Crate controversy: Pig farmers face growing pressure

Crate controversy: Pig farmers face growing pressure

Crate controversy: Pig farmers face growing pressure

Crate controversy: Pig farmers face growing pressure

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The nation's billion-dollar pork industry is now under growing pressure to defend one of the most controversial practices in modern agriculture: raising 400-pound pregnant sows in tightly confined stalls called gestation crates. Is it smart, efficient farming or animal cruelty? 13 Investigates provides a rare look inside a large Indiana pig farm so you can decide for yourself.

Bob Segall/13 Investigates

It's a Sunday morning and there's little doubt what Matt Golden and his family are eating for breakfast.

In fact, you can smell it from the driveway – long before you hit their kitchen door.

"Yay! I love bacon," said 12-year-old Madison, arriving home from church.

"It's one of our favorites," said Matt, pulling a large pan of sizzling thick-cut bacon from the oven. "We buy about three pounds a week."

As the family sat down to pancakes, scrambled eggs and bacon in their Speedway home, 13 Investigates asked more questions about that bacon. Specifically, where does it come from and how is it raised?

"It's from pigs on a farm," confidently explained 10-yr-old Jack, pausing before offering a more detailed picture. "They're all in one big pen together, rolling around in mud, I guess. That's what pigs do, right?"

For millions of pigs, the reality is much different than the picture described by Jack Golden.

2 feet wide

Pembroke Oaks sow farm granted WTHR full access to its facility in northwest Indiana to show how it raises its animals. Unlike other farms contacted by Eyewitness News, the farm allowed 13 Investigates to document a common farming practice that has triggered both controversy and outrage. 

The farm has no big pens. No mud. Instead, the massive indoor barn is lined with concrete floors and long rows of steel cages.

Like most large-scale sow farms, Pembroke Oaks relies on a device called a gestation crate. Each steel crate is approximately seven feet long and two feet wide. It is large enough for a pregnant sow to stand up or lie down. But at 24-inches wide, it is too small for a 400-pound pig to turn around.

For most sows, the only time they will leave the gestation crate is about twice each year to deliver a litter of piglets. That happens in a larger stall called a farrowing crate, which confines the mother pig in a way that prevents her from accidentally crushing her newborn babies. Otherwise, a sow's whole life is usually spent in a gestation crate -- until she's about 3 years old and sent to slaughter.

Intense debate

"When you look at this picture and you see what a gestation crate is, it is the definition of animal cruelty," said Matt Dominguez, a spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States, the nation's most vocal opponent of gestation crates.

"Pigs are highly intelligent and highly social. When you put them in a gestation crate, they can't turn around. They are unable to socialize with each other. They are unable to act like animals and engage in natural behavior," Dominguez said. "The day they are taken out of a gestation crate and the day they are finally killed is a godsend to them because every day for them is a day of torture."

Gestation crates gained widespread use throughout the pork industry in the 1980s and 1990s, as farmers looked to move their hogs from harsher outdoor conditions to temperature-controlled indoor facilities. At the same time, smaller family farms gave way to larger commercial operations, and gestation crates provided an opportunity to increase efficiency.

But critics believe the transition to gestation crates was misguided, largely focusing on profits – not animal welfare.

"When you put an animal – any animal --  in a space where they can't even turn around for their entire life, they are driven insane," Dominguez said. "It is inhumane to treat an animal in this manner."

Pembroke Oaks and other commercial sow farms vehemently disagree.

"Inhumane? Absolutely not," said Kurt Nagel, sow production director for Belstra Milling Company, which owns Pembroke Oaks and five other hog farms in northwest Indiana and northeast Illinois.

Nagel says gestation crates give each sow individual care and individual feeding. That's important because pigs tend to form social hierarchies, and in open spaces, stronger sows often bully the weaker ones out of food.

"The more timid sows or smaller sows can get beat up pretty bad," he explained, while giving WTHR a tour of Pembroke Oaks. "The advantage to the individual stalls is it gives each and every sow protection from the other and she's never fighting for her next meal with somebody who's more dominant."

Nagel says keeping the animals safe and well fed makes for "comfortable" pigs -- even if they are in gestation crates. At the same time, he is quick to recognize the criticism.

