Thursday, April 10, 2014

Sweatin' like a Pig

Spring has finally sprung after a long, cold winter and warm weather will soon be here to stay.  Seems like a good time to talk about how we keep our pigs cool inside of climate controlled barns.

Most of us have heard and/or used the term "sweatin' like a pig".  As a matter of fact, pigs actually have very few sweat glands and can't use this mechanism to regulate their body temperature.  As a result, they are very sensitive to hot summer temperatures.  For this reason, we raise pigs in climate controlled barns that are automatically regulated to maintain the environment at a temperature at which pigs will thrive.  Pigs outdoors are also susceptible to sunburn and must cover themselves in mud to try to regulate their body temperature.

To keep our pigs comfortable, we use mechanical ventilation systems that, basically, are composed of the following:

On one end of the barn, fans are located that will come on in stages as the temperature rises.  When it is cool, only one fan will be on but as it heats up outside, other fans turn on until air flow through the barn is at maximum.

In this picture, three fans are running, while three remain off

In order to allow air into the barn, the fans are coordinated with a movable curtain on the other end:

As more fans turn on, the curtain lowers to allow more air flow.  The air coming into the barn will flow over the pigs removing heat produced by the animals and carry it out of the barn.

In addition to controlling air flow, most barns are equipped with sprinklers that will mist the pigs at timed intervals.  As the water dries off of the pigs, they will be cooled; similar to the principle of sweating.

All of these processes are regulated by electronic controllers that are connected to temperature probes in the barn.  To ensure that the environment is always appropriately controlled, barns are equipped with an alarm system that will call the  farmer if some component of the ventilation system isn't working properly.

When outside temperatures are cold, fans run on minimum so that pigs are not drafted by cold air and heaters, also controlled by the ventilation system, will be turned on to ensure that the barn stays warm.

Keeping pigs comfortable is our responsibility and a critical part of providing good animal care.

Happy Spring!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Home for Mothers

I realize that I have again skipped a step in the process talking about how we breed sows.  I had a discussion today that led me to go ahead and post about how we house sows once they are pregnant.

Pregnant sow housing has become a huge issue in today's world, mainly due to the efforts of HSUS and other animal rights groups.  Because of these efforts, pork producers are being forced to change the way that they house sows through individual state laws and by demands from food retailers.  This is being done even though many pig farmers and veterinarians agree that there are many humane options for sow housing and what is being mandated may not always be in the interest of the animals under our care.

A few years ago, I took the Veterinarian's Oath stating that I would relieve animal suffering and protect animal resources.  In the systems that I have worked with, one of my primary responsibilities is to be an advocate for the animals and always support practices that promote animal well-being.

Before I get into sow housing, I want to share a quote from W.D. Hoard.  Although he was a dairy farmer and wrote this quote in terms of cows, I find it to be a guiding principle that we also follow when raising pigs.  He said, "The rule to be observed in this stable at all times, toward the cattle (pigs), young and old, is that of patience and kindness.  A man's usefulness in a herd ceases at once when he loses his temper and bestows rough usage.  Men must be patient.  Cattle (pigs) are not reasoning beings.  Remember that this is a Home of Mothers.  Treat each cow (sow) as a mother should be treated.  The giving of milk is a function of motherhood; rough treatment lessens the flow.  That injures me as well as the cow (sow).  Always keep these ideas in mind when dealing with my cattle (pigs)."

The gestation period of a sow is roughly 114 days.  To easily remember in case it comes up at a bar trivia contest, this comes out to 3 months, 3 weeks, and 3 days.  During this period, approximately 12-15 pigs are growing inside of the sow and she has nutritional requirements to allow for pig development as well as her own maintenance needs.  In order to maintain her pregnancy, she must live in a calm, stress free environment.  For many years, pig farmers have utilized the gestation stall or individual maternity pen to meet these needs of the individual sows.  In addition, sows in modern farms are raised indoors to protect them from weather extremes.  Gestation barns are maintained between 65 and 70 degrees year round which is very comfortable for sows.  The video below from a pig farmer in Missouri gives a good overview and a look inside of a gestation barn that utilizes individual sow housing:

There are a lot of people who are opposed to this type of sow housing saying that it is inhumane and that sows suffer in this type of system.  I have worked with many pig farmers and have observed several thousand sows housed in stalls and I am confident that this type of housing supports animal well-being.  If you were to walk through one of these barns, you will see that the majority of the time, sows are lying down asleep.  This is very typical behavior for pregnant sows, regardless of housing type as long as their needs are being met (the same behavior is seen even in sows outdoors if their nutritional requirements are adequate).  Sows do know when it is time to eat and when that time is near, they will stand and vocalize.  After getting a full belly, they calm back down and rest comfortably the rest of the day.  Many of the videos circulating today show sows just prior to feeding time and impart the idea that sows are "going insane" all day long.  A major benefit to individual stalls is that sows are protected from aggression of other sows.  Sows can be very territorial and will fight to establish a hierarchy leading to injuries.  Individual housing eliminates fighting improving animal well being.

