March 13 2005
It was a long and tiring hike along a cold and windy path. On top of that it was wet and night was approaching. I felt it was a waste of time to go to the Poly Swine Unit off of Sports Complex Road just to see some smelly pigs! I had always assumed that the pigs were kept in one big pen, like the cows, and that their feces and urine would be smeared across the dirt floors of their pens. I was prepared to be nauseated. When I reached my destination, however, I began to think a bit differently. There were at least thirty open air pens. Two, or at the most three, pigs were in each spacious pen. The pens, or lots, consisted of a wide green grassy area and a smaller concrete pad surrounded by fences. On the pad was a small shed for the pigs to huddle inside of in case of hot or bad weather. There was also a large water bottle attached to the side of each pen. And to my surprise, I did not notice a single rank odor. Nor could I see any evidence of soiling in the pens. The pigs were snuffling around their enclosures, drinking water, and grunting happily. Two of the pigs were in one of the ten pens that were in a sheltered area. The pen had a sandy floor but, to my surprise, it was clean. It also had a feed trough that one pig was eating from. After watching the outdoor pigs for a half an hour, I began to look around me. Off in the distance, mist was rolling across the hills. Behind me I could see the Student Experimental Farm and part of the rodeo area. The sun was just setting behind some hills, highlighting the landscape with an orange glow. I basked in the beauty for a few minutes before I realized I had better head home now or be prepared for a walk in the dark.
On my walk home I started thinking of everything I had heard recently about pigs. I recalled my animal science teacher talking about the controversy of farrowing pens for pigs. I tried to remember if I had heard anything about whether or not Cal Poly implemented the stalls. I didnÕt remember seeing any but that could just be because I was looking in the wrong place. I decided to speak with Dr. Pettey, an animal science lecturer. He said that Cal Poly does have farrowing stalls and that the pigs are only in them for 21-25 days. They are put in the stalls two to three days before giving birth and are kept there until the piglets can be weaned. After that they are kept in lots, or outdoor pens that are shared with other pigs.
Many people feel it is not in the best interest of the pig to be cooped up in a pen during their pregnancy and lactation periods. The stalls restrict the pigÕs movements to standing, lying, and sitting with only minimal walking. This restriction also helps prevent the sow from stepping on, squishing, and killing her piglets. The farrowing pens have sloping side panels that allow the piglets to pass underneath to a sheltered and heated area but do not allow the larger sow to follow them. The piglets are close enough to the mother to not be stressed or get lost but far enough not to be crushed.
When looking at the different arguments for and against the stalls, I saw that biological productivity is a decisive factor for measuring the welfare of feed animals. When in the specially designed pens1, the sows are isolated from the other pigs. This results in a higher live birth rate. During their pregnancy, a fight with other sows or riding by other sows in heat increases the chances of losing or damaging the embryo. But a live birth doesnÕt always result in a grown pig. The 150 to 220 kilogram sow could crush the 1 to 1.5 kilogram piglets as they move about. The stalls help to keep the piglets out from under the sowÕs feet. This is something every mother wishes for once in a while. Regardless of wishes, the fact that more pigs survive to adulthood with a farrowing pen is indisputable.
Another benefit of the pens is that it gives the handlers the ability to feed the proper amounts and proper foodstuffs according to the sowÕs body condition and to her stage of pregnancy. It reduces the chance of an undernourished sow or a fat sow. Undernourished animals are less healthy, more prone to disease, and there is a chance of losing the embryo. Fat sows are costly to maintain, usually have smaller litters of smaller pigs, and can have farrowing difficulties. Feeding the sows the correct amounts of food also reduces the cost for the farmer. They donÕt have to buy unneeded food or throw away unused food. Also pigs in a warm dry environment tend to eat less than a pig out in cold and/or wet conditions.
