Kroger, Cracker Barrel, McDonald's, Burger King, Sonic…the list of companies that will not accept pork from farms using gestation crates continues to grow.
At some point, it seems the industry would do well to stop fighting the rising tide and learn to surf the group sow housing wave. Right? Wrong, says University of Illinois' animal sciences professor Janeen Salak-Johnson.
"If you take that stance, you are letting activists drive the train," Johnson explains. "That is the wrong stance to take."
She says companies that refuse to accept pork from a farm that uses gestation crates are giving the consumer way too much credit. At an Illinois Farm Families event this past spring, Johnson was on hand to answer questions about pork production as a group of Chicago moms toured a modern hog farm. She asked the group their feelings on gestation stalls.
"The gestation crate wasn't even on their radar screen until we brought it up," she remembers.
Cost of production
Johnson says many European countries are realizing the inefficiencies of group sow housing firsthand. By Jan. 1, 2013, the gestation stall will be completely banned in the EU; many producers will leave the pork business. Johnson reports Germany's pork industry could move to wean to finish only. All weaner pigs will be imported.
Data from a cost analysis projection project estimates group sow housing will cost U.S. pork producers $5.5 billion in capital costs. That's on top of an estimated $1.1 billion increase in annual operating costs as producers work to produce pork in a less efficient system.
Hold on though, haven't EU pork producers been able to achieve farrowing rates of over 90%? That's true, Johnson admits. However, during a 2007 tour of the pork industry in Denmark and Germany, Johnson did not see any sows past second parity (farrowing). On the Illinois Farm Families tour of the DeKalb pork farm, many sows were on their seventh or eighth parity.
Flex stall support
Clearly, the EU's switch to group sow housing has some significant challenges. However, Johnson says a larger stall that allows the sow to turn around, without further modifications, could be even worse for sow wellbeing. In her studies, a turn-around stall came in third, behind group sow housing. The industry-standard gestation stall was the best option.
"There isn't an optimized alternative system out there that improves sow well-being over the industry standard gestation stall," Johnson adds.
She says there may be some benefit to moving to a flex stall, which expands as the sow grows. In her experiments, sows' cortisol levels dropped in flex stalls when the pen was expanded.
In the meantime, Johnson is quite happy to support the local Domino's Pizza. After listening to the science behind gestation stalls, Domino's shareholders voted to continue supporting producers who use the technology. Johnson's children have taken note.
"That's where the real power is in this debate – the mom," Johnson says. "We have got to get the science in front of them and explain