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…

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9 thoughts on “The Untitled Blog (Because there is no fun way to introduce Castration)

  1. Charles Bon Valery says:

    The enemy of family farms is the get-big-or-get-out attitude of maple leaf, etc. In Manitoba, hog farmers are at50% of the numbers they used to be. One friend after another driven out because he didn’t want gestation crates in the 1000s. It’s not vegetarian activity that did this. It’s very isolating to stay in smaller scale mixed farming. I am getting old and have despair for what rural communities face.

  2. charlier64 says:

    I am full time farming, and i only buy the piggies as 50 lb chunks to raise for my freezer because I don’t want to have to castrate…however, I do not want the meat tainted. And since we feed only NON-GMO feeds to all our animals, I also do not want an GMO pig either. I agree that the anesthetic is risky to adminster, and usually requires a vet to do so and nobody can afford to have the vet out for each castration when you have alot of animals. On a small farm, like ours, It would remove any and all profit from having raised them anyway.

  3. Mike A says:

    Great explanation of the process, Mike Rowe also did a great job of explaining the situation a few years back http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-udsIV4Hmc.

    Hopefully others join the fight to protect whats right and how animal organization are not actually bettering the treatment of animals.

    As for improvest thats are another discussion for another day on whether its truly better for the welfare of the animal considering the injections have to be given at the stage and age whens it’s difficult to do an effective job administering a product but its a good start for looking at alternatives and benchmarking them to the current method. More research needs to be done IMO.

    My 2 cents and keep up the good work.

  4. Your blog entries are so thoughtful. These issues aren’t simple and there are many trade-offs involved, as you point out. Keep telling your story – it helps people understand and, I hope, better appreciate the challenges facing farmers today.

  5. Opa Van Der Walde says:

    The obvious solution would be to use a different breed like the Berkshire that has no boar taint. It is not just killing at smaller weights that allow taint free meat. There are ways to avoid taint(raising boars away from gilts) and there are breeds with more taint and breeds without. I’d say look it up, but that would be impossible since the large companies have no interest in doing something that might cause taint so they dont fund any research on the topic

  6. Lee-Anne Huber says:

    Hey Stewart – I love what you are doing here. Farmers have been too quiet for too long. Considering castration happens to be one of my favourite things (in a completely scientific way) I thought maybe now was my chance to weigh in. You did an excellent job outlining the alternatives to surgical castration and I hope that perhaps some of these ideas will catch on (barring negative publicity of course). The key is to educate the consumer in a non-biased way about food production so that everyone can make informed decisions at the grocery store. I am very curious to see how the Improvest picture develops, time will tell. I just want to note one thing from your post though, purely a definition issue – androstENone is the pheromone that causes off odour and flavour during the cooking and consumption of pork, although there is a large number of people -particularly men- who cannot detect it at all. Also, the level and prevalence of androstenone depends highly on genetics – which gives us the opportunity to select against animals that produce high levels of androstenone. That being said, the selection can also take place via breeding programs and not necessarily via the GMO route. The key here is to select for animals with low levels of androstenone without sacrificing other androgens (ie testosterone) that are responsible for the efficient muscle deposition of an entire male pig. Being that these hormones are all synthesized through similar pathways it is hard to get rid of one without the other. Now, androstERone is the hormone similar to testosterone (though not nearly as strong). This is the hormone potentially responsible for home runs.
    Keep up the good work. I look forward to reading future posts!

  7. Ken says:

    The few seconds it takes to castrate a pig is sooo much less stressful then the very involved procedure of administering anesthetic. (and less fatal!)
    This is one of those situations where telling farmers what NOT to do is rather unproductive. We don’t have a choice. Tell us what TO do, and come up with a better solution that works,

  8. Opa Van Der Walde says:

    by the way a whole boar grows 10% faster than a castrate between 25 and 50 kg, and 20% faster than a castrate from 50kg to 110kg, possibly allowing farmers to increase the amount of pork they can produce over their fixed assets and making pork cheaper for the consumer?

  9. paulaayn says:

    I’m not sure what size farm your readers would consider us. In the ‘big picture’ we a minuscule. We’re 75 sows, farrow to finish so we aren’t really ‘old McDonald’ size either. About 80% of our pork goes to Olymel and the other 20% we sell locally at the farmers’ market.

    I don’t think Canada s going to be changing the way they castrate any time soon. I can’t see any of these solutions working.

    Solution 1: sell younger pigs at higher prices – our customers will only pay a little over grocery store price for pork. Yes some richer areas can afford to pay more, but not most people.

    Solution 2: there is no way in hell they will ever convince consumers to eat GMO pork. That’s why Guelph finally gave up on the enviropig.

    Solution 3: the castration ‘vaccine’. My customers would freak out if we gave the pigs something like that. A number of them really don’t approve of the vaccines we use for disease control, they really wouldn’t approve of a vaccine ‘just’ for castration.

    Stewart, you are doing a great job. I love your blog articles. You are fighting the same fight we fight every summer at market. Most of our time at market is spent dispelling the alleged ‘facts’ used by the activists and ‘organic’ movement.

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