The ModernFarmer is Playing Politician

When I was in Grade 6 our class participated in a 3 day program at Wilfred Laurier University and part of the experience was writing and performing a play.  I took the lead in creation, developing a political satire; I don’t remember much beyond a scene where Shelia Copps was crying because she didn’t get her way but characters included Preston Manning (I think I played that part), Mike Harris, Jean Chrétien, and of course Copps.  As a child, politics fascinated me and it carried over into adulthood. I always dreamed that someday I would be blazing the campaign trail, staying up late into the night discussing strategy, and giving speeches that brought people to their feet.  I just didn’t envision it happening in Kenya.

My connection to Kenya was through Wesley and Tarah Korir.  Tarah went to high school with Jess and went on to run track at Louisville where she met Wesley, a native of Kenya.  Wesley has gone on to be a successful marathoner, he is a 2 time winner of the Los Angeles marathon and current Boston marathon champion.  He, together with Tarah, created the

Kenyan Kids Foundation and have become philanthropists in Wesley’s home region of Cherangany.  Leading up to the 2013 Kenyan elections, Wesley decided to take things one step further by entering his name in the race for Member of Parliament.

Jess warned me not to have any concrete plans in my mind for what I thought I would achieve when I got here.  She spent 3 months in Tanzania and learned that having a mandate when you leave North America may be useful but if you gauge your success by fulfilling that mandate then you are setting yourself up for failure.  My wife is a wise woman.  When people asked me what I would be doing in Kenya, my stock answer was that I would be visiting farmers, collecting information about local agricultural systems, and seeing if there were ways to improve the welfare of farmers.  Boy, I was wrong.

Since arriving last week it has been non-stop campaigning with Wesley, helping to spread his vision for agriculture in the region. (yesterday I spoke to thousands of people as we made stops throughout the beautiful Cherangany Hills)  Wesley and I are both dreamers (and married to realists, its an important combination) and the dream for the region is big.  The Cherangany has approx 150k acres (not sure how much arable but there is no large urban centre and it seems that almost every square foot is under cultivation) and we estimate that there are approx 50k dairy cattle. (never thought I would say that I miss StatsCan) It is a very productive region yet farmers remain trapped in poverty.  While farmers grow good crops of corn every year, they have no access to dryers or storage (over 30% of the crop spoils most years) and are forced to sell to brokers at harvest lows or risk even more spoilage by storing it in their homes until Feb-April.  Very few farms have electricity so excess milk that the family cannot consume from evening milking is often wasted.  They have no access to credit either, interest rates range from 25%-30% and that is if you can even get a loan.

The dream, while big, is simple.  Wesley wants to build Maize and Dairy processing centres (note for my North American friends, farmers here are growing white maize for human consumption) right here in the Cherangany.  Its going to cost millions of dollars to achieve but being a dreamer, I have always felt that finding money is the easy part, the hard work is in setting things up so that when you do find the money you don’t fail. (One more reason why dreamers should marry realists)

When I have been speaking to crowds, I have stressed the importance of taking baby steps on the way to achieving this dream.  Storage and dryers needs to be built so that spoilage can be reduced and a mill has consistent supply throughout the year.  Infrastructure needs to be improved so the product can get to market.  Most importantly, farming systems need to find a balance between modernization and current practices so that soil health can be improved and maintained.  On the dairy side, more cooling centres are needed and farmers need to be provided capital so that they can make investments addressing the dire nutritional state of cows. (When you are forced to choose between food for your family or dairy supplement, food generally wins).  I have spoken to numerous dairy farmers who want to transition from pasture based to zero grazing dairy production because they know they could sell more milk but lack the capital to do so.

I cannot explain the feeling I get from being a part of this; my scalp tingles and I feel such a rush when we talk about these dreams with people.  The message that we bring goes far beyond a corn miller or milk processor; we are bringing hope to a people that for too long have been a victim of circumstances far beyond their control.  I am by no means an expert on the area, but for far too long corruption among the ruling class has caused the suffering that I see every day when we travel. 

