The Sow Gestation System Debate

For the last several years there has been ongoing debate regarding sow production systems and which of these represents the greatest potential for animal welfare. Now that the UEP and HSUS have entered into a voluntary agreement to address egg production systems it is very likely that the debate concerning sow systems will most likely move to the forefront.

The real debate is whether or not gestation crates should be allowed at all, not which alternative would satisfy most stakeholders in the debate. The only realistic alternative for the majority of the pork production in the US is a confinement group housed system. In certain geographic areas, there is potential for pasture-based systems; however, while these systems do have potential for specialized or niche market production, it is unlikely that those systems will replace the current standard of gestation crates anytime in the future. Consequently, the focus of this discussion will be the history of confinement systems including the development of the gestation crate production method and the primary alternative to that system, which is a group housed confinement system.

Among the most vocal activists, gestation crates are inherently cruel because while a sow can lie down, stand up and take one step forward and backwards, they do restrict freedom of movement. In a gestation crate system, social interaction is limited to audible interaction as the primary purpose of a gestation crate is to prevent sows from physical interaction. Many agriculture advocates believe that gestation crates are the most humane production system during gestation because, while freedom of movement is restricted (clearly a welfare detriment), the sows are protected from more aggressive sows and are guaranteed the proper nutritional plane because they are not directly competing for food. (The most aggressive sows get more feed than optimum for their own health and welfare and the least aggressive or weakest sows do not get adequate nutrition, and often risk getting very serious and sometimes lethal injuries particularly during feeding periods.) Most likely, like with most issues, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Gestation Crate System
Which system is more humane? The answer really depends on how you value each welfare attribute. Let’s look at the preeminent pork welfare expert in the world, Dr. John McGlone, and use his system to evaluate all sow gestation systems (gestation crate, confinement group housing, Dannish deep bedded system and a pasture-based system). If you place an equal value on each welfare attribute with a positive effect having a plus one value and a negative effect having a minus one value, essentially all of those systems are equally good (or poor). Only if you place a greater value on one particular welfare attribute (freedom of motion > proper nutrition or number of shoulder lesions) does one particular system have better welfare attributes than the others. While many activists believe that freedom of movement is so important that it dwarfs all other attributes, most animal science experts believe that the measurement of animal welfare must take into consideration all welfare attributes. In fact, Dr. McGlone states in a recent article that the debate about gestation crates is based on many factors including consumer perception, regulatory issues and other factors but that science does not support a move away from gestation crates.

Another frequent criticism of the gestation crate system is that it is primarily motivated by cost savings (or the greed of producers). While this is a convenient argument for some of our opponents, it is not really factually based. According the Dr. Lusk and Dr. Norwood of Oklahoma State University who have done some of the best consumer behavior work related to animal welfare to date, the cost increase associated with group housing systems compared to confinement systems is really inconsequential. While a move from battery cage systems to cage free egg production systems increased costs to the consumer by more than 21%, a change from gestation crates to group housing systems would only increase costs to the consumer by 1.7%. (Lusk/Norwood 2011).

Group housing

So if the issue of sow welfare is not based on science and unless you place higher values on certain welfare attributes than others all systems are welfare equivalents, why all the fuss and why do we have gestation crates in the first place? The answer really lies in an attempt by pork producers in the past to address a specific welfare problem in their group housing systems and meet a changing consumer preference. The timing of the introduction of gestation crate systems correlates very closely to the introduction of Pietran genetics in most commercial pork operations. At the time consumers were demanding a leaner, more muscular pork product. Pietrain genetics offered pork producers the ability to produce a leaner and more consistent pork product very efficiently especially in confinement production systems. Within a few years, Pietran genetics, largely unknown and unused in the US prior to this time dominated almost all commercial pork systems. While these genetics did accomplish the purpose they were intended for, they also brought with them serious issues for the pork industry that created even more problems including welfare issues. Pietran pigs are unusually aggressive compared to other more traditional breeds used in the US like Landrace, Hampshires and Durocs. Unbeknownst to most producers and even scientists at the time, they were also the principal carrier of the stress gene. This gene, most likely associated with their increased aggressiveness not only increased the propensity of sows housed in group systems to fight, which increased injuries, lesions and other welfare problems, the stress gene also can cause a “stressed” animal to literally fall over dead in its tracks.

The gestation crate system was an answer to resolve some of those welfare issues. Separating sows not only eliminated fighting and aggression, it also reduced the incidences of animals dying from stress from tasks as simple as walking down an alley. Over time, the stress gene and consequently much of the Peitrain influence has been eliminated from our production systems. Many animal welfare experts agree that a group housing system could not only be cost effective compared to gestation crates but that our genetics currently could be modified over time to produce the right type of animal that would perform in a group housed system without negatively impacting either welfare attributes or cost competitiveness. So why the resistance to change?

