ELDRIDGE, Iowa — Sow 44733 had broken the shoulder of one of her pen mates, rousted another who was huddled in the corner and was chewing on the ear of a third.
Other sows in the pen sported abrasions, torn ears and bloody tail stumps — all souvenirs of her attentions.
It was that kind of behavior that led hog farmers like Tom Dittmer to isolate sows in individual stalls called gestation crates that are barely bigger than the pigs themselves.
“The reason the industry switched to crates wasn’t because we wanted to harm our animals," Dittmer said. “We did it because we thought it was what was best for the animals." The move also kept the price of pork reasonably low for consumers, he said.
This year, however, Dittmer and fellow hog farmers are under increasing pressure from corporate pork buyers and animal rights groups to return to the old way of doing things: putting sows in group housing. In the last week of September alone, three companies — Dunkin’ Donuts, ConAgra Foods and Brinker International, which operates Chili’s — announced that over the next decade, they would no longer buy pork derived from pigs housed in gestation crates.
This week, the Bruegger’s bagel chain joined them. That brought the number of fast-food companies and food retailers that have made such commitments this year to 32 — a stunning victory for the Humane Society of the United States, which has worked for years to persuade pork producers to make the change. The National Pork Producers Council said it did not know how much pork these companies bought but estimated it might be about one-fifth of the pork produced.
Farmers like Dittmer resent the tactics, saying they worry that the move will be unsustainably costly for them and result in soaring pork prices for consumers.
“What I don’t like is some big restaurant chain in Chicago that knows nothing about raising animals is telling us how to raise pigs," said Glen Keppy, a retired pig farmer whose sons finish raising Dittmer’s pigs for market, referring to McDonald’s, which promised in February to stop buying pork from pigs born in gestation crates. “Would they tell Microsoft how to make computers?"
Research is mixed about which type of housing is best for the animals’ welfare, according to a review done by a task force convened by the American Veterinary Medical Association. But the Humane Society and other animal advocates maintain that housing sows in gestation crates is cruel.
Earlier efforts to convert the pork industry have had mixed success. Cargill, the nation’s third-largest pork processor, owns about one-quarter of the sows that produce pigs for the company and began putting them in larger group pens about a decade ago. Smithfield Foods recommitted to transitioning to pens last year, after first promising it would do so in 2007 and then changing its mind. Tyson Foods and JBS, the two other large processors, have refused to budge.
So the Humane Society — armed with graphic videos of workers abusing dead piglets and of sows in gestation crates so small they cannot turn around, suffering from shoulder lesions and nervous disorders — took its case to the big consumer brands. It accomplished in months what it had been unable to achieve in years of prodding the major processors.
But now some of the independent farmers who supply those processors are fighting back.
Pat Hord and his family have put windows in some of their barns in north central Ohio to let visitors see for themselves how their 18,000 sows fare.
“There is a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation about what we do and how pigs get bred in crates," Hord said. “It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s just that no one is on the farm anymore."
Crate means control
Dittmer recently invited a reporter for a tour of Grandview Farm, which was founded by his great-grandfather in 1917, and is now home to 6,000 sows that he often calls “my girls."
“I’m nervous about this, I have to say," Dittmer said as he began the tour. “I’m afraid of becoming a target for the animal rights people. But if I’m going to hand this on to the next generation, which is the plan, I feel like people need to understand why we do things this way."
When Dittmer began farming with his father in the 1970s, he said, their 150 sows lived in pastures like most pigs at the time, taking shelter under individual huts in the glaring heat of summer and wintering in barns.
He remembers chasing the huts around when the wind blew, refereeing fights between 500-pound sows who had laid claim to the same hut and trying to extricate them from the deep mud wallows. Back then, the Dittmer sows yielded an average of eight pigs a pregnancy.
The next decade, the Dittmers moved their sows inside, and the yields increased. The herd had grown to around 400 sows, and pigs were being bred with less fat as Americans turned to plant-based oils rather than lard from hogs. Leaner pigs had a harder time weathering Iowa’s cold winters, and farmers needed to monitor their food intake more closely.
In the mid-1990s, farmers like the Dittmers and the Hords moved the sows into gestation crates, where their feed could be individually tailored. Restricting their movement controlled where they defecated and kept feces out of their food and water. Using slatted floors improved sanitation and made manure easier to remove. Medical care could be more easily and safely administered. Aggressiveness was minimized. Worker safety was enhanced.
And, yes, costs were reduced, and yields increased — to an average of 12 pigs a pregnancy for the Dittmer sows. “No one likes to hear it, but this is a business," said Ben Dittmer, Dittmer’s son.
Using research on sow housing by Iowa State University, he estimated that Grandview Farm’s costs would rise by $1.3 million a year if the Dittmers moved their sows back into pens. The same research indicates that sows would produce one to two fewer piglets a year, similar to the experience in Europe, which is well ahead of the United States in shifting sows to pens.
So for now, the family has decided to keep most of its sows in gestation crates, despite the pressure from animal rights groups. The Dittmers say that none of the 500 piglets that are born at Grandview Farm each day are confined to crates — they roam in pens and can freely leave and enter the crate holding their mother to nurse. In fact, according to Cargill, the majority of pork Americans eat does not come from pigs raised in crates.
Hord, whose family has made investments in group housing for about 40 percent of their sows, said he sometimes wondered whether it would pay off. The new barns with pens were more expensive to build, and operational costs are higher because more manpower is needed to manage sow relations. Health care for the animals is more expensive, and no feeding system is yet ideal.
So far, the Hords are absorbing the extra costs. “At some point, we will have to charge a premium," Hord said. “Otherwise, we and others like us will eventually go out of business."
American farmers say what happened to pork production in Europe could be a cautionary tale for U.S. consumers. In 1991, the British government ordered pig farmers to move their sows into pens by 1999. Consumers, unwilling to pay the higher prices that resulted, bought cheaper Danish and Dutch imports, bankrupting local farmers.
Now Denmark, the Netherlands and other pig-producing countries in the European Union must have their sows in pens by next year. Latin American, Chinese and Russian pig breeders, who do not face the same requirements, stand ready to sell their cheaper pork on the European market.
Not all U.S. farmers share the same views as Dittmer and Hord. Paul Willis oversees a network of some 500 farmers around the country who raise the pigs that ultimately become Niman Ranch pork. The sows that give birth to those pigs roam on pasture, much like the Dittmer family’s pigs did a few decades ago.
Willis said that gestation crates were inhumane. “Those sows can’t even turn around and they have no bedding, nothing to root around in," he said. “I don’t think it’s acceptable."
Whether the average U.S. consumer is willing to pay more for pork from freer pigs remains to be seen. Sales of Cargill’s Good Nature line of premium crate-free pork were up 20 percent last year — but the company primarily promotes the meat’s lack of antibiotics, growth hormones and preservatives.
One pound of Good Nature center cut boneless pork chops was $4.19 on the website of the ShopRite in Hoboken, N.J., compared with $3.29 for a pound of the same cut of the store’s Sterling Silver chops.
Glynn Tonsor, an associate professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University, said household economics often trumped ethics.
Voters have overwhelmingly supported ballot measures to prohibit keeping chickens in cages, for example, but sales of cage-free eggs, which cost about 50 percent more than regular eggs, account for less than 5 percent of the overall market, Tonsor said.
“There is no obvious economic reason for farmers to voluntarily switch from gestation crates to pens," he said. “Now, though, it looks like that ship has sailed."