I am sure there are those of you at home thinking that this boy has bitten off more than I can chew.  I am by no means the first well intentioned mzungu thinking that they can help change things here in Africa, why do I think that this is any different?  Because I have hope. The day we stop having hope is when the fight is lost.  My friends, we cannot afford to lose this fight.  The world is going to reach 9 billion people by 2050 and if we don’t solve these problems millions of people will starve.  The world will need Africa just as much as Africa needs the world, don’t forget that.  I am closing with a quote that Jess sent with me, I’m married to such a smart lady.

“Never doubt that a small group thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead

Looking over the Cherangany atop the Cherangany hills


And I’m Spent

My mental gas tank is almost on empty…in just over a month I have published 6 blogs containing 5475 words in total (and about 20,000 you never saw).  Within those words I have tried to shed some light on what really goes on at a Canadian hog farm instead of seeing it through the lens of an animal activist.  Beyond information, I have endeavoured to write these posts in a way that translates my passion for feeding people into word form.  It is the second part that has made this tough, pouring your soul on the screen of your desktop takes a lot out of a guy.  I struggled with how to best approach tough subjects, I agonized over the way that things were worded and all said it has been an arduous yet rewarding experience.  So here goes my final post…and folks, I kept my trump card for the last hand.

Manure, dung, poop, the world’s greatest skin moisturiser…call it what you will but at the end of the day I hold the Right Bauer in the game of food production. (I promise that is my last euchre reference).  Though I never got to meet him, the idioms of my grandfather in law, Murray Selves, will often pop up in conversations with Jess and my MIL, Joanne.  Murray was a brilliant man, he used computers for production records long before the Commodore 64 (only those born before 1990 will get that reference), he designed and built a biogas digester long before Dalton McGuinty dreamed up the Green Energy Act, but most impactful for me was the concept of “farming the circle”.  To Murray, the way we raised pigs in Ontario was the pinnacle of sustainable farming.  Our corn and soybeans capture solar energy from the sun and nutrients from the soil, we feed some of the grain to our animals and some to humans, and then we replenish the soil for next year’s crop by applying the manure from our animals.

This simple concept is the backbone of our food system, if soil nutrients are not provided by manure then they must come from some other source.  Nitrogen and Phosphorus are the two most important nutrients when talking about plant life.  While nitrogen can be produced synthetically through the Haber-Bosch process, this requires a non-renewable like natural gas. Phosphorus is a little scarier; there is no way other than to mine it from the ground as there is no synthetic replacement.  The Global Phosphorus Initiative has estimated that peak phosphorus could occur as soon as 2030.  I guess peak phosphorus just isn’t as sexy as peak oil but it is just as threatening for humans.  Without nitrogen and phosphorus, you can’t grow food, period.  Livestock manure provides adequate levels of both that can sustain plant growth without the application of inorganic mined phosphorus or synthetic nitrogen.

Manure and soil enjoy a symbiotic relationship that goes far beyond nitrogen and phosphorus.  Soil is not a renewable resource; it can take thousands of years for soil to form.  However, unlike other non-renewables like oil or coal, soil can be reused year after year if properly maintained. The application of manure is the best possible way to meet the diverse needs of the soil.  Organic matter (old dead stuff, kind of like oil in the sense that is takes millions of years to form) is what makes soil fertile, without organic matter plants cannot grow even if there is nitrogen and phosphorus available.  Here is an analogy for you:  Many of you readers probably take some sort of multivitamin supplement to ‘ensure’ that you are getting all of your nutrients but you know that the multivitamin cannot sustain you on its own, you still need to eat.  In the case of plant growth, organic matter is the food and nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus are the multivitamin.  Manure is the only thing that can rebuild the organic matter in soil, thus maintaining the non-renewable resource. Without animal production the circle is broken…you simply cannot have sustained food production without out livestock agriculture.  Our food producing system has evolved (or has been designed) to include animal production.

