Thursday, March 6, 2008

Pig Castration - Raising Pigs "Naturally"

Castrating animals is an unfortunate aspect of farming. Essentially, the problem is that intact male animals are harder to manage, interfere with running the females and don't taste as good.

Castration involves cutting the scrotum, popping the testes out and pulling them away until they rip out. Here's a nice guide for pigs.

Castrating pigs is a big deal. It helps to consider what intact male pigs (boars) can do:
  • Compulsively mount other animals.
  • Impregnate females.
  • Fight other males for dominance, leading to injuries.
  • Damage fences to get to females
  • Attack humans more often than barrows.
  • Produce meat that stinks when cooked.
Those are all serious problems. While they are alive, boars complicate things. Once they are dead, their meat can stink to the point of being unusable.

Hence almost all male animals get castrated. If only we could engineer pigs that wouldn't have so many male offspring; we'd eliminate castration as a regular and necessary practice.

In Austria some Mangalitsa producers slaughter their male animals before they are too old and have had sex. The idea is that the animals provide usable meet if certain criteria are met - without requiring castration.

It is clear that castration is an unnatural mutilation - this sort of thing doesn't happen routinely in the wild. It is something that humans do to the animal, because we've decided that we don't like funky, fecal-smelling meat as much as meat that doesn't smell that way.

Whenever I think about castration, I wonder what people are thinking when they invent certifications like, "Certified Naturally Grown". How do you naturally castrate a piglet? It is a fundamentally unnatural process - we humans have decided to unnaturally neuter pigs, so we do it.

In general, I have a problem with terms like "naturally grown", because raising crops or livestock is fundamentally unnatural.[1] Just look at the definition of "naturally" - farming is inherently unnatural, as it involves humans bending nature to our will.

Whether it is pest mitigation, castrating pigs, or simply feeding animals (instead of having them fend for themselves), farming is unnatural. Giving pigs, who are cannibals and scavengers, a vegetarian diet is unnatural - as they eat dead stuff in the wild.

If I were to try to imagine the most "natural" hog farm, it would be something like a game preserve - as that would duplicate nature as much as possible. Yet even that would be unrealistic: if the hogs aren't there, how natural is it to dump a bunch of them in some fenced in area?

One might use terms like "non-chemical" or "non-manmade-chemical" to describe certain foods that people think of as "natural" - but such specific terms aren't anywhere as sentimental or marketable as "natural". In general, when I see terms like "certified naturally grown" or "organic", I figure it has some specific meaning, perhaps even a legal meaning - but it probably doesn't mean what I think it means.

My rule for dealing with what to eat is natural (and it is similar to the way pigs behave): ignore the labels, certifications and other unimportant details. If something smells and tastes good, eat it. If it doesn't, don't eat it.

[1] I have a similar problem with the term Certified Humane, Raised and Handled - the certification allows things that probably aren't humane - but are convenient for humans.


Jason DeFontes said...

Here's a video of Dan Barber from Blue Hill at Stone Barns talking about the same issue.

Mark said...

It is interesting when someone lamblasts something like this. It makes me wonder...... perhaps they cant or dont qualify and are pissed so they're putting down certified naturally grown humane etc. Sour grapes.

Heath said...

Mark - We can't qualify as certified humane raised and handled because of how we farrow the pigs. We can't castrate within the first week as "Certified Humane Raised and Handled" requires.

If a guy like Emile - another guy who farrows outside - can't be "Certified Humane Raised and Handled", there's something wrong with the standard.

Also, I'm a philosophical person who focuses on the meaning of words. If you tell me that your food is more "natural" than something else, I'm going to wonder how natural it really is - because nearly everything that humans do - especially food production - is obviously unnatural. It has to be, or it wouldn't be economic.

If you want "natural", go be a hunter and gatherer.

Anonymous said...

"Certified Humane" doesn't mean that all inhumane practices are prohibited, just that many of them are. It should be called "Certified Less Cruel". However, short of going vegetarian -- obviously the most humane choice -- humane certified products are far more ethical choices than regular factory farmed meat which is just unconscionable. The "if it tastes good, eat it" philosophy basically says that ethics don't matter, torture the animals if you want. That is just plain wrong.

Heath said...

The fact that you say that "Certified Humane Raised and Handled" should really be called "Certified Less Cruel" is important - and gets to the heart of the issue.

If you call things "natural", "humane", "organic" or "less cruel", there's the problem that people assume it means something that it doesn't.

E.g. if I heard "naturally raised", I'm thinking "wild game park".

I would prefer if we just had standards for husbandry with less loaded names. E.g. I'd buy meat from animals raised to ANSI Welfare Standard 32, while you might prefer ANSI Welfare Standard 44.

You say that vegetarianism is obviously the least cruel choice. I don't think that's at all obvious. Did you ever hear of Stephen Davis's "Least Harm"? I'm not saying I think he's correct - but that the issue isn't clear. Vegetarianism kills too.

