By Tyler Harris, Wallaces Farmer
Following recent announcements by several large U.S. restaurant chains that they are severing ties to use of gestation crates in hog production, sow housing was a key topic of discussion at Wednesday's press conference at the 2012 World Pork Expo. More than 20,000 hog producers and others involved in the pork industry are gathered in Des Moines for the three-day trade show which runs June 6-8 at the Iowa State Fairgrounds.
Although food retailers have shown concern that the issue of animal welfare is consumer based, officials with the National Pork Producers Congress and National Pork Board say this issue is being driven primarily by animal rights activists.
"We're tired of these announcements that have been made simply as a get-out-of-jail-free card," says Dallas Hockman, vice president of industry relations for the National Pork Producers Council. He says the pressure put on restaurants to not buy pork that was produced on farms that use gestation crates is coming from what he says are animal rights activists. "We do not believe this is a consumer-driven demand issue."
Cost to switch from sow gestation crates to putting sows in pens would be expensive
Hockman and senior vice president of AgStar, Mark Greenwood, say the expense required to make the changes, or "retrofit" an older hog producing operation would likely have a significant impact on smaller producers. Because of these costs, about $200 to $300 per sow space, according to studies at Oklahoma State University and the University of Minnesota, Greenwood says, it will be difficult for producers to acquire the funds to make the adjustments.
"You're going to have to have a significant amount of working capital to make that investment in the pen facilities," says Greenwood. "And you inherently will not get any more value from that facility, by switching from crates to a pen gestation system for sows."
In this way, Hockman says it makes it difficult for small producers to compete and financially survive in today's hog business. "At the end of the day, it's much easier for the larger hog production operations to adapt and make such changes," he says, noting the amount of capital and availability of time to transition to the new system are key factors. "The larger hog production operations have that luxury of experimenting."
Despite the extra expense, some farms have already converted from sow crates to pens
Despite the additional cost, some farms have already made the conversion. Ron Plain, an extension livestock economist at the University of Missouri, also spoke at the World Pork Expo. He discussed survey results showing 17% of the 70 firms surveyed have already started using open-pen methods for housing sows. Based on the survey information, he estimates that number will rise to about 23% in two years. This means the "pen" will have enough room for a pregnant sow to turn around without touching the perimeter of the stall. Some of these firms that were surveyed and have already started switching to pens are larger in size, economist Plain says, with a total of 3.6 million sows among them all.
While some hog producers may be moving away from gestation stalls, Hockman says the issue is not black and white. There's more to this than just the use of stalls versus open pens, he says. One of the key issues is finding and using the most efficient method for housing sows.
So far, most producers are against moving from gestation stalls to using pens for sows
For the time being, Hockman says most hog producers are against the transition away from using stalls, as gestation stalls were originally meant as a way of providing protection for sows. Sows in pens tend to fight with each other, while a sow in a gestation stall is protected from that problem. Meanwhile, the debate continues on the gestation crate issue. "I have never seen a topic that has a more visceral response and more producers engaged," he says.