I want you to picture something; I want you to picture the vegan world animal rights activists so desperately want.  It is a picture of hunger.  It is a picture of desolate exhausted soil, unable to keep producing food for HUMANS or animals because it has been mined to the point of collapse.  It will not matter if you are a vegan or meat eater when the soil loses its capacity to grow a carrot.  We will all starve.

Today groups like Mercy for Animals Canada are trying to sell you an agenda of caring for animals; they are actively trying to discredit farmers like me in hopes of convincing the public that they are the champions of the common animal.  Well sorry folks, I, and farmers like me, are going to be champions of humans.  We are going to do everything in our power to try and eliminate human hunger while ensuring that we preserve our ability to feed future inhabitants of our planet. We feed people; it’s why we signed up for this job.

#FarmProud my friends

Switching Gears

I have broken a golden rule of communications…I’m still talking about a stale story.  Long after popular media has moved on Stewart is still sitting at his desk trying to respond to the undercover video shown by CTV’s W5 report that aired on December 8th of 2012.  So why did I break the rules? Because I’m a farmer…I have to do chores, animals depend on me to go to the barn and feed them, they depend on me to keep a roof over their head, and when I have to choose between carrying out my duty as a farmer or trying to educate the public about farming I am obligated to choose my animals. To me, this is the most telling point about why more farmers are not telling their side of the story.  We are too busy farming!!!

That being said, many of my farming colleagues do not understand we are at war with an enemy that wants to destroy family farms.  There was a telling statement made by the undercover operative/cameraman from Mercy for Animals Canada (MFAC) that exposed the real intentions of the animal activists.  He alluded to the fact that even if gestation stalls were removed, even if we stopped castrating, even if we let every pig roam free outside, that he would still not be satisfied.  These activists don’t really care about gestation stalls, their real goal is to try and create a vegan society where no one consumes animal products and they are completely oblivious (maybe they don’t care) to the human costs that would come about in their vegan fantasy. The final two posts of my response are going to try and give you some insight to the unintended costs of the misguided animal rights movement.

On December 3rd 2012 a report was released by the Ontario Association of Food Banks (OAFB) stating that food bank use here in my home province of Ontario has hit an all-time high.  Every month, over 400’000 Ontarians have needed to access food assistance. Bill Laidlaw, Executive Director of OAFB highlighted key areas of concern, “The largest group of food bank users are children… some of the largest growing groups of food bank users are single parent households, the working poor, senior citizens, university students, and recent graduates.”

As a famer I am saddened that in Canada, a country that grows far more than it can eat, there are people who are going hungry.  I am saddened, but not surprised.  We are witnessing a period of great decline for the middle class and the cruel reality is that there are people being dropped off at the bottom end of the scale. The vast majority of people simply cannot afford to pay more for their food let alone incur the added costs associated with a vegan diet.

I found this blog post by Virginia Messina, a professional dietician and passionate vegan, about the added cost of a vegan diet.  She hits on some great points, most notably about the need for quick and easy meals.  A family of 4 with both parents working full time does not have time in the day to “soak the pinto beans”; they need food to be ready in a hurry in hopes that they can eat together before heading to hockey practice.  Vegan convenience food products are incredibly expensive and are simply unattainable for low income households. Simply put, the vegan diet is a luxury good and millions of Canadian families just can’t afford to not eat meat. At a time when the ranks of the working poor are growing at an alarming rate we cannot afford to impose the costly standards of a misguided minority of the population.

As I farmer, I am proud to say that I am doing my part; I produce safe, nutritious pork (not to mention delicious) and I do it as economically as anyone else in the world while still respecting and caring for my animals. Hunger has a devastating impact on our most venerable, how can a child focus on his math problems when he doesn’t know if there will be supper tonight? Farmers know that the key to a vibrant society is a full stomach, animal activists ignore the fact that their vegan fantasy would lead to an ugly future for our world.

