The (Not So Dirty) Truth Behind Pig Housing

As a high school livestock shower in the National FFA Organization, every year I would pack up my brushes, timothy hay, and other supplies at 6AM to head to our county show. Whilst there, it’s incredible to see the interactions between community members and their local agriculture. It was always a great opportunity for the students to showcase the hundreds of hours of work they invested into their animals.

But there is an omnipresent opportunity at each local county show like this that is lost on many community members: the opportunity to ask questions, learn about how the animal was raised, and to support these kids by purchasing this locally-grown meat on the spot. Common questions I hear regarding pork production on the farm are: How are the pigs housed? Are they able to interact with other pigs? Can they exhibit natural behaviors? Why are sows sometimes put in a tiny stalls? Well, let’s dive in and look at the facts.

How are Pigs Housed on a ‘Standard’ Pig Farm?

To the unsatisfied ears of many consumers when hoping for a simple answer, the fact is that– it depends on the operation. Every pig farm is different in how they select their housing, which is highly dependent on location, purpose of the farm, space, legal requirements, and number of pigs. A grand majority of farms house their numbers in a form of group housing, which are often concrete and fully-slated pens designed to hold a designated number of pigs. These group pens have access to food and water 24/7 and pigs are able to move freely to interact with their pen-mates. When housed in group pens, these pigs are able to eat, sleep, play, and arrange their hierarchical order with their counterparts. Pigs are highly-intelligent, community-oriented social animals, which is why they will often sleep up against one another at night for comfort and protection. Fact: No one likes to like in a mess–not even the pigs! Pigs are actually very clean animals, and will prevent themselves from getting too dirty if they can help it. Farmers will clean their pens, feeders, and barns regularly to maintain a safe and healthy environment for their animals.

Many of you are probably wondering– what about the mother pigs (also known as sows) and their piglets? Well, I am glad you asked! Such farms that specialize in breeding are heavily regulated in maintaining a healthy environment for the mothers. Specialized nutritionists, veterinarians, and (of course!) the farmers work tirelessly to monitor health during the course of the gestation, which is 12 weeks, 12 days, and 12 hours! Sows can be occasionally be housed in small groups with other pregnant mother pigs, but often times these hormonal ladies act aggressively towards one another in the fight for dominance in a hierarchical society. Therefore, it is common that sows are held in individual housing systems to monitor each one’s individual health and wellness.

“Pregnant sows require individualized care throughout their gestation period. Sows have special nutrition requirements and need daily monitoring and evaluation.”

-Pork Checkoff

The Special Treatment

In the individual pens of the mother sows, a bit of this freedom is exchanged for the health and safety of mother and piglets. In a gestation stall, there is typically only enough room to stand up and lie down comfortably. Additionally, these stalls restrict foraging behavior, limit movement and exercise, and minimize interaction with other sows. On the other hand, these individual system reduces worker and animal injuries, reduces competition for resources between sows, and allows the all-star team (nutritionist, veterinarian, farmer) to monitor her body condition and specialize her feeding regimen which is tailored to her individual nutritional management. Once the piglets are born, this system prevents the clumsy mothers from accidentally laying on their babies by allowing a slate under the pen large enough for piglets to duck under and roam around. There are a plethora of resources available to pig farmers when deciding the the best choices and designs for sow housing. Pork Checkoff has posted a variety of studies as well that take genetics, production flow, disease management, and nutritional considerations into the design of group and individual sow housing systems.

This year, as a college graduate, I went instead to see the Texas State Fair, which never has a lack of young leaders preparing their pigs for the big livestock show and auction. As I watched all the pigs in their pens being prepped for their big moment, I saw their handlers hugging their potbellied friends with tears in their eyes. After the months of early mornings and late nights bonding, feeding, cleaning, exercising, and overall, caring for what they know is their passion, they know it was all worth it to feed their community. Check out the short video posted by Pork Cares below which highlights the operation of Karla Dorale of Charter Oak, Iowa as she describes why she does what she does everyday.

Want more information? Check out the following reputable websites on pork production and management, food safety, safe pig care, and much more by clicking the following links: PorkCheckoff.org , Pork Cares.org , Pork.org

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