gestation crates for some period of time. This is one of the reasons why many farms don’t immediately tear out their crates and put in group housing. You also have to remember that what your suggesting is that the pigs need to have the absolute best of the best to be content. This simply isn’t true. They can live very comfortably in the current barn set ups. It’s the same as me, sure driving a high end luxury car with all the bells and whistles would be great but the gain I get over driving my Corolla isn’t worth the extra cost. My Corolla still drives well and is more then comfortable enough for long drives.

      • Charles Bon Valery says:

        I don’t think pigs need the absolute best. I think they should move and get some sunlight. Why is the “absolute best” mentioned? Nobody said that. Gestation crates were developed for efficiency in a time when pigs were barely seen as animals. Time to remember they are, especially by farmers. The barns near me have high employee loss because they don’t like the mechanical nature of the work because they’re not really working with animals (but pressure washing, etc)

      • J. Gerber says:

        Charles, those employees are hired for that specific job; to pressure wash barns and yes its a crap job but that is the nature of it. Those employees are not hired under the pretence that they are working with the pigs. I see that job listed all the time in the classifieds in the Ontario Farmer and it is labelled as Pressure Washer needed. Also it isn’t just barns that use gestation crates that have pressure washing done it is every type of barn used for pigs as it is a preventative measure to prevent the transfer of pathogens to new stock.

    • Donald Skinner says:

      People here in North America or even in parts of Europe may be able to pay more for food but what about people in more poverty-stricken areas. Pork is a common protein source in places like Mexico or Southeast Asia, places where people spend as much as 3-4 times more of their total income on food than we do here. Do you really think these people have the option to pay more for food?

      • Charles Bon Valery says:

        Caging animals in the thousands to send pork to Mexico? That doesn’t make sense. The economic state of such countries has more to do with political instability that interferes in rural life than with what they spend on pork. Maybe people here with their luxuries could pay more for food & maybe stop importing slave-labor clothing from south asia –and then south Asians wouldn’t have to rely on caged animals for food. Maybe the CEOs at Smithfield and Maple Leaf could take a pay cut if people are starving.

      • Donald Skinner says:

        you have interesting perspectives Charles. Canada is the 3rd largest exporter of pork in the world and does indeed supply pork to many of the markets I mentioned (which spend a substantial portion of total income on food) meaning that an increase in pork prices here would make it harder for them to afford what is a very good source of protein.
        I don’t think pay cuts or altered t-shirt purchases are the answer to providing those people with safe, affordable food.

      • Charles Bon Valery says:

        Donald, you can’t justify these cages to me by saying Mexicans need protein. We need creative ways forward. I need to stop hearing about gestation crates as some kind of charity work. Smithfields huge operation in Mexico is a disgrace, btw.

      • Donald Skinner says:

        It seems as though it is not and will not be possible to have any form of discussion or thought stimulation with you as your mind is quite clearly made up. I will leave it at that.

  2. Diana says:

    Stewart, this is a truly excellent piece. I’ve written about gestation crates and the other things often depicted on these videos a few times myself; dispelling the misinformation is an uphill battle.

    As for Charles’ assertion above, I can assure him its not true either. Our hog operation is alternative. Our pigs can “use their legs and have a little rooting-around stuff and time” and the same video footage is definitely possible to obtain here. Only difference? Our neighbors get to hear the eardrum piercing meal time song, too.

  3. Great piece Stewart! Both my husband and I come from families involved in the pork industry. We truly care for our animals and about providing a sustainable operation for future generations.

    Did you know: gestation crates help producers identify sick animals sooner? Animals that don’t eat their feed (aka: go off feed) indicate that they are not feeling well. Gestation crates allow us to monitor on an individual basis and provide care sooner.

    • Charles Bon Valery says:

      Yes, I’ve heard this before. However, the animals would be better off and less sick with sunlight and room, say in a hoop structure. No way to raise animals: in such cages.

  4. […] farming community is now using social media to fight back and show the other half of the story and their take on things.
 Not all pig farmers are the same, and there are many good pig farmers out there. By leverage […]

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