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Crate question looms over pork producers

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Iowa farmer Craig Rowles says his farm uses technology designed to keep the sows cool and comfortable in their confinement crates. It includes a system that blows moist air through the barns. (Sarah McCammon for Harvest Public Media)
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Reporter, Iowa Public Radio

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 5-gallon buckets through the mud and through the snow and through the heat,” he said. “And I understand what it takes to try to keep animals alive in those extreme kinds of temperatures.”

That’s why he is grateful for gestation crates when it comes to pork production. These narrow cages come with individual feeding and watering troughs and are built over cement blocks with slotted floors to catch manure.

As Rowles sees it, the individual confinement crates make it much easier – and safer for the animals – for him and his partners at Elite Pork Partnerships to work with their 8,000 or so sows and their piglets at several farms surrounding Carroll, in western Iowa.

But that’s not how others see it. North America’s largest food distributor, Sysco, recently became the latest company to announce it will phase out pork produced with the controversial technology, which animal rights advocates say is inhumane.

As the outcry builds and more food companies ban the crates, many pork producers worry they’ll be left picking up the tab for an expense they don’t think is necessary —converting out of gestation crates into a less efficient and less safe production system.

Rowles admits the mama pigs don’t have much room in the gestation crates.But the crates work because sows often become aggressive, hoarding food and putting their neighbors in danger, he said.

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

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

But Josh Balk, of the Humane Society of the United States, said 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 said.

The Humane Society negotiated the agreement with Houston-based Sysco to phase out gestation stalls. Major chains including McDonalds and Burger King have made similar announcements this year.

Sysco, which mostly supplies food to restaurants and cafeterias, hasn’t spelled out a timeline, but it said 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 Co., 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 said 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 said. “To put an animal in a box, to me, was not allowing the animal to be who they are.”

David Maloni, president of the American Restaurant Association research group, said 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 said. “One thing that’s very interesting is that it helps a restaurant chain differentiate themselves.”

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

Elite Pork Partnership keeps sows and piglets inside in facilities like this one Carroll, Iowa. (Sarah McCammon for Harvest Public Media)

But Chris Novak, chief executive officer of the National Pork Board, said transitioning the entire industry would have huge costs, from building new pens to lost productivity – and producers would absorb those costs at first.

“They (animal rights advocates) don’t necessarily have a true understanding of the animal welfare benefits that gestation stalls provide,” he said. “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 U.S. 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, farmers like Craig Rowles insist every animal-housing system has its pros and cons; he said the quality of care all comes down to the people providing it.  Rowles said 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 said.  “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.”