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