Use of space is also a major concern for farmers. The stalls can house two and a half times more sows per area than a lot can. The pens are either empty or full; there are no partially filled stalls. The lots can be partially filled however. The sows can be placed into the stalls according to their due dates which makes observation easier. Also the unused sow lots can then be used for agriculture. This way the farmers could grow their own pig feed, thus cutting more of the swine care costs.
After contemplating all of this I decided to look into the disadvantages of the stalls. The main point the opposition makes about sow welfare is the restriction of movement. The sowÕs strict confinement, some say, is equal to the confinement of a calf that will become veal. However, the sows are able to get up and walk around in a 14 square foot pen. Most veal calves are restricted to approximately 10 feet square. The calves are restricted for all their lives and are just there so they wonÕt gain muscle mass. The sows are in the pens to save lives and are only there for a small portion of their lives.
The second worry the other side has is the restricted social contact of the sow. Pigs are social animals and would much prefer to be meandering among their brethren. But since the pigs are not housed in the pens their whole lives, only for as long as is necessary to have a large and healthy litter survive until they can be weaned, I do not see this as an issue. Human mothers also take time off work and stay home with a newborn child; this doesnÕt mean that their welfare is in question.
Nearly all the arguments from the pro-stall side come from experiments and studies done by universities. All of those arguments can be backed up with infallible logic or with specific evidence and data. Only occasionally did the arguments appeal more to my emotions than to my sense of reason. The thought of the deaths of cute little pink piglets just because a big ugly sow doesnÕt want to go to a smaller pen for a little while pulls at my heartstrings. Since all of the data came from well conducted experiments the evidence was very easy to believe. Also, all of the information was supported by many different people and organizations, even by neutral parties. Purina, the Animal Welfare Centre, the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, and Virginia State University are only a few of the supporters of the pens.
Alternately, the arguments that the anti-stall side brought up were all emotional appeals. The facts generally, if not completely, contradicted their statements. Their credibility is in question because of the lack of organization and evidence. It seems to just be a misunderstanding about the conditions that have led to the strong stance taken by some animal welfare groups. The Humane Society of the United States comments briefly on the tight confinement of the pens but they donÕt seem to have done much research because in everything I found, the conclusions all stated that the farrowing pens were at least as good, if not better, for pigs than regular pens .
Overall I think that the pro-stall side had much more believable and concrete arguments. They were well organized and covered any and all opposing arguments. The rebuttals they gave tended to be emotional appeals but only because what they were refuting were emotional appeals. They even listed a few alternatives to the stalls and pointed out their advantages and disadvantages. They stated that ŌThere are a number of alternatives to gestation stalls being evaluated, and they must not only meet sow requirements for welfare and health but also pork producers requirements for high biological performance, low labor input, ease of management, acceptable capital cost, and acceptable financial return.Ķ (Estienne) Meeting all of these requirements is not an easy task and none of the alternatives they listed were up to par. The pens are currently the best way to reduce costs, save lives, and conserve space for commercial pork producers.
1The Werribee farrowing pen with a rectangular piglet creep area and a high (280 mm) piglet barrier. Photo taken from the front of the pen.
2Blood Level of Cortisol: used as an indication of stress
Washam, Ray. "Gestation Stalls: A Review." P.I.G.S. Pork Information Guidance Source. Purina. 26 Feb. 2005 <http://swine.purinamills.com/SwineNews/gestation_stalls.htm>.
Estienne, Mark J. "Welfare of Sows Housed in Stalls during Gestation." Virginia Cooperative Extension: Knowledge For The CommonWealth. 2003. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. 26 Feb. 2005 <http://www.ext.vt.edu/news/periodicals/livestock/aps-03_04/aps-221.html>.
1Cronin, Greg. "Introduction." Werribee Farrowing Pen. 1997. The Animal Welfare Centre. 26 Feb. 2005
"The Pig Factory Farm." The Humane Society of the United States. 26 Feb. 2005 <http://www.hsus.org/farm_animals/factory_farms/the_pig_factory_farm/index.html>.