In any case, my understanding is that "Certified Humane Raised and Handled" is meant to improve the image of aniamls farmed in confinement. That standard allows tail-docking for pigs, for goodness sake.

Pigs in tight confinement need their tails docked. If "Certified Humane Raised and Handled" isn't for confinement operations, why do their standards allow tail-docking?

Also, the rule on not feeding by-products to pigs is cruel. Just as you like meat, pigs like it too, if not more. The standards that ban pigs eating meat are just made to please consumers who don't know what pigs are really like.

It may be that good-tasting animals live worse lives than ones that taste less good. But when it comes to pork, the ones that taste good have often been treated better.

Hence, my point in emphasizing the taste is that one's tongue can tell one something that an organic or "certified humane raised and handled" label doesn't.

You should try to be realistic about the fraud issue too - producers break the rules all the time, especially when there's an economic incentive to do it. Just because it says it is organic doesn't mean they did everything they were supposed to do.

Gatts said...

I applaud your efforts in raising your pigs "more naturally" than the agro-industrial sector - it is far better in several ways (moral, environmental, taste) than the way the majority of pigs are raised today in America. There are some parts of your post that I find troubling, however.

Your post sounds like a rationalization for castrating boars. Obviously you are troubled by it because you'd rather not do it - but you still do it anyways because they present a problem to be solved. You could handle boars the way that some producers do - slaughter them before they require castration - but you fail to mention why you don't do it that way. (The reason is most likely economic, but I'm simply hypothesizing.)

I don't raise pigs so forgive me if I sound overly simplistic, but if you want to avoid the problem of naturally castrating a pig, avoid castration altogether. Perhaps you can figure out a way to manage boars that is still within certain principles and doesn't require castration.

Just look at the definition of "naturally" - farming is inherently unnatural, as it involves humans bending nature to our will.

Farming is not inherently unnatural. In this case of "natural" I mean "nature," as in the "inherent character or basic constitution of a person or thing." Say an animal eats the fruit of a plant, and the seeds pass through its digestive tract. The animal steps on the seeds after crapping, which plants it into the ground, and the seeds grows into another fruit-bearing plant.

This process is virtually no different than if I take the seed from a plant and grow it. The only difference is that I had the intent of growing another fruit plant, and I had a pretty good idea of what the outcome would be - farming, in a nutshell. This process is natural - the seeds grow and become a plant - that is in its nature. I am a reasoning being who needs to eat so I farm this plant - I am doing what is in my nature. There is no "bending of nature" to my will - I just happen to eat the fruits of the plant.

Anyways, by my argument against your own, I am actually supporting one of your points: that certain words are semantically difficult to pin down and can be interpreted any number of ways by people.

My rule for dealing with what to eat is natural (and it is similar to the way pigs behave): ignore the labels, certifications and other unimportant details. If something smells and tastes good, eat it. If it doesn't, don't eat it.

Beh. There a lot more details that I would like to know about my food - like how it was produced, was it treated humanely, etc. Taste is not the deciding factor for me and can be overruled by how it was produced. As Samuel L. Jackson might say, your pork may taste like pumpkin pie, but I wouldn't eat it if it wasn't raised the way pigs should be raised.

Heath said...

Gatts - Indeed, we castrate boars for economic reasons. That's the same reason we breed, fatten and slaughter pigs - to make money.

It isn't economic for Wooly Pigs to sell young pigs - the overhead (slaughter and transportation) is essentially the same as for a big pig, so we aren't competitive. Given how we are attempting to position ourselves, it isn't economic for us to take the risk of selling meat with boar taint to any customers. Hence, we err on the side of castration.

If people would pay enough for young boars, we'd sell them intact. It would in fact save us a lot of labor and hence money.

Farming - as it is practiced - is inherently unnatural. Monocropping, pest removal, plant breeding - that's all humans bending nature to their will. It is a lot different than humans planting some seeds with the intent of harvesting something later.

Livestock raising is even more unnatural: castration, stealing calves from their mothers so that we can get milk, weaning animals the way we do - that's all humans bending nature to their will.

The reason why I propose the taste heuristic (eat what tastes good) for consumers is that that's probably the best they can do if they don't visit the farm that produces their meat.

In the best case, people would at least go visit the farm where their meat comes from and see it up close. Barring that, the taste test is about as good as they can do.

That shouldn't surprise anyone - the sense of smell has evolved over millions of years to tell people what and what not to eat. I trust my nose a lot better than I do a certification.

Anonymous said...

Been raising pigs for years without castration or taint- not neccesary.
I am human all I can perceive of or perform can not arise but from nature.
The misconception stems from the belief that what is good is natural and visa versa this perception changes rapidly depending on circumstances while nature is always indiferrent

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