LANCASTER, Pa. — Keeping pregnant sows in gestation stalls is an issue that has pork producers wondering where their industry is going to be a decade or so down the road, according to Jessica Risser, a veterinarian who is the animal health and welfare manager for Country View Family Farms.
Country View is the production arm of Hatfield Quality Meats, whose headquarters are in Montgomery County, about a half-mile north of Philadelphia’s City Hall.
Risser was speaking at an Ag Issues Forum, sponsored regularly by the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and Industry. She first gave a state-of-the-industry presentation prepared by the National Pork Board, then took questions from the two dozen or so people at the breakfast meeting.
In her presentation, she noted that the Humane Society of the United States, or HSUS, has persuaded a growing number of national pork buyers to stop buying from producers who use gestation stalls as part of their management practices. Most of the buyers are phasing in their stall-free purchases over a 10-year time span.
According to the HSUS website, that list of buyers includes Costco, McDonald’s, Sysco, Denny’s Restaurants and Kroger, the nation’s largest grocery chain.
A few states have banned gestation stalls, as have some European countries, and a government-imposed ban will be in effect in the entire European Union by 2014.
After her presentation, Risser was asked which she thought the industry would prefer — to deal with companies like Costco and McDonald’s as they respond to market forces or to have gestation stalls banned by government edict.
She doesn’t like either approach and favors a third alternative.
“I would rather have the industry be seen as the experts on how animals should be cared for. I’d rather have us be the educators for the consumer and the big buyers on what’s best for the animal,” she said.
James Adams, president and CEO of Wenger Feeds in Mount Joy, Pa., and moderator of the Ag Issues Forums, also favors the industry alternative, noting his belief that the gestation stall issue is not an example of the marketplace at work.
Rather, Adams said, it’s an example of a small minority — HSUS — using its $180 million annual budget to foster its own beliefs.
“It’s an artificial market force,” he said, “with 1 percent of the population dictating what’s best for the other 99 percent.”
In her prepared remarks, Risser said the hog industry has changed dramatically in the past 30 years. Science has played a huge role, she said, in how hogs are housed, fed and managed.
Modern hog facilities with sophisticated equipment and highly trained employees produce a third more pork per sow than hog houses of three decades ago. And it is leaner pork, particularly pork loins, which are today as lean as skinless chicken breasts.
Country View Family Farms has about 50,000 sows in 18 facilities spread throughout Pennsylvania, Indiana and Ohio. Piglets from those facilities go to nursery and finishing operations that are owned and operated by family farmers who are paid based on how well they care for their animals.
Some of Country View’s sows are already housed in open pens rather than gestation stalls, Risser said, because her employer needs to know how to work with open pens.
“Sows housed together will fight until they establish a hierarchy,” she said in response to a question. “They’ll bite each other in not-so-nice places. Our facility managers have to know how to deal with that. It means paying more attention to the hogs.
“Feeding is not an issue,” she said. “Each sow has an ear tag, and she eats in a feeding stall where a computerized system gives her exactly what she needs.”
Is there an economic difference between gestation stalls and open pens, she was asked.
“You will find studies that say otherwise,” she said, “but in my experience there is no economic advantage to either stalls or open pens.”
Dick Wanner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-419-4703.