Here I share my experience on a sow pig farm. Pin it for later here.
Recently I was invited out on a pig farm tour with the National Pork Board. With our modernized society, it’s easy to be disconnected with how food is produced and where it comes from (this clip from Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution is eye opening). I take every opportunity to visit farms because I feel that part of my responsibility as a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist is to be a bridge between agriculture and the consumer.
Disclosures: My trip expenses were covered by the National Pork Board. I was not asked to write this blog post and was not paid to be there.
My Experience on a Sow Pig Farm
Before this trip, I honestly knew very little about pig farming. I’ve met lots of great farmers in the past who deeply care for their land and livestock, which gave me confidence this would be the same. Farming is not an easy trade (think no holidays, no vacations, physically laborious, not off at 5 pm), so nearly all who farm love their craft.
Smithfield Sow Farm
We visited a Smithfield sow farm in Garland, North Carolina. A sow farm is where the ladies and babies are (a sow is a female pig). This farm in particular is huge, with about 8,000 sow. Although 97% of farms in the US are family owned, this farm is commercially owned. It didn’t feel like it, though. Some people refer to this type of farm as a “factory farm,” but just like other farms I’ve been to it was attentive, hardworking people taking care of their livestock. One of the other farmers with us has a family-owned sow farm and said hers is essentially the same in operation and layout, just smaller in scale.
Shower In, Shower Out & Biosecurity
You must literally shower in and shower out upon entering and exiting the farm. To enter the farm you shower on-site (hair included) and put on fresh farm-designated clothes. The entering, human side of the farm is called the “dirty” side, and the pig side of the farm is called the “clean” side. Nothing from the dirty side can enter the clean side without being properly washed or sanitized first. Even new farming equipment requires sanitization of the wheels before entering. Likewise, upon leaving the farm you have to shower on-site again before putting back on your street clothes. I was surprised at the cleanliness of the grounds. Biosecurity is taken very seriously; showering in and showering out keeps the pigs and humans healthy.
We started our tour in the farrowing room, where the pregnant mamas give birth. I actually saw a sow plop a piglet out! As an added biosecurity measure, you must dip your boots in a solution upon entering and exiting the farrowing room (just how we have extra sanitization measures for new babies). Each sow and her piglets are in a sizable pen together. Finger-like bars keep the mama from stepping or rolling over her piglets, one of the greatest causes of piglet death, but allows them to easily nurse. A heating pad also draws the piglets away a safe distance because they like to be warm.
In some pens, farm workers keep larger piglets away in a crated area within the pen for a short period while the runts have a fair shot at nursing. If a mama has more piglets than she has nipples, some piglets may nurse on another mama if they both accept it (some are clingy and won’t move!). The piglets and mamas stay together for three to four weeks and nurse. In their natural environment, piglets would nurse up to five or six weeks.
After weaning, the piglets move farms to a nursery or wean to finish farm and the sows stay on the sow farm.
Next we visited the gestation barn. In there are the gilts (new female pigs that have never been bred) and the sows who recently had babies. The gilts come from other farms. The gilts and sows are kept in individual pens where they are monitored closely. This allows farm workers to easily assess each pig, adjust how much feed she receives and keep her safe during the first part of pregnancy.
The farm workers identify which pigs are ready for breeding by walking a boar up and down the aisles. The females in heat (heat is when they are physiologically interested in breeding) become excited when they smell the boar’s pheromones. In their natural environment and on the farm, most sows go into heat three to four days after weaning. On average, a sow has 2.4 pregnancies per year, and she is bred for about three years.
Two ultrasounds verify a female is pregnant. Afterwards she moves to group pen housing.
Group Pen Housing
In group pen housing, between 6 and 8 pregnant sows of similar size are grouped together in a large pen. The industry moved to group pen housing recently because of consumer pressure, but it isn’t necessarily better than individual pens. Interestingly, on one sow farm in Utah that has group pen housing and individual cells within the group pen if the sows choose to separate themselves, the sows stay in their individual cells over 90% of the time. In group pen housing, the pigs tend to lay right next to each other, especially when they want to warm up. Two veterinarians on staff explained there haven’t been any notable differences in animal health or welfare in group pen housing versus individual pens.
Hormones & Antibiotics in Pigs
Growth hormones are not allowed to be used in pigs. You might be paying more for pork labeled “No hormones added,” but it’s just a marketing ploy. Federal regulations don’t permit their use in pork or poultry.
Antibiotics may be used as prescribed by a veterinarian. Primarily, antibiotics are used to treat sick animals. Treating sick animals creates a more sustainable, animal welfare-centric industry because the alternative is discarding the animal or letting the animal suffer. Antibiotics may be used preventatively as well, but regulations have tightened on prophylactic use to reduce risks of antibiotic resistance. My hope is the industry is able to move away from prophylactic use of antibiotics in all market animals. Regardless, farms must follow a strict withdrawal period before any animal can go to market. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) collects random samples to check for antibiotic residues. Any violations result in serious consequences and are detrimental to farmers (they swallow the cost of lost product and could get shut down). Bottom line: there are not antibiotics in your meat and farmers are highly incentivized to keep a healthy herd free of antibiotic residues.
Wrap Up of the Smithfield Sow Farm Tour
I had a positive experience on the Smithfield sow farm. I was glad to see strict biosecurity to keep both the pigs and humans healthy. The farm workers there are very attentive to detail and each pig’s health is charted on daily. The pigs were curious, lazy and comfortable. I appreciated the opportunity to see how pork is produced.
Have you ever been on a pig farm?
What questions do you have about pig farming?
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