The answer to that from both sides is really quite simple and is not often discussed in this debate. For both sides, the issue is rooted in money, economics and each stakeholders own personal perceptions of what constitutes the best animal welfare. For a pork producer, they have to realize a return on their existing investment and they have a vested interest in maintaining the least stressful environment for their animals.  Many producers believe that a gestation crate system affords the animal the best balance of welfare attributes even though it restricts their movement.  For many of the activist organizations, this issue is as much a method of gaining public exposure for their own organization and raising funds as it is about improving animal welfare.  Those organizations believe that if you restrict an animals movement, there are no other welfare attributes that could compensate for this loss of liberty.  A modern pork production barn generally has a useful life of between fifteen and twenty years. Almost all of the costs of those barns are an upfront cost and really only work if the barn is utilized for its useful life. Retrofitting of these barns is not only expensive, it would require both a transition to different pork genetics and likely a lapse in production capacity which would result in a loss of income that many smaller independent and contract producers simply could not afford. There are virtually no new barns being built today that are gestation crate based systems. Given the current publicity and movements towards banning these systems by some activist organizations, it would make little economic sense to build a brand new gestation crate barn today. As older barns live out their useful lives and are being rebuilt or retrofitted, it is likely that the overwhelming majority of those barns will in fact be group housing systems.

It is important to remember that this debate is being driven not by science, or even better animal welfare for that matter but by consumer perception. The science in the matter is anything but clear when it comes to which system is the most humane system. Animal welfare is in large part evaluated by stress, or lack of stress in certain situations. Some studies which concentrate on measuring cortisol levels seem to indicate that cortisol levels are increased in gestation crate systems relative to group housing systems over time. However, in studies comparing multiple welfare attributes in the first thirty days of introduction into either a gestation crate system or a group housing system, the gestation crate system shows several advantages including fewer scrapes and lesions and higher pregnancy rates (an indication of better sow contentment) while other factors including incidences of lameness, weight gain and stereotypical behaviors (bar biting, sham chewing) were similar for both groups. Similar comparisons can be made over long term studies. Several producers whom I personally trust and who I know place animal welfare at the top of their priorities tell me that in their personal opinion, the gestation crate system gives the best balance of all welfare attributes of any system they have ever used. Since several of these have been in pork production for more than fifty years and have seen all of the systems, it is very difficult for me to discount their opinion especially since I personally know that their motivation is definitely not their own financial gain. Nonetheless, regardless of the reason, consumer preference highly favors any system other than gestation crates and consequently pork producers may be forced into changes even if it is not in the best interest of their animals welfare.

We have let other organizations dictate this debate and they are winning the war of consumer perception.  Those of us in agriculture, especially those whose livelihoods depend on agriculture need to take control of the debate back, not by trying to convince consumers that they are wrong and gestation crates are right, but by explaining that over time there will likely be a complete transition away from gestation crates anyway. Many animal welfare experts and animal scientists have been evaluating what alternative system is the best long before HSUS and others entered into the fray. By the time that most of the housing systems are due for retrofitting, there may be a completely new system that combines the advantages of both group housing and gestation crates.  Going the route of the UEP and authoring federal legislation is dangerous in my opinion by mandating systems that may not meet the demands of customers either and possibly preventing development and implementation of new systems that might be developed in the future.

If the National Pork Producers Council or other pork groups asked my opinion (they haven’t but I will give it anyway) I might make some suggestions to them. We can explain why gestation crates are perhaps the best balance of welfare and other alternatives all we want, but a large part of the public is simply not buying it. Since consumer perception in a large part of the country has already decided that gestation crates represent welfare impairments, instead of fighting those perceptions why not explain that currently due to the useful lives of these barns which represent a substantial investment there is literally no way to make a transition to new systems until those barns are retired or due for retrofitting.  Ballot initiatives are costly both in terms of trying to defend those practices but also in the consumer perceptions of agriculture in general.

If the NPPC and all major pork producers were to adapt a voluntary agreement that stated that they will be phasing out gestation crates over the next fifteen years, the overwhelming majority of those barns will have been rebuilt or retrofitted to group housing, freedom crates or some other system anyway. We will have taken back the debate and left the activist organizations standing on the sideline.  A bold move like this would not only allow us to recapture the debate with our consumers and be able to explain things like why gestation crates were a useful tool in the first place, it would leave those organizations trying to decide what their next fight will be.


