Pork producers who are looking to abandon the use of gestation crates to house pregnant sows will have to weigh a series of options to find the best fit for their operations, says an Iowa State University swine veterinarian.
Pork producers attending the first day of the 2014 Iowa Pork Congress in Des Moines on January 22 discussed the recently announced push by Smithfield and Tyson, who are trying to get their contract hog producers to transition from gestation stalls to group housing.
Tyson Foods announced last week it will encourage it's contract hog farmers to transition away from use of gestation crates, adding momentum to the cause of animal rights groups that argue the crates are too cramped and don't allow sows enough room to move.
Earlier this month, Smithfield Foods reaffirmed plans to end the use of gestation crates in facilities used by its hog producers. Smithfield suggests a deadline of 2022 for its contract growers to shift to group housing for pregnant sows. Tyson sent a letter to its contract producers last week "urging farmers to improve the quality and quantity of space, whether it involves stalls, pens or some other type of housing."
Jim McKean, an ISU professor of veterinary diagnostic and production animal medicine and associate director of the Iowa Pork Industry Center at Iowa State, says it's likely a matter of time before gestation crates fall out of use among American pork producers. "In the next 10 to 15 years, hog farmers will likely have to be making this decision," McKean says. "Some will choose to do it earlier."
Smithfield and Tyson say their customers who buy pork want farmers who produce hogs for Smithfield and Tyson to move toward roomier group housing systems seen as more humane for the animals. The push provides more evidence that consumers, retailers and activist groups are influencing how farmers raise livestock.
Target, McDonalds and Campbell Soup Company have all announced they will eliminate gestation crates from their pork supply chains.
Many pork producers in Iowa, the nation's largest pork producing state, have fought the move away from gestation crates. The pork industry, led by the Iowa Pork Producers Association and other groups, has argued that public demand for moving away from the small stalls is not as high as it may seem.
Industry officials say growers have the right to make the best decisions for their operations, whether that means using crates or group housing systems.
Switching to alternative housing for sows isn't a simple process and there is a price tag attached
The European Union banned the use of gestation crates in 2013, and other countries are considering such a policy as well, he notes. But implementing alternative housing practices for sows is a complex process that comes with a price tag attached. Switching to group housing – allowing multiple sows to share more spacious pens – requires producers to either retrofit existing facilities or build new ones, he said.
McKean says pork producers will have to choose between small group housing, where each pen holds between six and 15 sows, and large group housing, usually with more than 20 animals to a pen.
Producers will then have to decide if the animals will be fed individually, as they would be in a gestation crate, or as a group, which can make it difficult to ensure each sow is fed a proper portion.
Deciding how pigs will be grouped together is another wrinkle that requires consideration, he says. Will the same pigs be housed together permanently, or will different pigs be added to the pen as time goes on? The wrong mix of sows can result in fighting and injury to the animals, McKean notes.
"Each of these systems has basic rules associated with them," McKean says. "You could write a book on the various possible permutations and basic concepts that go with each of them. But these are the choices that producers will have as they decide to move away from gestation crates."
Group housing systems make less efficient use of space than gestation crates, McKean says. He estimated that a space used to house 100 sows in crates would accommodate only about 60 to 70 sows under a group housing system. This will require producers either to make available additional space or reduce output.
"Ultimately, the decision as to whether you use gestation crates or other alternative facilities should be the producer's decision," he says. "But increasing pressures from retailers and activist groups may force changes through sales requirements or other contract arrangements."
ISU Extension and Outreach swine program specialists and ISU faculty members traveled to Europe last fall to study alternative production systems and talk with European producers who have transitioned away from gestation crates. Extension field specialists will share the findings from the trip with any Iowa pork producers who have questions on group housing systems.