Today, however, pig farmers are being mandated to convert farms to group housing for pregnant animals.  There are several different configurations of group housing including; small pens, large pens, static pens, dynamic pens, and electronic sow feeding systems.  Some farmers prefer these systems and they do have merit but come along with significant challenges.  Most notably, these systems allow sows to interact with one another which leads to the fighting mentioned previously.  Although the fighting will stop once a hierarchy is established, the result is often higher incidence of lameness, injury, and sometimes mortality.  An important point to make is that even though sows have more room to walk around, they usually prefer to lie touching each other similar to the way that they lie in individual stalls.                                                                          
I want to be clear that I am not bashing one type of housing system over the other and many pig farmers utilize both types of housing systems on their farms.  I am a believer that farmers should have the ability to choose which system they feel is best for their animals.

I would also like to point out that sows have become even more productive in modern housing systems than they were 50 years ago when they were outdoors. We actually produce approximately 29% more pigs today with 39% fewer sows that we had 50 years ago.  Since reproduction is a luxury for animals, increased production means that the needs of our sows are being met and stress has been reduced to point which allows them to reproduce at their maximum potential.  I think that the productive capacity of a sow is directly tied to her state of well-being.

As a final note, with any system, the degree of animal well-being is directly related to the quality of care given by the caretakers.  Overall, pig farmers utilize educated, highly specialized labor to provide the best care possible for their animals.  In addition, there are numerous training programs utilized by farmers including Pork Quality Assurance which teach the best methods of animal care.  One of the things that I do on a daily basis is work with caretakers and I am continually amazed at the degree of concern that they have for animals and the respect of the responsibility that they have to ensure animal well being.

To summarize, individual sow housing is not inherently inhumane and is a system which meets the needs of the animals in our care.  Farmers and veterinarians should be allowed to choose the housing system that they feel best meets the needs of their animals and not be forced to choose a system that can sometimes be adverse to animal well-being.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

You feed all them pigs them Hormones?

I  must start out with two apologies:

1) Please disregard the egregious grammatical error in the title of this post.
2) I should be talking about making baby pigs but I had a burning topic to discuss first.

Late the other night, I had stopped in a small town to fuel up.  A random man walking through the parking lot saw our company logo on my truck, walked over and asked what we did.  After I replied that we raised pigs, he asked, "You feed all them pigs them hormones and stuff?".  I actually get this type of question quite often. Usually, however, the person asking will listen to my response.  This particular guy decided to cut me off mid-sentence and began talking about something unrelated.  I just pumped my gas and he walked away.  I know this story was a bit anticlimactic but illustrates a point- many people think that we "pump our pigs full  of hormones".

Well folks, if you are one of the people that think this, I'm here to make your day.  We DO NOT feed or inject our growing pigs with hormones.  In fact, I can say that about all pork products could carry the label "no hormones added- ever".

I understand that you may be skeptical because, when you are perusing the meat aisle, you may come across a package that looks something like this:

If you happen to notice there are two asterisks by the hormone free label.  If we take a closer look we find this statement:

Always be sure to read the fine print.  By federal law, hormones cannot be used for raising pigs.  You can check out the USDA FSIS food labeling requirements here.  In fact, there are no hormone products available for feeding to pigs raised for pork.

In the interest of full disclosure, there are a few hormone products that are occasionally prescribed for reproductive therapy in sows. For example, oxytocin (same as pitocin used in humans) can be used if a sow needs assistance farrowing.  These products are only used as needed and a withdrawal time is observed before an animal that received that product can enter the food chain.  This withdrawal time allows the product to be completely excreted from the animal's body so that there is no risk to food safety.

I know that this may seem confusing but unfortunately this hormone myth has been propagated as a marketing tool and as a way to further vilify the modern pork production system.  Pigs do grow faster than they did 50 years ago but that is a direct result of genetic improvement through selective breeding and excellent nutrition (more on these topics later).  I love to eat pork and am confident that the products I buy are produced in a safe, conscientious manner regardless of the what the label says.

Since we are all clear on the hormone situation, you may be wondering about antibiotics.  Again, that is a topic that is horrendously misconstrued.  We'll talk about the facts on that in a later post.  Stay thirsty (for knowledge) my friends.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Where do babies come from? (Part 1)

Don't worry, we're still talking about pigs.  Save the awkward conversation with your kids for later...