The Domino Effect and Rewarding Good Behavior

I talk to a lot of teenagers, that is A LOT of teenagers.  I’ve found one truth to be universal, they respond to positive feedback, a kind word, a compliment, or a text telling them when you notice them stepping up, and that it was appreciated. Far too often we as adults use a “stern talking to” as our first line of discipline, but don’t reward good behavior.

Getting recognized for doing the right thing is a great motivator.

Last week, Domino’s Pizza voted down a resolution brought forward at their shareholders meeting considering a change in animal welfare. The reason they voted the resolution down? They want to consult those who study animal behavior and experts in animal husbandry practices, so that they are really doing what is the best for animals. Actually talk to the folks that care for animals and to the experts that are writing the standards. I know that not everyone is going to agree on what those standards should be, but Domino’s is going to talk to them. They don’t want to compromise animal care for the sake of perception.

In a recent post  on Just Farmers a Missouri hog farmer, Chris Chinn, put forth the idea that we in agriculture reward companies like Dominoes for doing the right thing.

I’m in!  Voting down these resolutions are actually quite common and we in agriculture need to make sure that we start showing appreciation to those companies that are willing to take some time to look into situations before jumping on a sensationalism bandwagon. I am not supporting the idea that this is farmers and a restaurants against groups like HSUS and PETA who are constantly badgering companies to make changes with shareholder resolutions.  Instead I am simply Saying thanks to Domino’s for turning to the experts first. If they do this and have reasonable evidence to move forward in a similar manner as HSUS proposed I will be fully satisfied as the matter was fully investigated first.

So next weekend I’m going to pick up a couple pizzas and leave a note for the management of Domino’s. I’d encourage all of you to do the same.

Join me and share this event through Facebook!

Is Agriculture Caving into the Demands of Animal Activists?

I usually start my morning by browsing the latest news, markets, and even the latest facebook posts from my friends.  As most of us get a little older, it not only takes a little more time to get the engine warmed up in the morning, we place a higher value on routine.  This routine has served more than my tendency to procrastinate.  It allows me an opportunity to gather my thoughts, keep in touch with what is going on and at least subconsciously plan my day a little better.  Sometimes my plan backfires and I read an article that instead of getting my engine warmed up, it steps on the throttle and makes my mind race at full speed, sometimes because it gives me a new idea to try to incorporate but often because the news just hits me in all the wrong places.  Yesterday, when I read the latest Drover’s article about whether the animal activists were in fact winning the war in their efforts to force change in production methods, it initially just made my blood boil.  Others in agriculture had the same initial impression even going as far as condemneing the popular ag magazine as venturing towards treason against the industry.  Others not in agriculture seemed surprised to see this position in an ag magazine.

So was this treason or reason? The article brought up two major points.  First, are some of the more extreme and vocal opponents of agriculture now becoming the principle source of information for not only the popular press but even many consumers?  Secondly, if some practices used by agriculture are very difficult to defend, does it make sense to eliminate those practices in order to appease the majority of consumers?  Even if a majority of consumers want a certain minimum standard imposing the majority view may have detrimental effects on the minority.  As it relates to higher welfare standards if it substantially increases costs and therefore affordability it disproportionately impacts those who are the least food secure.   Whether we like it or not we have to accept that todays typical consumer is more engaged and concerned about food production systems and that has not only provided a new opportunity for some farmers it also could pose some real threats  to both individual farmers continuing to be able to do what they love and to overall food security.  A good argument is that it is unwise to make our principle welfare and production systems based on the views of those often far removed from agriculture instead of based on our own experiences and the research of those who specialize in animal behavior.  It is even more unwise to totally dismiss consumer sentiment.

As an economist, my view is always going to be that ultimately the market is the best way to sort out consumer tastes and preferences over the long term instead of ballot initiatives and legislation that is easily influenced by emotional appeals and whomever has the biggest checkbook to lobby for or against a measure.  If sufficient numbers of consumers want their eggs produced by chickens who get a feather wash and blow dried each morning and they are willing to pay a price that will allow a producer to recover his costs plus a reasonable return on his investment, America’s farmers will be glad to supply exactly that product.  There is no other industry that has been as innovative in meeting the customers’ demands at affordable prices.

Taken very literally, the Drover’s article could have been a sign of defeat.  On the other hand what I believe was illustrated in this Drover’s article was not concession, but simply recognizing that many of our customers see the glass as only half empty, when we as producers  tend to see the glass half full.  Should we be looking for improvements in the current system that maximizes the benefits while trying to mitigate the costs and consequences or should we do as the recent Chipolte advertisement  suggests and go back to the start? A reversion to the methods of our great grandparents could have disastrous consequences.   When my father was just becoming an adult, President Truman said that without significant increases in productivity or a significant curtailment of population growth, it was possible that half of the world could face starvation.  When I was barely old enough to walk  in 1968, the best selling book was The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich which predicted widespread famine, social unrest and upheaval due to the inability to grow food faster than the population was growing.  Neither of these predictions came to pass only because we were able to adapt new technology and methods that allowed us to slingshot productivity growth at a rate much faster than population growth.  We had four billion people in the world then, today we have seven billion and fewer resources to produce our food.  Do we really want to go back to a time when the principle concern was whether there was enough food to go around and if there was, would we be able to afford it?

