Cargill Inc., one of the largest U.S. pork producers, said Wednesday it has completed converting sow farms to what's often seen as a more humane method of housing pigs, 11 months ahead of schedule and ahead of the rest of the pork industry.

The Minnetonka-based company has been moving from "gestation crates" — cage-like stalls for individual sows — to group housing, which gives the animals more room. Cargill and other pork producers have been increasingly making the switch, as consumers and food retailers are looking for more humanely raised meat.

"We are pleased to achieve 100 percent group housing at Cargill Pork farms nearly one year ahead of schedule," Mike Luker, president of Cargill's pork business, said in a statement. "This is a significant investment in the future of our pork business, and one we made as a result of listening to the marketplace in recent years."

Cargill, one of the world's largest privately held businesses, said it has invested more than $60 million in the purchase and improvement of a massive, 22,000-square acre complex in Dalhart, Texas. Part of that tab was to create group housing for pregnant sows.

Last June, Cargill housed 57 percent of its sows in gestation crates at its company-owned farms and contract farms. Cargill said then that company farms would contain 100 percent group housing by the end of 2015, and independent farms on contract would be the same two years later.

Cargill appears to be the first major pork provider to switch completely to gestation crates at its company-owned sow farms.

"Cargill is ahead of the curve and we welcome this announcement from the company," said Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection for the Humane Society of the United States. The humane society and other animal rights groups have put pressure on pork producers to abandon gestation crates.

Smithfield Foods, the nation's largest pork processor, has also made good progress, and has converted 72 percent of its sow housing from gestation crates to group pens, Shapiro said.

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003