It's all about love and money. According to Dr. Tim Blackwell, these incentives are involved in most major decisions in life and they also apply to the swine industry.
"Love and money are driving hog production in the world today," said Dr. Blackwell, a veterinarian at the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, based in Fergus, Ontario. "If you want farms to be more welfare-friendly, you've got to go with love and money."
According to Dr. Blackwell, who spoke at the AVMA Annual Convention, few external incentives to change hog production exist, so change will come from within the industry. "Producers are going to be a big part of the solution," he said.
According to Dr. Blackwell, to focus on improving a pig's welfare, you have to focus on the pig and nothing else. Large farms versus small farms, for example, have nothing to do with it. "I am only interested in whether the animals are having a good time. I am going to make her comfortable, her pigs comfortable, and they won't know what hit them when they die," Dr. Blackwell said. "If for no other reason, I want people in Toronto to come out and say I would buy a pork chop from that."
Dr. Blackwell is working with Ontario producers who have changed their production systems to make them more animal welfare friendly. He says the one consistent incentive among producers who have switched from gestation stalls to loose housing of sows is the desire to provide pigs with the freedom to move around and still maintain profits. They have found that this can be done and that the cost of group housing systems for sows are comparable with those of standard crated gestation barns.
Currently, because serious fighting injuries can occur when sows are housed in small groups (for example, up to eight sows), most producers house sows individually. Many people deem this practice inhumane. A new practice that is gaining in popularity is increasing the number of sows in each group. When larger numbers of sows are housed together, they do not fight because it isn't in their best interest. Feed, for example, can be distributed in front of a hundred or more sows, and if two sows begin to fight, they soon find that there is no food left when they are finished.
In a video presentation shown during the session, three producers discussed their new systems. The pens offered room for exploratory behavior, and each farm had a different system to ensure that all pigs were fed and vaccinated. The three video presentations showed what appeared to be contented pigs, and in all, the producers said that they had no reason to return to an individual crating system.
"I can't see a time when I will have sows in crates ever again," said Ontario producer David Linton.
His farm has a naturally ventilated, solid floor barn with a center scraping area. It has eight pens that house 12 sows per pen.
Another farm has a partially slatted, naturally ventilated building that houses 400 sows in 16 pens, and a farm at the University of Guelph houses 112 sows in four pens and was created in a room that previously housed 110 sows in gestation crates.
All three farmers said their productivity was comparable with that before the changes were made.
The evolution of the crate
So, how did we get to crates, anyway? Fifty years ago, hog production took place on farms that had five to 30 sows and included a few beef or dairy cows and perhaps some crops. Fifty years ago, a hog producer earned approximately $30 to $50 per hog. Although this was a reasonable return on investment, farms didn't have slats for manure disposal and a number of the other amenities found on modern farms. The work was labor-intensive, and the number of animals per farm was limited.
Clever farmers, in an effort to reduce the labor necessary to maintain an acceptable level of sanitation, invented slatted floors. Those, along with automated feeding and ventilation systems, enabled producers to keep more animals on the farm without creating unreasonable labor requirements.
These innovations, however, increased the costs of building and operating the farms. The increase in hog numbers resulted in a decrease in the return per pig marketed, which made smaller farms less profitable than larger ones. Farmers found that serious injuries occurred when sows were housed in small groups and, therefore, housed them in crates. Crates, however, are far removed from a pig's natural environment and spawned a new set of animal welfare issues.
"I don't think people in Toronto want to see 100 sows lined up in gestation stalls," Dr. Blackwell commented. "It doesn't look good. You can make all the arguments of why it should be okay. They have their own feed, their own water, they don't fight, (and) they have individual attention. We know exactly if one is eating. We can take her temperature. If she aborts, we can see it. You still aren't going to sell it."
Change in the wind
Some of the experimental farms in Ontario offer potential alternative solutions. These farms are welfare-friendly and offer a cost-effective solution for producers. So far, Dr. Blackwell says that the producers he is working with have not been able to develop a cost-effective alternative to farrowing crates used to house pregnant sows from a few days prior to delivery to the time piglets are weaned. The crates restrict the movement of sows and prevent them from crushing their piglets. This is an area of future research.
Dr. Blackwell's goal is to get the message out to producers. "When I say, 'I think we should change this,' they say [the current system] is working. How much of a risk are you going to take when you are only making $35,000 a year? These are not people who are anxious to take a risk."
He hopes that, as more producers switch to what he considers to be the more welfare-friendly systems, the idea will catch on. "We are building the cheapest housing systems now, and they are without crates."