Back in the early 1990s, when University of Manitoba animal scientist Laurie Connor first oversaw local research into hoop-housing systems for hogs, animal welfare wasn’t really even on the public radar.
The key questions of the day were whether keeping pigs outdoors through a Prairie winter compromised production efficiency. Connor told a seminar last week she was initially mortified at the thought of keeping pigs in an outdoor facility through the cold winter months.
At the time, keeping sows in gestation stalls in heated barns was seen not only as more efficient, but more welfare friendly because the pregnant sows weren’t being attacked by their more dominant herdmates and it allowed producers to tailor feed rations to individual needs.
True, sows weren’t allowed freedom of movement, but that was viewed as a reasonable compromise in exchange for the vast improvements in management, the ability of herdsmen to manage more pigs as the industry expanded and consolidated.
At the time, hoop housing and straw-based bedding were being explored as less capital-intensive alternatives in hog production.
The research done under Prairie conditions found that although feeding costs were higher and different levels of management were needed, the system could match the productivity of conventional housing due to its lower capital costs. In fact, the sows were modestly more productive.
After that, it sat on the shelf. The level of interest from mainstream industry ranked somewhere close to zero.
So sow housing isn’t a new field of study for animal scientists. It’s just that over the past two decades the priorities driving it have done a complete 180 as the industry’s operating environment has changed.
Now, scientists such as Connor are tasked with finding ways to make various group-housing systems work economically — not as an alternative for producers seeking a lower-cost or niche-market option, but for conventional producers who could lose market access if they don’t transition out of gestation stalls.
Many thought that day would never come.
But just last week McDonald’s, the world’s largest fast-food chain, served its North American suppliers notice they are to come up with a plan for phasing out sow gestation stalls. Seven U.S. states have passed laws to end their use. Europe’s conversion is expected to be completed by 2013.
The Manitoba Pork Council has publicly committed to phasing sow stalls out of the system by 2025. But as most of the competition has already moved in that direction and major customers are demanding a change, it’s likely that producers planning to stay in business will make the transition much, much sooner.
It’s an expensive proposition. The pork council’s sustainability plan cites the cost of converting an existing barn to group housing at $1 million. Producers have no way of recouping those costs and it comes at a time when they are faced with costly new manure-management requirements and a moratorium on expansion that makes it impossible to capture new economies of scale.
Thankfully, they are able to draw on the previous research that suggests it can be done, and on new research designed to show them how.
Connor and many of her colleagues have over the course of their careers faced criticism from producers for acknowledging the downsides of gestation stalls, such as increased lameness and culling rates. Likewise they have been accused of being an industry apologist for citing their benefits — evidence of their even-handed, science-based approach to the highly charged debate.
Once again, it underscores the value of research that looks beyond the immediately relevant to explore questions on the mainstream’s fringe.
It is through these ongoing research efforts that our knowledge as it relates to sow behaviour and comfort has evolved. It is now acknowledged that pigs are inherently social beings and are more content when allowed to behave as a herd. The issues with aggression and dominance can be managed with individual feeding.
The research shows the industry can make group housing work for the sows. Whether it can work for farmers is based on a number of variables ranging from the cost of renovating, to their ability to adapt their stockmanship and nutrient management.
Announcements such as the one making the news this week brings a new sense of urgency to the issue.
The companies forcing these changes perceive a market advantage to being animal welfare friendly, even if it comes at a cost to the supply chain. The economics of animal welfare are real, and they now trump the economics of production efficiency.