"There is a downside that they don't get to turn around and move around freely or associate with other animals, but in our experience, it hasn't been that big of a deal. It's not as critical as what most people would think. The misconception is [pigs] feel it's more like a jail cell than what it actually is," Nagel said.

Weighing the evidence

Determining who's right – the pig farmers who defend gestation crates as best for animal welfare or the animal rights activists who condemn them as animal torture – is not exactly easy.

Both sides claim to have medical science in their corner.

The National Pork Producers Council points to a review by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) that highlights some benefits of gestation stalls – minimized aggression and injury, reduced competition, individual feeding and control of body condition – as evidence that the crates are a legitimate and responsible farming practice. (The AVMA study also points out detrimental aspects of gestation stalls, as well.)

The Humane Society of the United States cites other studies that suggest animal welfare is greatly lowered for sows placed in gestation crates and that farm productivity related to the reproductive performance of sows is equally high on farms that use alternatives to gestation stalls.

A more recent review by the AVMA lists the benefits and limitations of various types of sow housing methods.

"If we were to stack up all the papers written about sow housing, you'd have one pile that was three feet high that says gestation stalls are OK, and you'd have another equally as high that would say there's big problems with gestation stalls," said Dr. Thomas Parsons, director of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine's Swine Teaching and Research Center. "One of the challenges we face is we don't have an accepted single measure of animal welfare. There's many different competing agendas."

While the science may be inconclusive, it's important to understand the controversy surrounding gestation crates actually has nothing to do with science and everything to do with public perception.

Emotional reaction

For years, the Humane Society of the United States has been using its own undercover video to help publicize the issue of gestation crates. With the help of dramatic music and bloody scenes from inside a Smithfield Foods sow farm, its online public relations campaign went viral and hit a nerve with consumers.

Images of sows locked in small spaces where they cannot physically turn around tends to trigger a strong response. 

Just ask the Golden family.

They viewed some of WTHR's sow farm video – unedited video with no music, bloody images or graphic effects added – after they finished breakfast.

"It's just not what we're used to seeing in animals," said Matt.

"Yeah, I want the pigs to at least get some exercise," agreed Jack.

"It's like these pigs didn't have a happy life from the beginning to the end. It's kind of sad," agreed 12-year-old Madison, wincing as she watched the video.

Sad customers are not good for business. That's why dozens of the nation's largest grocery stores, restaurants and pork processing companies are now sending a loud message to the pork industry: Stop using gestation crates.

More than 60 companies including McDonald's, Burger King, Oscar Mayer, Costco and Kroger have promised to eliminate gestation crates from their pork supply chain within the next several years. They are joining Whole Foods Market and Chipotle, which have long stopped accepting pork from producers who use gestation crates.

Earlier this year, Chipotle Mexican Grill removed pork from its restaurant menus nationwide after discovering some of its suppliers were not meeting its animal welfare standards, which include not using gestation crates. Finding a suitable supply of gestation-crate-free pork is a challenge for some restaurants because most of the nation's sows are still raised in individual stalls.

Local impact


"If I could, I'd much rather pay more and find animals that are not raised in gestation crates, but there's just not enough supply to meet our demand," said Chris Eley, owner of Indianapolis-based Smoking Goose, known for its locally-cured high-end bacon, ham and other pork products.  Eley purchases up to 13,000 pounds of whole pigs weekly, and an additional 4,000 pounds of pork belly for bacon. He sources his hogs from smaller, family-owned Indiana farms including some that raise pastured pigs outdoors and others that rely on pigs bred indoors from sows in gestation crates.

"I feel like there's no better way than raising them outdoors -- in a best case scenario. If you look at how animals are raised in gestation crates, there's just something not right about it. That doesn't look like how an animal should be raised," Eley said. "But not everyone has 200 acres to raise sows, so we look for antibiotic free pork with no growth hormones, and we stay away from large industrial farms. We look for farmers who are trying to do better, trying to improve their farming practices and trying to treat animals better."

There is still a small number of Indiana farms that raise their pigs on pasture.

Gunthorp Farms in northeast Indiana has developed a niche market throughout the Midwest, selling its gestation-crate-free pigs to high-end restaurants in Indianapolis, Detroit and Chicago. Smaller farms also offer pasture-raised pork at local farmers markets, usually at a much higher price than you'll find at a local supermarket.

