Crate Expectations

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If you ever find yourself in a room full of pig farmers and want to start a fight, just ask about farrowing crates. A farrowing crate is a cage that confines a lactating sow. Its dimensions are tight — a typical crate enables a mother pig to move a few inches in any direction.

“Frankly, I’m bothered by the idea of dead piglets, perhaps more so than the idea of confined mothers.”

A crated pig can do little more than lie on her side, position her nipples in the right direction, and provide mother’s milk to her piglets on the other end of prison-like bars. Some farmers deem this confined arrangement the cruelest manifestation of factory farming.

It’s not hard to see why. Echoing a pervasive sentiment, the “Certified Humane Raised and Handled” label prohibits farrowing crates because they inhibit the pig’s “natural behavior.” Two weeks before giving birth, a mother pig experiences hormonal changes that urge her to build a nest. A crate prevents this instinctual behavior, not to mention rooting and socializing, which are also natural instincts to a pig.

Temple Grandin, the renowned animal scientist, likens the crate experience to being buckled into an airplane seat for six weeks. After several days in a conventional crate, sows begin to suffer painful lesions on their legs, start chewing on the iron bars, show a decreased appetite, and experience higher levels of stress (as measured by hormonal content).

Horrible as it all sounds, many pig farmers vehemently insist on the humaneness of the farrowing crate. Critics might condemn the crate as little more than a productivity maximizer. But consider why it maximizes productivity: farrowing crates prevent piglets from being crushed to death. As many conventional pig farmers note, the crate’s design is carefully engineered to discourage mothers from rolling over on their suckling or sleeping babies, something that happens with alarming regularity in open systems.

Many farmers are quite passionate on this point. Deanna Quan, a pig farmer in Dayton, Ohio, explained in a letter to the Rodale Institute:

I am a pig farmer and I have 95 sows. I use all the Animal Welfare Institute guidelines with one exception. I use farrowing crates. I did not use them for the first 10 years; I thought they might be cruel. Boy, was I wrong. Instead of carrying out buckets of dead baby pigs, I now have a 95 to 98 percent survival rate.

Quan isn’t alone. On Farms.com, a popular venue for sharing farming advice, a former pig farmer tells a newcomer, “I was a small producer not long ago. We had to use crates or we lost too many piglets when the sow flopped on a litter.”

Blake Hurst, a Missouri farmer and author of a widely noted article called “The Omnivore’s Delusion,” writes,

The crates protect the piglets from their mothers. Farmers do not cage their hogs because of sadism, but because dead pigs are a drag on the profit margin, and because being crushed by your mother really is an awful way to go.

Studies offer some evidence to back these anecdotal claims. An analysis undertaken by the Sustainable Livestock Systems Group, funded in part by the UK government, found that piglets were crushed in pens at more than twice the rate than they were in crates. (On the flip side, the crated pigs had more stillbirths — although there’s no way to be sure that confinement, as opposed to genetics, was the cause.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, crate manufacturers are attempting to design their way around the problem. A variety of less confined group-housing arrangements — “turn around” pens, “family” pens, and “kennel and run” systems — are becoming increasingly popular. The logic behind these arrangements is laudable. They aim to improve the welfare of both mothers and piglets. Still, the problem remains inescapable. In an article that strongly supports the use of these less confined options, two Australian livestock officers and an environmental engineer were obligated to note that, “Most of the pen designs that give sows more freedom to move result in higher piglet mortality than when conventional farrowing crates are used.”

Frankly, I’m bothered by the idea of dead piglets, perhaps more so than the idea of confined mothers. Thus I’m grappling with the possibility of humanely raised, confined pigs. At this point, I’m by no means ready to wholeheartedly defend the farrowing crate as humane. I am, however, eager to learn more about how ethically conscious consumers might respond to what appears to be an inescapable conundrum: that is, respect for the welfare of a sow is inversely related to the welfare of her piglets.

Those of us concerned with the ethics of eating meat tend to have strong opinions about raising pigs — one way is humane, the other is cruel; free range — good; confinement — bad. But, as is almost always the case when it comes to food, the matter isn’t so cut-and-dried. This time, moreover, the dilemma belongs to the carnivore.


Margo Nelson

I'm not certain that being smothered (and this is an animal destined to be slaughtered, not to live a bucolic existence) actually is worse than being unable to move, with sores and lesions, over a period of several weeks, repeatedly.

I am a carnivore, and I think that piglets are pretty dang cute, but choose to purchase meet from animals, including pigs, that are free range. I am a bit skeptical when I hear folks who are raising pigs worry that being crushed is a rotten way to go, when certainly being slaughtered is pretty rotten too... I think these concerns are more about profit than about being humane.

Finally, if sows routinely roll over upon and smother piglets, (particularly if this is the case for the wild cousins of domestic pigs), I have to assume that this is a natural phenomenon and perhaps the reason they have sow many in a litter is an evolutionary mechanism.

Sara

Maybe I'm just not clear on the design constraints, but wouldn't it be possible to keep the mother and piglets in separate spaces (as it seems the farrowing crate idea does), but just have the mother's space be larger?

OJ

difficult to know which comes first the piglet or the egg; but perhaps the sow has so many piglets because they dont survive when she rolls on them. are sows really meant to wean so many of the blighters?

Katherine

So why can't they only confine the sow at set times for breast-feeding, and keep the piglets away in between feedings? Seems like the best balance between humane treatment and profit margin.

