By Matt Reese
A picture of a sow in the tight confines of a gestation stall is tough for many consumers to see. And, while some consumers express unbridled outrage, animal rights groups drum up fund raising support and retailers demand change based upon that image, it seems that one thing is lost in the off-farm debate surrounding the animal welfare realities of gestation stalls — the welfare of the pigs.
With more retailers demanding gestation stall free pork, and the more concrete Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board requirements, hog farmers are grappling with what type
of housing system (group housing pens or gestation stalls) is really best for the animals. There are many opinions out there concerning the future of Ohio pork production. Pat Hord, who is based in Crawford County and among the largest hog producers in the state, is taking a proactive approach to this issue, but still acknowledges the challenges in the move away from gestation stalls.
“We’ve seen the transition slowly coming. We built our first pen gestation barn in 2008 so we could learn and change our management practices using pens. We now have between 40% and 50% of our operation in pen gestation,” Hord said. “We’re learning. There are obviously positives and negatives to everything, and pen gestation is no different.”
Hord has implemented two different pen-based systems, one with 10 sows per small pen where they have access to head gates for feeding and another system with larger pens equipped with electronic sow feeding (ESF) technology.
“With the electronic feeding, we can set the feed amount each sow gets with a computer. It reads her tag when she walks in a station and then distributes the proper amount of feed
that we want for her body condition,” Hord said. “The ESF has a stall that they go into to eat with a tag reader. They go in and eat on their own. The gates are air operated so they open and close as needed. Both the small pen and ESF systems are more expensive than individual sow housing. It costs 3% to 6% more in additional cost. The ESF is on the high end of that range. And, you obviously have to have a little larger square footage in your buildings. If you were going to retrofit, you would have to reduce the number of animals you have in the same sized facility.”
Each type of pen housing offers different challenges when compared to gestation stalls.
“We’re learning the differences, but we think we can figure it out. We still debate what is best for the sow. With our experience, it is really management related, but there are definitely challenges. We’re not convinced that pens are definitely the right way to go for the sow,” Hord said. “It probably depends on which sow you are talking about. If we would let the sows cast their votes, the more timid sow that eats less would want a stall every day because she is protected and has all the food and water she wants and she doesn’t have to interact with the others. If you’re the big boss sow, you probably like the pens where you get a chance to beat on somebody else and be the boss.”
Because of the inevitable skirmishes between the sows, management in pens needs to be adjusted to minimize problems.
“Sow safety is a daily concern. When you put the animals together, you have a normal pecking order from top to bottom. The initial mixing is probably where you have the most injuries. It is just something you have to manage,” Hord said. “We give them extra feed to preoccupy them during that time. There are definitely times we have to pull animals into individual stalls for their own health and protection. If we didn’t do that for some, they would not live. We are just trying to do the best thing for the sows.”
The Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board (OLCSB) hashed out the pros and cons of the different housing systems and agreed to phase out gestation stalls. Hord supports the OLCSB recommendations, but knows there will be challenges for the industry during the transition.
“Consumers just want to know. I think that is what the OLCSB does for us in Ohio. That is a program consumers can feel good about. They can know that producers in Ohio have a set of standards they are living up to,” Hord said. “But, it is frustrating that we are going to implement a practice that will drive people out of business. In Europe, they are phasing out of gestation stalls this year. It looks like 10% to 15% of their producers are just going out of business in a mass exodus. It is mostly the smaller farms that do not want to spend the money. That is a concern moving forward. We need producers of all different sizes to continue to meet the demand for food.”