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WPX 2012: US Producers Have Long Way to go towards Stalls-Free Sows

7 June 2012, at 1:34am

ANALYSIS - A new study from the University of Missouri shows that 17 per cent of US sows are currently loose-housed during pregnancy. In the light of recent announcements from restaurant and retail chains about their commitment to supply product for a ‘stall-free’ future, much work and investment will be needed to maintain pork supplies in the country. Senior editor, Jackie Linden, reports from the World Pork Expo in Des Moines, Iowa, US.

Gestation sow stalls have created more controversy than any other subject in the US pig industry in recent times, said Dallas Hockman, in his introduction to a National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) press conference at the start of the first day of the World Pork Expo. Mr Hockman is Vice President of industry relations for NPPC.

He stressed the importance of the need for scientific background for discussion with customers on this issue, an area where information is lacking, he said. However, NPPC has sponsored an initial study into the current status of sow stall use in the US.

Dr Ron Plain of the University of Missouri was commissioned by the NPPC to carry out this study, and he reported that some 17 per cent of sows at the sampled farms are now kept in open pen gestation conditions, which is defined as the ability to turn around without touching the pen barriers once they are confirmed pregnant.

Within the next two to three years, the survey respondents estimated that 23 per cent of sows would be kept in these conditions, he reported. The overall figure covers a range of zero to 100 per cent of sows for individual firms.

Describing the background to the study, Dr Plain said 70 firms responded to the email survey, all with at least 1,000 sows. They accounted for a total of 3.6 million sows of 62.6 per cent of the nation's total. So while this was an initial study, it provides a representative view of the situation in the US, he stressed.

Commenting on the results, Mr Hockman said the numbers were higher than expected but he raised several concerns of his organisation and the wider industry about the impact of the recent announcements by McDonalds and retailer, Kroger, that all their pig meat requirements would be sourced from farms using stalls-free sow housing within the next decade.

He contended that these announcements are the result of pressure from animal activist groups, rather than consumers, who consistently give their top priorities as food safety, price and quality in making their food purchasing choices.

Furthermore, said Mr Hockman, there was no discussion with the industry prior to the announcements, which concerns NPPC, and neither has there apparently been any consideration of the impacts on US pig meat supply, industry structure or the setting up of systems to segregate the market in terms of pork product traceability, labelling or verification.

Giving an overview of the financial impacts of converting to loose housing, Mark Greenwood said that the costs could amount to between $200 and $300 per sow place, a heavy burden for farmers, especially at a time when loans are hard to obtain for agricultural investment. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that customers and consumers will be willing to pay more for compliant product and as a result, funding for most conversions would have to come from working capital, an unlikely scenario for most producers.

Obtaining permission to expand existing premises to maintain sow numbers can be a challenge in the US, he said, and so producers may have to downsize by 10 to 20 per cent in terms of the breeding herd, which will have knock-on effects on pig flows.

A recent Oklahoma State University study has estimated the total cost to the industry of 100 per cent conversion to loose housing in the US at between $1.9 and $2.3 billion.

Summing up, Mr Hockman said that the recent announcements from restaurant chains and retailers have no meaning behind them from the scientific point of view, nor do they appear to have considered the implications for the supply chain, which are highly significant.