I end with this rather abrupt quote from Pearl Bailey, a famous actress and singer from the 20th century. “Hungry people cannot be good at learning or producing anything, except perhaps violence.”

#FarmProud my friends

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Getting Back To It

I needed to let my brain have a break, the flurry of writing a couple weeks ago was waylaid by a few nights of seasonal celebrations and a party in honour of my brother Donald who successfully defended his M. Sc. in Swine Nutrition.  In the new year Donald will become a member of the professional workforce as a Swine Nutritionist at Molesworth Farm Supply in…you guessed it Molesworth.  Oh ya, there was that whole Christmas thing in there too.

Now back to business…

This is the last post that I am going to be writing about a specific production related issue that was highlighted in the undercover video shot by a Mercy for Animals Canada (MFAC) operative and aired by CTV’s W5 on December 8th.

Euthanasia is not an easy topic to address.  Personally I think that the uncomfortable feelings for most people stem from the fact that we have become utterly terrified of death as a society.  We are in an age that worships living while abhorring death.  This fear of death has impacted our perception of how we should treat suffering living beings, pig, person or otherwise. Given the sensitive nature of the topic and the wide range of philosophical views that people may hold I wasn’t sure what direction to take with this blog.  My wife, Jessica and I had a couple conversations about the best approach and out of these discussions we came up with the following statement together.

“In some instances when animals are extremely ill or injured and experiencing undue pain and suffering they are better off being euthanized.  A common agreement and understanding of this statement must be developed in order to move forward.

If you disagree with this statement and believe that euthanasia is NEVER appropriate, then we have fundamentally different opinions.  In fact, you might as well stop reading, as nothing I’m about to say will matter to you.

Now that we have established that euthanasia is sometimes appropriate there is one very important point I must make. For a farmer, euthanizing pigs is, by far, the worst part of the job. Yet still I believe it is the farmer’s responsibility to end instances of extreme animal suffering.”

I want to reiterate one incredibly important part of that statement…euthanizing pigs is by far the worst part of our job.  I do not enjoy having to do it but I understand why euthanasia is important.  When people started tweeting statements like the one below I knew that I had to address the topic.


Mandy ‏@MandyUnivera

@Kendra_PigLove This happens a lot more than you think..a lot of sick twisted hillbillies work at pig farms. They’re the ones to blame


(Twitter guide for non-twitter users: the statement was being made by the user @MandyUnivera and directed at @Kendra_PigLove. Kendra is an employee at an Ontario swine farm and was very active in trying to address the misinformation about our industry being spread on Twitter)

To me this is an interesting statement coming from someone who has most likely has never met a pig farmer. To my readers, I am yet to meet a pig farmer who meets her description…and I know a lot of pig farmers.

There were 2 methods shown in the MFAC video, blunt trauma, also referred to as ‘thumping’, and a captive bolt pistol.  Both are commonly used methods and if done correctly, are humane in my opinion.  The captive bolt method is more operator friendly because it is easy to perform in a correct manner however it cannot be performed on small piglets.  Thumping is less precise and there are higher incidences of an improper procedure that results in suffering for the piglet.  This has a large physiological toll on the farmer; we are wired to keep our animals alive so in the rare case we have to do it, we want it to be as painless as possible.

Thanks to the University of Guelph, farmers may soon have a tool that greatly improves the process for euthanizing small piglets.  The Zephyr is a non-penetrating captive bolt pistol that creates the blunt force required for euthanasia and preliminary research has shown it to be 100% effective. The development of the Zephyr is just one more example of how farmers never stop trying to improve the welfare of their animals. Here are a couple links talking about this new technology:

The Pig Site


Farm and Food Care ( has an online resource for producers that give an overview of approved methods and if you want to learn more about this subject it is a good place to start, you can find it here.

