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Pork Industry Moves to Group Pens at High Cost

by 5m Editor
29 March 2012, at 7:27am

US - As pork producers build new facilities and retrofit old ones to give hogs more space, they say consumers opposed to keeping sows in gestation crates can expect to pay with higher food prices.

Under pressure from animal-rights activists and sensing a shift in consumer sentiment, several major pork producers have agreed to phase out the crates and switch to more-open pens, according to Iowa Farmer Today.

McDonald’s Corp. recently announced its suppliers will have to stop using them.

“The McDonald’s announcement was a tipping point in the debate about gestation stalls versus pens.

“That announcement has fundamentally changed the way people are looking at this debate,“ said Dennis Treacy, executive vice president and chief sustainability officer for Smithfield Foods Inc.

But, the move to group pens requires building new facilities and renovating old ones, more labor and more training for workers.

Veterinary costs can go up because sows tend to fight and sometimes injure each other. Experts say at least some of those expenses are likely to be passed on in the price of ham, bacon, chops and sausage.

“We may as a society be in the process of deciding we’re more than willing to pay those costs, but people ought to know what’s involved in their decisions,“ said Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau Federation and a former hog farmer.

Smithfield converted 30 per cent of its company-owned farms by the end of December and is on track to meet its goal of switching all of them by 2017, Mr Treacy said.

Smithfield expects the cost of switching to open pens to reach $300 million. Mr Treacy said it’s too early to tell how much of that would be passed along to consumers or absorbed by the company.

Putting open pens into existing buildings cuts production because the buildings can’t hold as many sows, said Dave Warner, spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council. But, building bigger barns to accommodate group pens is expensive, and smaller producers who can’t afford to retrofit buildings could be forced out of business, further reducing supplies, he said.

Gestation crates typically measure about 2 feet by 7 feet, giving a sow that might weigh 400 to 600 pounds a space that’s too narrow to turn around or sleep on its side.

While animal-welfare groups insist the stalls are cruel, the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Swine Veterinarians say science does not provide a clear-cut answer, and that there are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.

One major reason producers switched to crates is sows in group pens tend to fight, leading to injuries and submissive sows losing out on food to more-dominant animals.

Feeding systems exist that reduce competition for food by letting sows eat separately, and some pen designs let them take refuge from other hogs while still providing more freedom of movement.

But, it takes more work to monitor the animals for injuries, other health problems and whether they’re getting enough food.

And, farm workers who enter group pens with sows have a higher risk of injury, making better training essential.

Farm labor is expensive, and high-quality labor is even more expensive, said Brian Buhr, head of the applied economics department at the University of Minnesota. Even top-quality operations making the switch experience steep learning curves, and what may seem like small cost increases per animal can add up to big expenses, he said.

Some pork producers are proud they’ve never used gestation crates.They include Paul Willis, who founded the pork operations of Niman Ranch Inc., which supplies restaurants and supermarkets. A major customer is Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., which aired an animated commercial featuring singer Willie Nelson during the 12 February Grammy Awards.

Niman Products usually cost more than mass-produced pork.

A recent check at one Minneapolis-area supermarket found Niman pork chops and ham selling for $9.99 per pound, compared with $5.89 for regular pork chops and $6.29 for Hormel ham.

But, Mr Willis, who farms in Thornton, said customers are willing to pay premium prices for the pork he and more than 500 other farmers raise according to Niman’s standards. “We think our system may be the best and most efficient in the long run for the animals, for the people, for the farmers and the environment,“ he said. “Sometimes, there’s more to farming than just how much money you make.“