Thursday, January 25, 2007

Smithfield getting rid of gestation crates

Smithfield Foods, the LARGEST hog producer in the nation, announced today that it would be phasing out gestation crates for its sows in favor of "group housing" over the next 10 years. Although not specified in the press release, it will surely please animal welfare groups.

For those unfamiliar with gestation crates, let me paint a picture: Picture a sow in a steel bar crate with 3" of room on each side and about 9-12" from front to back to move. The animal can't turn around - she's always facing the same direction, with her feed and water at her face. She can lay down and get up, but not move more than a few steps at a time.

Why are/were gestation crates used? Pregnant sows get nippy with each other at times, and the idea behind the crates is to protect them from each other, as well as maximize space inside the building to stuff the most # of sows into.

When we raised pigs, gestating sows were always group housed. It just made sense. Sure, you might have a sow that would get picked on more than others, and we'd have to separate her off. That's a little thing called "animal husbandry" that farmers used (and sometimes still do) practice.

I'm not a big fan of gestation crates, nor of large scale confinement operations. Yes, the economies of scale supposedly dictate today that confinements should reign, but they have their issues.

It will be interesting to see how Smithfield phases in and gets along with group housing. I'm thinking they'll make it work one way or another. Taking 10 years to do this, however, is somewhat slow; it could be done in 2-3 years easily. They're just giving themselves a long time to do what was right all along.

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