Farms such as Tyner Pond Farm in Greenfield pride themselves on raising their pigs without gestation crates. "Our pigs … are locally raised on pasture and are free to roam," explained the farm's marketing director Kelly Karrmann. "We like to say 'They only have one bad day.'"

But how to achieve the same degree of freedom – while also achieving a high level of efficiency and animal safety – becomes much more challenging on larger farms.

"A lot of people like the idea of getting pork raised outdoors and that's very [Norman] Rockwell-ish," said Dave Fischer, owner of Fischer Farms Natural Foods in Jasper. "Everyone can say you oughta let those pigs turn around, but when you ask ‘How do you do that?' I can't find a good answer to it."

Fischer, a well-known producer of beef and pork, markets about 5000 hogs per year. He buys them from a nearby farm that farrows the pigs, then markets them under his Fischer Farms label. The longtime farmer told WTHR he resents organizations like the Humane Society of the United States that insinuate farmers who use gestation crates don't care about their animals.

"When you look at the animals, it doesn't look like a terrible place to be. Yes, they cannot turn around. But we haven't been able to figure out a good solution to that," said Fischer. "I have two or three customers in the last year ask me about it, and I tell them we think it's in the best interest of the hog to have them treated like they are now and to have the protection of a gestation stall. Every one of the customers seemed to understand that. We feel it's the best approach."

Other farmers say convincing customers about the virtues of a gestation stall is becoming increasingly difficult.

"For someone who's never been in agriculture, they would probably be shocked to come in and see this. The fact that the animals can't turn around is a very important thing for people," said John Hoek, Belstra Milling's vice president of pig production. "I think sometimes agriculture makes the assumption that everybody ought to just understand this, but I'm not sure how I would convince somebody whose never seen this before that this is acceptable, and that is the conundrum we're in. We have 80% of sows in this type of housing. Is it inhumane? We don't think so. Is it socially acceptable? It appears that is changing."

It is changing.

Gestation crates banned

Nine states – including neighboring Ohio and Michigan – have now banned gestation crates, requiring they be phased out on pig farms. Most European countries have done the same.

Will Indiana, the fifth largest state for pork production in the United States, pass such a law? Probably not.

The state's House and Senate agriculture committees are loaded with farmers (including some current and former hogs farmers), and they've been considering several resolutions during the current legislative session that would instantly kill any effort to restrict the use of gestation crates on Indiana farms.

Hog farmer Bill Friend (R – Macy) is majority floor leader of the Indiana House of Representatives, and he also sits on the House Agriculture and Rural Development Committee. He is skeptical of efforts to ban gestation stalls through legislation.

"I would be very hesitant to jump on that bandwagon," said the lawmaker, who owns Friend Farms and Green Acre Ham in northern Indiana.

Friend said he purchases pigs from North Carolina, then uses his contract feeding farm to feed and grow the hogs in gated pens before they are sent for slaughter. He does not breed pigs on site. "I've never used gestation stalls and I'm not that familiar with them," Friend told WTHR. "I can tell you there is no profit in cruelty to animals. Farmers are in business to make a profit. Farmers would never install equipment intended to harm their animals."

Intent – like science – has little impact on the growing debate over gestation stalls. The issue is driven by perception. With consumers and corporations now paying more attention to animal welfare, it is customer pressure – not legislative mandate – that is triggering the most dramatic change in the industry.

Some producers are now looking for alternatives to gestation crates.

"We think this is the direction the customer is demanding," said Hoek. "We are listening to our customers, and if there is a better way, we sure are exploring it."

A dramatic shift

Belstra Milling and other producers believe they may have found a legitimate alternative developed by Dr. Parsons at his Swine Teaching and Research Center outside of Philadelphia.

That's where the veterinarian developed an open pen system for sows that uses no gestation stalls.

"Here animals do not have their movement restricted, so they can come and go as they want and they choose where they're going to sleep," said Parsons, as he guided WTHR on a tour of his swine research lab.

The PennVet farm is home to 200 sows, which have freedom to move within large gated pens. Roughly 80 sows share each space, and there is a separate area for sows to farrow their piglets. (Those sows are placed in a more restrictive farrowing stall to give birth and to protect the piglets during their first week of life.)

The pigs still get food individually from an electronic feeding system.  The system recognizes each individual sow through an ID chip placed in her ear. When a pig enters the electronic feeder, a computer reads the ID tag and knows just how much food to give each pig.

