Maple Leaf embraces open housing in its hog barns

Canadian hog farms won’t be able to keep pregnant sows in restrictive stalls by 2024.

Maple Leaf Foods, which operates about 60 barns in Manitoba, has no concerns about that deadline. The company intends to beat it by about three years as it implements a housing system that exceeds the national standard created by the National Farm Animal Care Council.

“We’ve gone above and beyond what the code is going to call for in 2024,” said Greg Douglas, vice-president of animal care with Maple Leaf.

“We’re also taking sows out of confinement in the breeding part of the cycle.”

Maple Leaf announced earlier this month that it has converted more than 50 percent of its herd to open housing. That means 40,000 of its sows and 31 of its barns in Manitoba are now raised in a system the company calls advanced open sow housing. It will convert all of its barns to advanced open sow housing by the end of 2021.

The Maple Leaf website explains that in most open housing, or loose housing systems, sows are kept in stalls during the breeding stage for 42 days and when farrowing (nursing piglets) for 21 days. When pregnant, the sows are free to move about the barn.

In comparison, with Maple Leaf’s system:

  • Sows are kept in stalls for 21 days to give birth and nurse their piglets.
  • They are also kept in individual stalls for seven to nine days for breeding, until they become pregnant.
  • The sows then spend around 111 days in open pens, where they are free to move about and socialize.

Converting the Maple Leaf barns to open housing was not easy. Keeping sows together can lead to more aggression and fighting.

Through trial and error, Maple Leaf employees have developed methods and strategies to keep the sows safe and content in open housing.

“It’s got better and better the more times that we’ve done it,” Douglas said.

“Now that we have 31 barns, we have 31 barn managers that all (have expertise) in the new system.”

The sows are now able to express natural behaviours and associate in groups. That likely makes them happier and also makes Maple Leaf employees happier because workers like the look and feel of the converted barns.

“It’s completely wide open. It’s brighter, in terms of light … and there’s more opportunity for the staff to interact with animals,” said Douglas, who was the chief veterinarian in Ontario and the chief vet in Saskatchewan before joining Maple Leaf.

“We do survey our staff, and they tell us they wouldn’t go back to the old systems.”

An improved work environment should help Maple Leaf with employee retention, which is an issue for many companies in Canada’s livestock industry.

The company also has contracts with independent producers who supply pigs to the Maple Leaf processing plant in Brandon.

Maple Leaf isn’t pushing those producers to adopt its system, but they will have to adopt some form of open housing by 2024.

“They need to do what makes sense for them,” Douglas said.

“It’s a significant capital decision for producer to make.”

Restricting sows to gestation stalls will soon come to an end in Canada partly because of animal welfare groups who campaigned for years against stalls.

Some experts believe gestation stalls receive too much attention because open housing addresses only one of the five freedoms that generally define animal welfare: the freedom to express normal behaviour with enough space and company of its own kind.

“Where I’ve been critical of the animal welfare organizations is that I would say they’ve reduced the sow welfare issue to a single issue, which is whether or not she can turn around,” University of Pennsylvania hog researcher Tom Parsons said at the Banff Pork Seminar in 2017.

“In reality, it’s much more complicated.”

That may be correct, but consumers and food retailers don’t want animals to be confined.

Grocery chains and fast food giants told the pork industry five or six years ago to eliminate sow stalls.

For instance, in 2012 McDonald’s said the practice is not sustainable and that it would work with pork suppliers to phase out gestation stalls. Most major restaurants and grocers, including Walmart, Sobey’s and Costco, have adopted similar positions.

Rather than fight public desires and corporate expectations, Maple Leaf Foods decided to embrace the new reality.

“Our research and investment in an advanced open sow housing system is best in class in North America,” said Maple Leaf president Michael McCain.

“We have a bold vision to be the most sustainable protein company on Earth, and our investments and actions to become a leader in animal care are critical to advancing our progress.”

As part of its commitment to transparency, Maple Leaf has built an observation barn in Manitoba where visitors can view the sow housing system through windows.

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