As of July 1, 2014, hog producers north of the border are required to house “mated gilts and sows” (pregnant pigs, whether they are pregnant for the first time or a subsequent time) in group pens. The regulations allow for rotating an animal into an individual stall for up to seven days, as necessary, “to manage grouping.”
Iowa State University extension veterinarian James McKean says that provision is important. He says back in the late 1970s and early 1980s when producers began to house sows indoors in small groups, the result was uneven production.
“What they learned from that,” McKean said, “was that sows were quite competitive and you got big sows and little sows.” The more aggressive ones ate more of the food and McKean says fighting and injury were common.
“So the next step was to put them into smaller pens and those were pens of one and that’s a gestation crate,” he said, the type of housing that many advocates for animal welfare object to. “And so in many respects the gestation crate was the response to the lack of wellbeing of the animals in the small groups or pens.”
But animal welfare advocates such as the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) criticize the size of the crates and many hope to ride the wave of change coming from Canada.
“We urge the American pork sector to see the writing on the wall and follow in the footsteps of Canada,” HSUS wrote in a statement supporting the change.
McKean says many European countries have long used one or another of the group housing options that will now become the norm in Canada. The United States hog industry is watching closely what happens, but plenty of American observers have also been paying attention to the industry in Europe, recognizing that the same forces that have driven change elsewhere are agitating for it here.
There are several different options that producers can use if gestation crates are phased out, McKean said, but one hurdle is the cost of changing from single-animal crates to a group system. The Canadian provision calls for some form of group housing for new and renovated structures beginning July 1 of this year, but the regulation doesn’t extend to the entire industry for a decade, which reads like a compromise between industry and animal welfare advocates.
Will anybody know whether the Canadian pigs are better off than the American ones still housed in individual stalls during gestation? There will, no doubt, be ongoing research but whether it can overcome people’s preconceived notions of what’s best seems doubtful.
So maybe the real question is, will Canadian consumers be happier? If they are, and if pork sales remain strong or increase, American hog producers may feel less threatened by the prospect of similar rules migrating south of the border.