By Kyle Sharp
The agreement between Ohio agriculture and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has been the source of controversy, scrutiny and grumbling on both sides of the issue. Here are some perspectives from leaders in the sectors of agriculture that will be most affected.
Impact on pork
Chuck Wildman operates a 650-sow, farrow-to-finish hog operation near South Charleston. He was not thrilled when the agreement with HSUS was reached. But after considering the political strategy of how the agreement bought the OLCSB time to work and established the Board as the governing authority for livestock care standards, he said it now seems like it was the right thing to do.
When people say to him HSUS came out ahead in the agreement, Wildman has an interesting way of describing this thoughts.
“If you’re in a bar fight and one guy lays down his weapon and leaves the bar for a while, and the other guy is still standing there in the bar huffing and puffing, who won?” he said. “I think Ohio won, at least for a while, and now we’re waiting to see if HSUS walks back into the bar or not.”
Wildman also is a member of the OPPC Board of Directors and sits on the OLCSB Swine Subcommittee. The agreement gave the OLCSB more time to establish standards, and he thinks that is crucial.
“If we were up against a November timeline, we would have to decide something right now, but now we can discuss things more,” he said. “It’s going to create a lot better discussion and a lot better decisions.”
Wildman hopes more pork producers and others interested in how swine are raised come to the meetings of the OLCSB Swine Subcommittee, listen and share their thoughts.
“I encourage people to participate. The Board was setup so we could have an open debate,” said Wildman, believing not just Ohio but the whole nation is watching. “It’s a lot of responsibility, and I get the sense that everybody in the room feels that. Now is the time to get involved. There’s just going to be no other time in our life where we have the opportunity to speak our mind and have it heard nationally.”
The recommendations the Swine Subcommittee makes to the members of the OLCSB may or may not reflect what was in the HSUS agreement.
“The approach on the Swine Subcommittee is, let’s make good, solid recommendations and have something behind them, and not worry about making people happy who were involved with the HSUS agreement,” Wildman said.
For example, Wildman uses gestation stalls and isn’t convinced group pens are a better alternative.
“If we give them room, hogs are going to fight,” he said. “This isn’t speculation, it’s just the way it is. The consumer is getting a good, healthy product now, and if we’ve got sows fighting and biting, it’s going to lead to health issues.”
Only time will tell what standards the OLCSB will adopt, but OPPC’s Isler is pleased with the well-balanced membership of the Swine Subcommittee.
If the gestation stall recommendations in the agreement were to be adopted, Isler doesn’t think it would have a large impact on Ohio’s pork industry.
“Our current producers can have stalls for another 15 years, and we’re going to come up with a better way to raise pigs in 15 years,” he said. “Our producers will respond. This agreement just brings light to the fact it’s not business as usual for Ohio agriculture. We have to respond to what businesses and consumers want.”
Plus, new facilities built after this year can use stalls for breeding, they just have to move the sows to some other form of housing once they are confirmed pregnant, Isler said.
“Regardless of the size, 15-and-a-half years gives all farms time to depreciate what they’re in now and make modifications as things change,” he said. “In the meantime, I have no doubt research will provide even better ways to raise the animals.”
But it will ultimately be up to the OLCSB to say what happens for sure.
“There’s only one thing for sure, and that is there’s no ballot initiative in 2010,”
Isler said. “That we know.”
Ohio poultry approves Ohio poultry producers supported the agreement with HSUS from the beginning and continue to be supportive,” said Jim Chakeres, Ohio Poultry Association executive vice president. According to the agreement, existing poultry farms essentially can continue to operate as normal — using battery cages and expanding if desired.
“This provided a mechanism for us to stay in business and manage our risk, while we conduct joint research,” Chakeres said. “I can’t stress enough that the research component is important, because we don’t have all the research to look at all the different housing alternatives that are out there, and hopefully this will give us the time we need to do the right thing.”
The only negative aspect of the agreement is expansion of Ohio’s egg industry could be somewhat limited by the recommendation that the Ohio Department of Agriculture issue no new permits to facilities using battery cages, Chakeres said. But the OLCSB may or may not choose to adopt this recommendation.
“Without question, one of the most important elements of this agreement is the understanding by the two parties that the Board must be given time to work,” he said. “Our work to create the Board provided the foundation to reach this agreement, which is stronger and more comprehensive than any other similar agreement in the United States.”
The veal debate
In 2007, the American Veal Association agreed to transition from individual stalls to group housing for veal calves by 2017. So when the Ohio agreement with HSUS included that same language, it didn’t seem too controversial.
But not all veal producers were in favor of the 2007 AVA agreement, said Bob Cochrell, an Ohio veal calf raiser from Burbank and past American Veal Association president. Plus, the AVA agreement was just a blanket, non-binding resolution with no specific definitions or compliance required. The Ohio recommendation, if adopted by the OLCSB, would set mandates.
“My perspective on the AVA resolution is it was an attempt to appease the animal rights agenda by throwing them a bone,” Cochrell said. “It is not a binding resolution and was pretty open-ended. The veal perspective was that the market would eventually dictate the outcome by taking grouppen calves only, but that hasn’t happened.”
Plus, the AVA resolution was based on the subjective perception that group pens were better, not on objective, scientific criteria, Cochrell said. And Ohio adopting that recommendation just reinforced the perception.
Cochrell also wasn’t pleased that Ohio veal producers had no representation in the negotiations with HSUS. However, he believes HSUS recognizing the authority of the OLCSB was a positive outcome.
“It did buy us more time to carefully contemplate the guidelines that are being drawn up,” he said. “But on the realistic side, we recognize we’re probably not done seeing HSUS’s influence in Ohio either.”
As a member of the OLCSB Veal Subcommittee, Cochrell is happy that discussions have focused on objective, defendable criteria and not emotion. The process involves a lot of “due diligence,” he said, because guidelines established for one class of species could have implications on another class within the same species or a totally different species.
“It’s not easy, and it’s uncharted waters,” Cochrell said. “You want to do it and do it right the first time. But there aren’t too many other models out there to follow.”
For now, it is hard to say what standards the Veal Subcommittee will recommend and what standards the OLCSB will eventually adopt, but Cochrell doesn’t believe group pens for veal calves is a good answer. Converting to group pens would cost veal producers $200 to $500 per calf to convert their barns, the cost of production beyond the conversion would be about 10% more, and the calves would not be better off.
“Does it need to be economically sustainable? Yes, but I also need to be able to be free to determine what is in the best interest of my calf,” Cochrell said. “If it were better, I’d be doing it already. I don’t mind change if it is for the better, but that hasn’t been demonstrated to me yet.”