Swine Welfare in Different Farm Systems

Swine Welfare in Different Farm Systems


Americans are conflicted about how they believe animals should be raised. Most grocery stores sell both caged and cage-free eggs, but only five to ten percent of sales in California are of the cage-free variety, and that it includes organic eggs. Yet, in 2008, when Californians were asked to vote on whether it should ban cage egg production, sixty-three percent of voters approved the ban. Californians seem to hold one opinion at the ballot box and another at the grocery store. Similarly in my research, consumers tell me they don’t like the crates used to house pregnant sows, and when given the opportunity to ban the crates in a voter initiative, the ban is always approved. This happened in Florida, Arizona, and California, yet it is very hard to find pork advertised as gestation crate-free. Stores like Whole Foods is an exception, but they constitute a very small percentage of pork sales. If consumers are really willing to pay the cost of gestation crate-free pork, then we will expect pork producers to profit from that demand. As with eggs, it seems like consumers say one thing when they vote, but something else when they shop. The willingness of consumers to pay higher prices in return for better animal care is difficult to judge. When people are asked whether they would pay premiums for animal friendly products, they say they will, but when asked about the importance of various social issues, the well-being of farm animals is ranked slightly lower than food prices, as well as the well-being of U.S. farmers. These orders result of a telephone survey I conducted of over one thousand Americans, where I asked them to compare the social issues of human poverty, health care, food safety, the environment, financial well-being of U.S. farmers, food prices, and the well-being of farm animals. They were asked to rank these issues in terms of importance, and I then compiled a score of importance for each issue based on those rankings. A higher score means it was more important to most Americans, and the scores are designed such that they sum to one hundred. You can interpret the scores as the percent of people who believe the issue is the most important issue of the seven issues. For instance, the financial well-being of U.S. farmers was deemed the most important issue for 8.16 percent of Americans. Food prices was deemed the most important to 5.06 percent of Americans, and the well-being of farm animals was deemed most important by the fewest Americans, only 4.15 percent. In a previous article slash video, you were took on a virtual tour of the standard hog production facility, where hogs are raised completely indoors in cramped spaces, and where pregnant sows are housed in gestation crates. For this reason, the conventional hog farm is described here as a confinement crate system. Is this the best system in terms of animal welfare? If not, what type of farms provides hogs a better life? And if we purchase pork form those farms, how much more would we pay? This lecture seeks to compare the confinement crate system to two alternatives. One, a confinement pen system, which is a small tweak of the conventional system, where gestation crates are a place with group pens, and two, a shelter-pasture system, a completely different system, where animals are raised in pastures, lots, and shelters without cages and in a rich environment. In chapter eight of Agricultural and Food Controversies, we discussed the difficulty of measuring the well-being of farm animals. Neither consumers nor animal welfare researchers are sure how they should measure the happiness of an animal. You, as an individual, might be able to easily make up your own mind about the relative welfare provided by different farm systems. In fact, I encourage you to try and do so, but I also want to assure you that some of you may find it difficult, and many animal welfare researchers feel the same way, but to facilitate discussion in the next article, I will expose you to the most scientific animal welfare rating system thus far, the SOWEL model. You don’t have to agree with the SOWEL model, but it might help you make up your own mind, thus the SOWEL model was developed by four animal welfare researchers and was published in the prestigious Journal of Animal Science. It measures only the welfare of sows, adult females, not piglets nor growing pigs in the nursery or finishing stage. This model is particularly useful because it compares the confinement crate system to the confinement pen and shelter-pasture system. It rates the welfare of sows based on thirty-seven different attributes of the farm, relying on previous scientific studies to determine what is most or least important to the sows well-being. Based on those thirty-seven farm attributes, it computes a precise number indicating the level of well-being of the sow. The model not only takes into account a sows biological needs, but her desire to express natural behaviors, meaning it assumes that even if allowing the sow to root in the dirt doesn’t improve her health, allowing her to do so makes her happier. I think that is good not only because I think allowing sows to behave naturally is important, but from a telephone survey of Americans, I have concluded that the average American does as well. Researchers have compared the model to subjective evaluations of animal welfare researchers and found it provides similar ratings, suggesting the SOWEL model is a good proxy phrase per adjustments. The one drawback of the SOWEL model is that it only takes into account the welfare of sows, but I’ve found that farms that the SOWEL model ranks high seems, in my opinion, to provide high welfare for growing pigs as well, but not necessarily nursing piglets. The SOWEL model doesn’t provide facts about animal welfare, but it can help us form our own beliefs. I only include the SOWEL model to help facilitate a discussion about the welfare of hogs in the different environments. You are welcome to disagree with the SOWEL model and form your own educated opinion. Remember, I’m not trying to tell you what to think. I’m here to help you think well. Let’s now go learn about the two alternatives to the conventional hog production system, what the SOWEL says about them, and what kind of price we might be expected to pay for pork under those alternative systems.

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