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Hog farmers worry as more consumers demand phaseout of gestation stalls

North America’s largest food distributor, Sysco, is the latest company to announce it will phase out pork produced with a controversial technology known as gestation crates. A growing number of consumers say they want more humanely produced meat on their plates, but many farmers worry they’ll be left picking up the tab.

Craig Rowles grew up on an Iowa farm, and like a lot of farm kids, he’s done his share of heavy lifting.

“I know what that means to carry feed in five-gallon buckets through the mud and through the snow and through the heat,” he says. “And I understand what it takes to try to keep animals alive in those extreme kinds of temperatures.”

So Rowles was thrilled by the development of gestation crates. They’re narrow cages built over cement blocks with slotted floors to catch manure, and individual feeding and watering troughs. Rowles and his partners keep about 8,000 sows and their piglets at several farms surrounding Carroll, in western Iowa.

To enter the barns, you have to change out of your street clothes and put on coveralls to avoid contamination. Rowles admits the mama pigs don’t have much room.

But Rowles says he believes the system is best for them. Otherwise, Rowles says sows often become aggressive, hoarding food and putting their neighbors in danger.

“Each of these guys has their own crate and each of the guys has their own feeder,” he says. “It allows us then to individually feed to the needs of that sow.”

Most of Rowles’ peers in the large-scale hog industry are currently raising pork this way. In a recent University of Missouri survey of major producers, 83 percent said they keep pregnant sows in gestation stalls.

Animal rights advocates, like Josh Balk of the Humane Society of the United States, say consumers want that to change.

“Confining animals in a cage so small they can’t turn around is clearly indicative of a system that treats animals as machines and commodities rather than living beings that have a capacity to suffer and feel pain,” Balk says.

The Humane Society of the United States negotiated the agreement with Sysco to phase out the gestation stalls. Sysco hasn’t spelled out a timeline yet, but it says it will work with producers to move toward group housing that gives animals more room to move.

Some farmers are already doing that. Paul Willis of Thornton, Iowa is the founder and manager of Niman Ranch Pork Company, a national network of 700 farmers that raise pork, as well as beef and lamb without antibiotics or hormones. His hogs live in barns in groups, and sows are allowed to make nests before they give birth.

Willis says some of the problems with group housing, like one sow dominating the others, can be avoided through careful management, like spreading the food out and giving the animals plenty of space. He has never used gestation crates, which he calls “disgusting” and “inhumane.”

“I didn’t want to raise pigs like that,” Willis says. “To put an animal in a box, to me, was not allowing the animal to be who they are.”

American Restaurant Association President David Maloni says more consumers are demanding products raised with methods seen as more natural and humane.

“Food seems to … need to have a story to it. And whether that’s non-stalled pork, whether that’s Angus beef, whether that’s organic vegetables, or free-range chicken,” Maloni says. “One thing that’s very interesting is that it helps a restaurant change differentiate themselves.”

Maloni says restaurant patrons interested in those products generally will spend up to 20 percent more for them. 

That’s not lost on the industry. Sysco, based in Houston, mostly supplies food to restaurants and cafeterias; major chains including McDonalds and Burger King have made similar announcements this year.

That worries livestock industry leaders like Chris Novak, CEO of the National Pork Board. Novak says transitioning the entire industry would have huge costs, from building new pens to lost productivity – and producers will absorb those costs at first.

“They don’t necessarily have a true understanding of the animal welfare benefits that gestation stalls provide,” he says. “For many of our producers this is a choice between a system that they had many years ago that they moved away from to provide better protection and care for animal.”

In 2010, researchers at the University of Minnesota found no difference in productivity between stalls and larger pens. But they also concluded that a quick transition, in this case over a two-year period, could cost the industry between $1.87 billion and $3.24 billion.

A 2007 study by Iowa State University which was partially funded by the US Department of Agriculture found that sows with more space had more pigs per litter, and roomier housing was actually cheaper to build. But it noted that pork producers would need to learn new skills to adapt to a new system.

Still, many farmers like Craig Rowles insist every animal-housing system has its pros and cons; he says the quality of care all comes down to the people providing it.  Rowles says his main focus is on his employees and customers.

“I mean I have a black lab at home and he’s my pet. And I love Cooper. He’s a great dog and he’s my pet,” Rowles says.  “These animals here are our charge; they are our moral and ethical responsibility to care for them in the very best way that we know how.

“But we also have to remember what we are really doing is producing a product – a meat protein product for people who need food. That’s what we do here.”

As more people want to know the “story” behind their dinner, farmers like Rowles may have to adjust how that food is produced.