"We're basically trying to get the right amount of feed to the right sow at the right time," Parsons explained. "We feel it's as good as or a better way to feed sows compared to a gestation stall."

He says the system is viable for large farms and, so far, about 60 hog farms in the United States are using the PennVet open pen system, including one Belstra Milling's largest sow farms in Indiana.

"Concrete pasture"

Legacy Farm near the town of Fair Oaks is the first Indiana farm to fully utilize the PennVet system. Belstra Milling opened the farm in 2013, and it now has 2,500 sows living there in open pens.

"We like to call it our concrete pasture," said Hoek, walking among pigs at Legacy Farm. He said his company recognizes support for gestation crates is dwindling – one of the reasons the new farm was equipped with open pens. "Farmers are listening. We are ready to change," Hoek said.

The changes do not come easily for an industry that is built upon small steel cages.

Transitioning away from gestation crates has a steep learning curve for farmers who are used to housing animals in individual stalls. Remember, gestation crates provide sows with built-in protection from more aggressive pigs on the farm. Legacy Farm sows do not enjoy that same protection. During a recent visit, 13 Investigates witnessed multiple fights between the animals, resulting in several bloody animals.

"We do like giving the animals more movement, but injury on this farm is problematic," Hoek said, pointing to two sows fighting for position to enter an electronic feeding machine. "This farm has a 2 to 3 percent higher mortality rate than a stall barn and almost double an injury rate for human beings, the workers here. That's a concern for us. And while mortality rates are up, so far our fertility rates are slightly lower."

Overall production at the farm is still high – about 80,000 piglets born annually, which is comparable to Belstra facilities that use gestation crates. But Hoek worries that farms will be forced to make a transition away from gestation crates before they are ready.

"If you mandate it too quickly, productivity will go down, the price of pork will go up and animal welfare will not improve. That's the biggest crime, if we do something to make ourselves feel better if it's actually worse for the animals."

Parsons agrees, and he is quick to point out that even the system he has helped develop has shortcomings.

"There is no single sow housing system available today that actually meets all of the welfare needs of a sow," Parsons said. "Just simply moving a sow out of gestation stall does not mean it will improve her welfare."

Josh Trenary, executive director of the Indiana Pork Producers Association, believes pork producers should be allowed to choose the housing system that works best for their farms.

"Our concern is less with the specific production method and more making sure that each animal is properly cared for," Trenary told WTHR. "A humanely raised animal is the best scenario for our industry."

Cost of change

The cost of retrofitting an existing facility with gestation crates to an open pen farm is too cost-prohibitive for most farmers. Building a new farm with an open pen system can cost up to 30-40% higher than building a similar farm with gestation stalls, according to Hoek. He says farmers are currently paying the higher cost of producing pigs in gestation-crate-free environments.

"It doesn't bring a higher price and the pork processor, at this point, isn't willing to pay extra for the pigs," he said. "Simple economics says the price model will have to adjust to compensate as we have seen with higher corn prices."

How high will the cost of commercially-raised pork rise to accommodate consumer preference for raising pigs without gestation crates?

It's too soon to tell. But with higher costs for farms (additional square footage, additional labor and electronic feeding machines) and the potential for lower rates of sow fertility and survival, a switch to more open housing will likely mean at least a minimal price increase at the grocery store due to a smaller supply of animals from large commercial producers.  

In the meantime, Belstra Milling is spending millions not only to explore open pen housing, but also to give the public an inside look at pork production.

It built Legacy Farm as the centerpiece of what's called The Pig Adventure at Fair Oaks Farms. The sprawling facility located 100 miles northwest of Indianapolis allows the public to see its massive sow barns and farrowing operation in action. Unlike other farms that will not allow the public (or the media) to see their pork production practices, Belstra Milling has rolled out a welcome mat to allow consumers an up-close look at how pork is produced. The Pig Adventure includes a large education center and exhibits for paying visitors

"Some other producers don't like it and they think we're showing too much, but this is what we're about," Hoek said. "We want to show people what we do. We are proud of it and we're excited about it."

Asked what the public's perception would be if The Pig Adventure showcased a farm with gestation crates, the farmer paused and shook his head.

"The perception would be very different and we know that. The fact that an animal can't turn around is a very important thing for people," he said. "Hopefully, we're on the road to finding a better way."