The move to group sow housing by Cargill and other U.S. pork firms reflects an important shift in thinking about animal welfare, from consumers to large food corporations
DALHART, Texas — Pork producers across the United States have long kept their sows in small, barred stalls or crates, with so little space they can’t turn around.
The sows here at Cargill’s sprawling hog complex mill about in pens, snorting and jostling. Some just flop on the concrete floor to rest. It’s not Club Pig, but at least the animals get some room.
The move to group sow housing by Cargill and other U.S. pork firms reflects an important shift in thinking about animal welfare, from consumers to large food corporations. Consumers are increasingly interested in how their food is produced — including how animals are treated — while animal rights groups have ratcheted up pressure on the food industry.
The result: restaurant chains, packaged food makers and supermarkets — all big pork buyers — are increasingly requiring suppliers like Cargill to phase out crates and move to group sow housing. At least 60 major U.S. companies have made public declarations for such a shift, including the Twin Cities’ General Mills, Target and Supervalu.
“If you want to be a viable supplier, you respond to the signals your customers send,” said Jeff Worstell, vice president of livestock production for Cargill Pork. Minnetonka-based Cargill intends to phase out all individual stalls from its own hog production system by the end of 2017.
Smaller producers balk
The shift from stalls to group pens, which could cost $2 billion or more throughout the industry, is divisive within the pork business.
Agribusiness colossus Cargill and its big corporate competitors have deep pockets. But thousands of smaller hog producers are balking at the cost. It’s an issue for many producers in Minnesota, the nation’s third-largest hog producing state.
“Without really knowing how their costs will be recovered, it’s very difficult for farmers to be willing to make the change,” said Dave Preisler, executive director of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association.
Pressure from animal rights groups and ultimately consumers isn’t likely to go away, though. A similar sentiment is behind the rise of such products as cage-free eggs and antibiotic-free meat. And it can be seen in the movement in many states to label foods that contain genetically modified ingredients.
“Consumers want more transparency, and it applies to more than animal welfare,” said Amy Sousa, a senior analyst at food market researcher the Hartman Group. “They want to know where their food comes from, what the sources are.”
Thousands of pigs
A sow farm is the beginning of a production cycle that ends in bacon, sausage and pork roasts.
Sows are artificially inseminated, then give birth and nurse their offspring until the piglets are weaned. The junior pigs are shipped from sow barns to “finishing” barns where they’re housed in group pens and fattened up before a trip to the slaughterhouse.
Here in the Texas panhandle’s arid high plains, Cargill owns a porcine industrial complex on 22,000 acres, which will house about 66,000 sows in 143 barns when it’s totally built out. Just one row of 26 barns runs nearly a mile.
Cargill is one of the largest U.S. pork producers. About 30 percent of the pigs it turns into meat are born at company-owned sow operations, particularly the one in Dalhart, or at contract farms. The latter are run by independent operators, but they house Cargill-owned sows and piglets.
The other 70 percent of the pigs processed at Cargill’s packing plants are born to sows not owned by the company, giving it far less control over sow housing for a major part of its supply chain.
At Dalhart, sows still stay for 28 to 42 days in individual stalls — also called gestation crates — after insemination. That’s because bumping around in group pens could cause them to lose embryos, reducing litter sizes. After giving birth, they spend another 20-some days in “farrowing” pens, small enclosures where sows feed their piglets.