Sow stall ban issue dominates discussion at world pork expo

Gestating sow crates may one day be replaced by group housing in North American hog production | File photo.

DES MOINES, Iowa — There was a lot of defiance and defensiveness about sow stalls at this year’s World Pork Expo.

“We’re tired of these announcements that have been made (by restaurant and grocery chains) simply as a get-out-of-jail card that really have no meaning or anything behind them,” U.S. National Pork Producers Council vice- president Dallas Hockman said at the opening news conference of the World Pork Expo.

“We feel it’s time for discussion and dialogue and understanding more the complexity of this issue.”

However, there are many signs under the surface that the U.S. hog industry is already moving to embrace open housing for gestating sows. The decision of many producers to move toward open housing can be seen on farms across the United States and even on the floor of the World Pork Expo.

With Canada’s hog industry heavily reliant on the U.S. industry, and Manitoba’s intimately connected, whatever occurs on this issue will have a direct impact in Canada.

A survey compiled by University of Missouri hog industry expert Ron Plain and released at the beginning of the expo found that 17 percent of U.S. hog production is already using open housing systems.

It is expected to grow by one-third to 23 percent in two years.

That proportion of the industry is “slightly higher than we anticipated,” Hockman conceded, but he cautioned that issues such as supply, segregation, labelling, productivity and finances need to be addressed before American hog farmers will happily embrace a switch.

“This is a very complex issue that we are dealing with and we feel it is necessary to bring forth both factual discussions and most importantly to deal with a dialogue about the impact that those are going to have,” said Hockman.

The sow stall issue is of critical importance to the Manitoba hog industry because it has a much higher proportion of sow barns than the rest of Canada and more than most parts of the U.S. Most of the piglets from Manitoba barns are sold to U.S. hog feeders, mostly in Minnesota and Iowa, so restrictions on pigs originating in stall barns could have a major impact.

The impact could also be significant for pigs fed to slaughter weight in Canada but exported to U.S. slaughter plants.

Some companies, such as Maple Leaf, have been converting their own barns and announcing long-term plans to move toward open housing systems to provide the pigs they process.

Manitoba’s hog industry has announced what is effectively a moratorium on stall barn construction, saying it hopes to make the entire provincial hog industry gestation stall-free by 2025.

Pork industry representatives at the expo denounced claims of activist groups that sow stalls are cruel or inhumane.

A full house of hog producers and industry players enjoyed hearing University of Illinois animal welfare scientist Janeen Salak-Johnson defend the present sow stall system as the most humane system by scientific standards.

She also called for producers and the industry to speak up in defence of the sow stall system and not give into pressure from activist groups or intimidated food companies.

“The issue that you’re fighting is not about well-being,” said Salak-Johnson.

“Not one introduced system improves the animal’s well-being.”

However, she said farmers and the pork industry suffer from a “legitimacy gap” and added that “we have to reclaim our legitimacy.”

In an interview following his comments at the press conference, Hockman said farmers are still building barns using the common sow stall system, but many are designed to be convertible to open housing systems.

At the expo’s trade show, the controversy over sow stalls seemed to have changed the roster of sow system exhibitors.

There were far fewer displays and providers of traditional sow stall systems than in recent years, but a number of manufacturers and distributors of stall-free and open access systems were present and getting attention from farmers.

Plain said that the 17 percent of U.S. sows in his survey who live in open housing were generally not in units that were 100 percent open housing. Many are from mixed operations that might be converting, experimenting or using open housing for some elements of gestation and breeding.

“It’s clear a number of these farms are probably trying to learn what the costs and management requirements are for open pen gestation,” said Plain.

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