While I support consumer choice as the principle driver of determining production systems, there has to be limits to choice.  Just because a particular sadistic consumer may want to buy meat from an animal that has been beaten and abused doesn’t justify the market providing that choice.  There has to be minimal acceptable standards.  Beyond those minimums, the choice of production system by an individual producer has to be the result of a complex balance between meeting the preferences and demands of his customers, utilizing his own skills and resources, and having a system that is financially sustainable with a minimum of long term costs and consequences.  How that we determine what minimum standards are acceptable is a question that has many different possible answers.  Who gets to determine those standards become an even more difficult question.  Future blogs will cover these questions in more detail at least from my perspective as an economist, producer and a consumer.

As producers, we cannot ignore consumers.  They are our customers and their views should be recognized and incorporated into our systems as much as possible without jeopardizing other important aspects of production including protection and health of our livestock, productivity at levels that sustain food security and at least enough profitability that we can continue to invest in our operations and continue to be innovative to keep re-engineering the wheel.

Instead of simply conceding these production methods to our most vocal critics like the Drover’s article seems to suggest, why not develop a system to determine what should be the minimum standards should be in a way that consumers can easily understand?  If we ask these questions about each production system it is much easier to start to more effectively communicate our message to the consumer and in the process make them a stakeholder in the decision process while still having our principle objective of using the production systems that provide the right balance between all objectives.

1) Is there a viable alternative that is more palatable but yet does not jeopardize long term food security and affordability i.e. enriched colonies.

2) Is there a modification to the current system that could substantially increase one attribute while retaining substantially all of that systems current benefits i.e. freedom gestation crates.

3) Does that system improve the perception to the consumer and what increased price is the consumer willing to pay for that product for that increased perception.

If we can develop a decision making process to determine minimum acceptable standards that balances all of those aspects in a way that the typical consumer can understand even if it means shifting or tweaking some of our standard production practices over time, it is likely that our message will resonate with them without jeopardizing food security and still making the principle determination based on our own ingenuity and ability to evolve our systems to meet changing consumer tastes and preferences.

Ultimately, this issue continues to be one of consumer tastes and preferences, not one where the most extreme views have gained enough credibility to impose their own will on everyone else.  If a large majority of consumers were willing to pay a substantial premium for cage free eggs and would buy only those eggs, there wouldn’t be a lot of battery cages left in the county.  The problem with legislating minimum standards is that it eliminates choice for the consumer.  If we can communicate more effectively why different systems increase the cost of food and consumers indicate their preferences by spending with their pocketbook instead of answering a survey that only addresses one aspect of the issue, over time production systems would evolve to exactly meet those needs while not eliminating the choices for those who either cannot afford or do not have that particular attribute as their highest priority.

Animal Welfare – A Piece in the Puzzle of Sustainable Food Production

Welfare of livestock and poultry has become a highly-publicized political issue.  And, like so many political matters in nowadays, the welfare debate has split the public into two sides and created a huge business. Animal protectionists are lobby for legislation regulating animal welfare and ownership.  Opponents of those regulations argue that these regulations are unnecessary and that rather better enforcement of current regulations and better education of animal owners and the general public are needed instead of more stringent regulations.  Moreover, they claim that 1) the proposed changes will make animal agriculture uncompetitive globally, and thus animal food production will be outsourced to countries with less animal welfare concerns, and potentially threaten food security; or, 2) cost of food production will rise considerably and food will become unaffordable for the less-fortunate in this country.  Two main arguments have emerged: one based mostly on emotions, and the other on the basis of efficiency and economics.  Not surprisingly, the result is at times a rather dirty trench war, with neither side moving an inch.

Both sides seem to ignore the true complexity of the system of food production.  Often, a discussion about animal welfare revolves around very specific issues.  Regulation of a single welfare issue will only be a band-aid and never address the complex food production system thoroughly.  I argue that, until we clearly understand the deeper ins and outs of food production, we will never deliberate on animal welfare issues in a constructive manner, let alone find acceptable solutions.  We should aim to find simplicity beyond complexity, yet over-regulation of animal welfare aims for simplicity without recognizing the complexity of food production.

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