Sow farms are the starting point for all pigs that will go to other farms to complete their growth cycle. There are three primary activities that happen on the sow farm:

1) Breeding
2) Gestation
3) Farrowing

Excuse me for going out of order but I want to talk farrowing first.  Farrowing is probably a new term to some of you reading this.  It is just the term that pig producers use to refer to the birthing process.

If you haven't seen a sow farrow, it goes something like this (I'm not much a videographer and it takes a bit before the action happens- hang in there, it's worth it):

Sows will typically have between 10-15 pigs.  On average, most litters will have 12 pigs.  As you can see in this video, this sow has already had several pigs.  Pigs are very active soon as after birth and after a short, break, begin searching for a teat to begin nursing colostrum (the first milk that is essential for survival).

You may also notice the farrowing stall that the sow is in.  This is a specially designed pen which pig farmers utilize to protect the baby pigs from being laid on by the sow.  As you can see, the pig is much smaller than its mother and can easily be laid on if the sow were not in this special pen.  Pigs are also very sensitive to temperature which is why we utilize heat lamps and heat mats (the orange mat you see on the floor where pigs are nursing).  These tools allow the baby pigs to stay warm while keeping the room at a temperature that is comfortable for the sows.

When the pigs are born, they are wet and susceptible to chilling.  Because of this, sow farms have people working on them whose primary responsibility is monitoring sows that are farrowing so that they can dry the pigs with either towels or drying powder.  This also stimulates them to begin nursing.  Since pigs are being born 365 days a year, dedicated people are on the farm every day to ensure that the pigs and sows are receiving the best care possible.

Once the sow has finished farrowing and all of the pigs are warm and dry, the sow will feed the pigs approximately once an hour every hour.  Pigs are very interesting because, soon after birth, they will choose a teat to nurse and will go back to that particular teat each time they nurse.  In addition, the sow will actually call to her pigs with a series of grunts to let them know when it is time to begin nursing.

Getting pigs off to a good start from day one is one of the most important aspects of raising pigs.  In future posts, we'll take a look at what happens from this point on.  Keep your seat belt fastened, it's an exciting journey!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Factory Farms or Family Farms?

Before I get into the details of how we raise our pigs, I have to clear the air about a very common misconception:  Pigs today are raised on factory farms not family farms.

First of all, I dislike the term "factory farm".  This phrase has gained traction over the years, supported by people who oppose modern livestock production.  By using the phrase it implies that there is no longer a human/animal connection and that aspects of good animal husbandry and well-being have been abandoned.

To be fair, I understand that when you drive down the road and see a barn that looks like this:

Or see images like this:

It is easy to assume that the pigs in these barns are not well taken care of because most people are used to seeing pigs outdoors, wallowing in the mud.  It may also follow that there is no way these pigs can be raised by family farmers that care about their animals.

As a matter of fact, the majority of pig farms in the United States are owned and operated by families.  Many of these farms have been in families for multiple generations.  

In future posts, I'll  provide my experiences of why and how we raise pigs indoors.  Until then, I encourage you to learn more about how family farmers are providing the best care for their pigs in modern production systems in the following videos:

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

You're a what?

That's the usual response I get when I tell people I'm a pig vet.  I'll admit, I had never heard of a pig vet myself until a fortunate series of events led to meeting a few of these said vets and changed my career aspirations.

After an awkward introduction, the conversation with a new acquaintance usually goes something like this:  "Ew.  Pigs stink" or "Pigs are cute.  When they're little." or "I think I'd stop eating pork if I worked with pigs." or "I like pigs but I don't like the way they are treated" or "I love Bacon."

These responses always intrigue me and make me realize that we, as pig producers, don't do a good job of telling our story.  I understand the misconceptions that people have as we live in a society where food is plentiful, always available at the grocery store, and most people are far removed from the farm.  Through this blog I hope to showcase the world that I live in, the pigs that I work with, and the great people that make it all possible.

In a world of Facebook, Twitter, and 24 hour news; the facts about most anything can get misconstrued.  This is very much the case when it comes to pig production.  Most information that people hear or see paints a very ugly picture of what we do.  I am proud of agriculture and think it is a very admirable profession.  I hope to help others see the true picture of what we do and as a result feel good about putting pork on your plate.

Now, back to a little bit about what I do.  Like my colleagues who work with companion animals, my primary concern is keeping animals healthy and ensuring their quality of life.  Unlike some other vets, I don't have a clinic- I go to the pigs.  I make sure pigs are healthy and intervene with appropriate therapy when they are not.  I am also responsible for helping train care givers to ensure that our pigs always have the highest degree of well being possible.

Thanks for your interest in my blog!  Be sure to enter your email address in the "follow by email" field on the right to receive email updates when new blogs are posted.  Feel free to comment below and suggest any topics that you'd like me to cover in future posts.