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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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Extending an Olive Branch

Emotions have been riding high in the past 7 days over the future of Supply Management here in Canada after Prime Minister Harper stated Canada’s desire to be included in the Trans Pacific Partnership.  This is the first time since NAFTA that there have been serious concerns surrounding the future of SM here in Canada and for the collective group of farmers that have billions of equity tied up in quota, any threat to the system is scary.


Beyond the economic impact, SM farmers are taking a beating in popular Canadian press as journalists have branded them greedy profit takers who are more interested in padding their pockets then the reality.  Canadian Dairy and Poultry farmers work hard every day to efficiently produce the highest quality food products for Canadian consumers.


As a farmer coming from a non-supply managed industry I have often identified with certain criticisms, especially when they relate to trade.  The future of my business depends on having vibrant export markets and bi-lateral deals such as this one are integral for opening up global market access.  That being said, cannibalizing SM will not make my business, or my industry as a whole, better.  It would have a demoralizing effect for agriculture in general and it would worsen the economic crisis that is already ravaging our rural communities.


So how do we find a common ground?  SM farmers must be willing to make some concessions to their system.  First and foremost, they need to address the policies that are having a negative impact and can be changed easily through policy reform.  Here in Ontario, the removal of the quota cap will immediately free up the quota exchange, allowing the farmers that want to milk more cows the ability to do so.  This will stem the speculative land purchases that are adding unneeded fuel to an already hot land market. Secondly, there must be a willingness to explore the possibility of reducing (not eliminating) import tariffs for products over a long period of time.  This will give Canadian exporters leverage in trade talks while not causing a massive collapse in milk price.


Non SM and SM farmers have managed to live cohesively since the inception of the system and we have a mutual co-dependence on each other that cannot be ignored.  Non SM farmers have more potential for economic growth; this encourages investment into new infrastructure (feed mills, grain elevators, input supply, etc.) that benefits both parties.  On the flip side, our suppliers enjoy the stability brought about by SM farmers because it can partially offset the periods of low prices that come with farming in the free market.


As a show of good faith for my SM farming friends, I will no longer speak out in opposition of SM.  These farmers are incredibly good at what they do and the media fails to acknowledge that the burden of servicing quota debt has actually made many SM farmers more efficient then their global competitors. Beyond being efficient, they deliver a product that is safer then any other option in the global market.


I have publically spoken out against SM in the past because of the harm I felt it was doing to my business.  After a period of reflection this week I have realized that we cannot afford to fight amongst ourselves at such a pivotal time in Canadian agriculture.  The two sides will not always see eye-to-eye but like any good marriage we have to recognize that our partner makes us better and be willing to compromise for the sake of the relationship.

Voting Season

“Do what young people are dying all over the world to do…Vote”

Rick Mercer had an awesome “Rick’s Rant” in his season finale last night about the upcoming election; encouraging young people to get out and vote.  Here is the clip:

Normally I blog about farm related things but tonight, agriculture needs a night off.  Politics has always fascinated me; I think I scared my parent a bit because what 8 year old in their right mind would rather talk politics then Tonka trucks.  I remember being excited the first time I got to vote, I went to Wallace Public School with my Mum and Dad and for the first time I gave my opinion on how Canada should be run.

I’m not sure why most young people don’t vote but I’m guessing that it is because they think that their one voice really doesn’t matter.  That’s why Rick’s closing phrase resonated with me so much; People all over the world have and are still giving their lives to give us the freedom it takes to go out and vote.  In the last few months we have seen people across the globe rise up and demand democracy yet we here are stuck in apathy.

Canadians owe it to our global neighbours to take advantage of where we were born.  The minute we were born we won the lottery.  We have a country that provides healthcare and education; a country that is rich in both culture and resources.  Our country gives us so much and we owe it to Canada to get off the couch May 2nd and vote.