Scott Irwin

Thank you for this balanced perspective on the sow crate issue. I grew up on a hog farm in Iowa several decades ago and did not realize we were raising "free range" hogs at the time. We farrowed sows during the summer in open pastures. While the system is cheap the piglet mortality rate appalled me even as a young boy. Besides the ever present and high risk of getting squished, piglets also face other terrible risks out in the open. First, other sows will occasionally kill piglets from other litters (not sure if this is widespread but it did happen on our farm). Second, large rainstorms will fill up the "nests" and very young piglets can easily drown. I spent many a night out in rainstorms with a flashlight and a five gallon bucket rescuing piglets. When we moved to farrowing crates I thought this was a much, much more humane and caring way to raise piglets. I do recognize the cost to the sow of being confined in this way. However, back in the old days our system was less automated and we had to let the sows out of the crates twice a day to feed and drink in an open lot. In retrospect, it was a pretty nice compromise system.

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Alex

None of the little pigs are going to die natural deaths anyway. In fact, if I was one of those piglets, knowing what the future might hold for me in my life on a factory farm, I'd prey for a quick death by crushing.

keith

Has the crushing of piglets been observed in feral pig or wild boar populations, or is it a phenomenon of domesticated on-farm pig populations only?

Also, I understand at least feral and wild dog and wolf mothers (and maybe other species as well) will forcibly exclude and abandon the runts of litters to conserve nursing resources for the puppies with a greater perceived fitness. If piglets are in fact crushed in wild populations, is it a similar case of selection for fitness, or random?

Matt

I agree with Margo. A piglet getting accidentally crushed by its mother is NATURAL (albeit very unfortunate and I'm sure disturbing for many farmers), whereas the farrowing crate is the exact opposite of natural.

Dan

You say:
"Those of us concerned with the ethics of eating meat tend to have strong opinions about raising pigs — one way is humane, the other is cruel; free range — good; confinement — bad."

I'm a carnivore as are many farmers, and in many many cases, there is good reason for the current way they do things. The reason they do it is as you described. That's why I've always felt confinement to be "good".

foresmac

I have to agree with the above post. There are things in nature that seem inherently cruel to us—piglets being crushed by the mother is obviously one of them—but that's nature. Jamming a mother pig into a metal cage for weeks at a time is something we as humans can control, yet we do it anyway.

So which is more cruel—Mother Nature herself, or humans' deliberate behavior that causes obvious mental and physical pain?

Aine

If pigs naturally had a predisposition towards crushing their own young, needing humans to intervene with farrowing crates, then they would have come to an evolutionary full stop long ago.

Farrowing crates may well prevent smothering, but it is intensive farming that created the problem in the first place. Like most domesticated animals that are raised for meat, modern pigs are much bigger than their predecessors. Sows don't so much lie down as throw themselves down, because they are too big to do otherwise. If she were smaller, there would be much less chance of crushing her young.

catpro54

Commenter #1 just said everything I was thinking as I was reading this article. Also:
The farrow crates are used to increase profits for the pig farmers, plain and simple. Sounds like an inhumane way to treat any animal.

Dan

#1 Sure, you can let pigs get squished, but at a certain point, it becomes a world hunger issue.

Organic and free range is less efficient. If you want to mandate that is the way all food is produced, we'll have roughly 60% of the food to feed the world in a growing population. (There is a limited number of acres available on earth for farming).

"Let them who can afford organic food eat organic food. For those who can't afford organic food, let them starve."

Dan

#1 One more reply. (Sorry)

If the pigs are going to get slaughtered anyway, they might be better off getting squished?

We may all die someday. Perhaps it would have been better had all of our mothers aborted us so we wouldn't have to go through the heartbreak of getting sickness and sores from falling down and being exposed to the worlds elements.

Dan

I'm often amused by the quantity of posters from this Pro-Free Range crowd who really has no concept for what happens on a farm.

They think they have a solution in mind, then in order to make their solution work, you create such a disaster of a practice that food prices would easily quadruple due to increased labor costs.

irons

#13 - if you want to speak of this as a hunger issue, than wouldn't it be better to feed the grain directly to the people instead of to livestock?

BTW - would also save on water, cause less environmental pollution, and less GHG emissions.

Richard

OK, so let's get this straight. Option 1: pig suffers. Option 2: baby pigs get killed.

Consider now option 3. If we cannot raise pigs humanely (because of 1 or 2) above, then we should not raise pigs. To the farmer who says they have to do option 1 to prevent 2, I say "no you don't". You are inherently engaged in a cruel, inhumane business - don't make out that you are some sort of saint. You are not.

I'm sorry if this means that folks can't eat bacon, but you need to get over it.

Garvit Sah

For those purchasing meat, it is an economic decison to be made - meat obtained from farms using farrowing crates would be cheaper (due to lower piglet mortality), though people might want to purchase 'free range' meat for the same reasons for which they use organic vegetables - taste and nutritional benefits. Thinking in pure economic terms, this is probably the only trade-off to be considered.

Those considerate about condition of soon-to-be-slaughtered pigs should maybe try turning vegans.

JohnMcG

The choice between crushed piglets or confined mother pigs sounds to me like a Clintonian "false choice."

Is there a large number of crushed pigs in the wild, or is the crushing incidental to some other aspect of pig farming that is being left unexamined?

Hopester

This is an economics issue pure and simple.

Farmers are on pretty tight margins thanks to rising feed prices and the supermarkets wanting to satisfy demand for cheap meat. Every dead piglet is profit lost. Witness the wholesale slaughter of newborn male calves on dairy farms because what little money the farmers would have got for the meat from the fully grown animal is outweighed by the cost of feeding them.

The sooner we accept that meat isn't cheap and go back to using it sparingly as part of a balanced diet the better