Speak Up is a series of blogs where CommonGround volunteers from all over the U.S. speak up to answer questions from consumers. This post is about South Dakota CommonGround volunteer and family hog farmer, Peggy Greenway. 

According to a Huffington Post article, “Major pork producers Smithfield and Hormel have pledged to end the use of gestation stalls by 2017, and major retailers like Burger King, Safeway, Wendy’s and Denny’s have all promised to work with their suppliers to do the same.”

South Dakota CommonGround volunteer and family hog farmer Peggy Greenway and her husband, along with 14 other area farmers, are co-owners of a 3,400-head sow (or female pig) farm. That sow farm provides weaned pigs to the Greenways to raise them to market weight in hog barns on their farm. At the sow farm, expectant mother pigs are housed in individual maternity pens or gestation creates.

According to Greenway, the purpose of individual maternity pens is misunderstood. She says these pens are used by farmers to provide for the safety of the sows.

“Animal care is first and foremost in the decision to use maternity pens,” she says. “We are trying to keep the pigs safe from one another. Most people do not know that, by nature, pregnant sows get mean and will fight each other. The pens are used to prevent sows from these fights, which often cause injuries and sometimes even death.

“A free-choice stall is another option. This is where sows in a group pen can open up an individual crate attached to the group pen and go into it to be away from the other pigs. Trials have shown that given the choice, sows choose to be in those individual crates the majority of the time when housed in a free-choice stall system. They prefer the comfort and security of not having to fight with other sows to get feed,” said Greenway.

With the corporate push toward the use of group pens, Greenway explains the issue from the farmer’s point of view.

First, Greenway says that the use of group pens will increase the number of workers needed on the farm and require farmers to build larger buildings, ultimately creating higher pork prices for consumers.

“It takes one-third more space to convert existing sow housing from gestation crates to group pens. Farmers have to look at the cost of making those conversions. Either we build the extra space or we drop back on the number of pigs we house.”

Greenway says a large part of a farmer’s decision to make housing conversions on their farm depends on each farmer’s agricultural lender. According to information supplied by AgStar, the nation’s leading lender of farm equipment and operating loans to hog producers, converting an existing barn from individual maternity pens to group housing does not increase the value of the building, but instead will increase farmer’s debt load and lower production. After conversion to group pens, the barn will hold one third less sows. Greenway says it is unclear who will foot the bill for those conversions. She thinks some producers will just decide to exit the business.

Information based on an AgStar presentation:
Converting from Gestation stalls to Gestation pens:

  • Cost looks to be $200-$300 a space to redo
  • 2500 sow unit – value $900 a space = $2.25MM
  • Current debt is $500 a space – to redo you want to borrow that cots so debt per space would go to $700-$800 a space
  • Value will be unchanged so your collateral value has dropped
  • It is still a 2500 sow unit
  • How will we pay for these conversions?

Greenway says that farmers who are planning to build new structures to house hogs will likely look at incorporating a system of group pens in order to meet the demand from end users, but she says many things go into making the final decision.

“The other cost farmers may have to consider is labor. It takes more people to make sure that the sows are not fighting in group pen systems,” Greenway explains. “If a couple of sows are fighting, animal care givers have to remove them from the pen so they don’t get injured.”

Second, about 85 percent of U.S. hog farmers keep their sows in gestation crates. See the results of this farmer survey.

“We know we are doing the right thing,” Greenway says. “Our veterinarians recommend we use maternity pens because it is the system that works best for both the animals and for the people working to care for them.”

The Pipestone Veterinary Clinic’s veterinarians provide animal care and manage the sow farm, which the Greenways co-own with their farmer friends. Pipestone Vet Clinic also manages several other sow farms in South Dakota, Iowa, and Minnesota.

The Greenway family plans to continue to monitor meat industry and retailer demand for pork raised without gestation crates, while at the same time making sure they don’t compromise the health and safety of their pigs or the employees at the sow farm.

Greenway says she doesn’t know what the future will look like for hog farmers.

“If we want farmers to take good care of their pigs and provide healthy, high quality, lower-cost pork chops and bacon for consumers, we should all stay informed on this issue,” she says. “Most importantly, I urge people to seek the opinions of farmers and veterinarians if they have questions about the way sows are housed on farms.”

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