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Sow housing changes propel pork producers into uncharted territory

No guarantees switch from stalls to pens will result in improved sow welfare

Posted: September 12, 2013

If you don't tell your story, someone else will.

That's the reality facing pork producers under public pressure to switch from sow gestation stalls to pens. In this case, University of Pennsylvania professor and sow housing researcher Dr. Tom Parsons says the industry has often been forced to play defense.

Instead of being first out of the gate to communicate the complexity of sow welfare, the issue has been reduced to the question of whether a gestating sow has the freedom to move around, says Parsons. "The industry is left to find ways tell a more complicated story."

Stalls designed to improve animal care

Several decades ago, pork producers moved gestating sows from pens to stalls to try to minimize competition for feed and ensure less dominant sows received proper gestational nutrition. The stalls also helped limit injuries and lameness from aggressive behavior related to establishing social hierarchy amongst a group of animals.

Parsons says the changes to gestational sow housing are not being driven by science, but by the emotions of some groups of consumers and retailers. He points out that animal welfare is a complex issue that involves the psychological and emotional needs of the animal, including the freedom to express behavior. It also includes physical and health concerns, such as access to adequate nutrition and being free from injury.

"Simply requiring sows to be out of crates does little to ensure that their welfare will be better in pens," Parsons says. "There are a lot of other factors that contribute to sow welfare. It can be better in pens, but in the absence of additional guidance it's possible that it could be worse which would be a bad thing for everybody."

Change in challenging times

Canada's revised Codes of Practice offer some guidance for producers so that the industry won't risk a backwards slide in animal care quality. However, he says the United States has banned gestational stalls in several states, but producers lack guidelines in terms of how to make alternative sow housing systems work. Also, producers are left wondering how they can accomplish the switch financially, especially considering the current economic backdrop.

The dialogue between pork producers and consumer animal welfare groups has been limited in the past since the two groups have very polarized views, Parsons says. Part of the research program at the University of Pennsylvania is focused on bringing the two sides together and facilitating discussion.

"Producers want to make sure that if we switch that we're going to something better," Parsons says. "In our experience with electronic sow feeding, we do believe we have a system that meets that need. However, this is where I think that we need more comparative research to understand how that plays out against all these other systems to really give producers the confidence to move forward."


Reprintable with credit. This article is available for reprint, with acknowledgement of the source as Meristem Land and Science, www.meristem.com.

Meristem is a Calgary-based communications firm that specializes in writing about western agriculture, food and land use. More articles at www.meristem.com.


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