Monday, July 13, 2009

Certified Humane Farming, Dead Piglets

I've come to the conclusion that a lot of what people think of as "humane" for pigs is directly responsible for unnecessary death and injury. As someone who really like pigs, I'm troubled by this.

It isn't surprising that most people are completely out of touch with livestock production; almost nobody has direct experience with livestock production anymore.

I was looking around the internet for blogs that discuss this. I figured that others with pig production experience would have noticed that practices that non-pig-producers consider humane are actually harmful or lethal to pigs - and that some of them might have written about it.

I came across this thought-provoking post on the internet about pigs and what's humane. It includes a horrific (but realistic) description of bullying leading to a dead sow.

It is probably obvious that if you put a bunch of sows together, the big ones are going to bully the small ones. On Farm #1, we had a sow that ran around hassling the other sows in the pen, chasing them around and bothering them. She got pulled out for a while, and put back in a few weeks later. Then it was the other sows' turn. They chased and attacked her, ganging up on her, and would have probably killed her, because they weren't letting up. The herdsman intervened and moved her out.

It has made me think that people imagine that pigs all get along. They don't understand that being a pig is like being in junior high school all over again, except everybody has knives (in the form of sharp teeth).

In that post on pigs and what's humane, one guy mentions that gestation crates would be more humane. Perhaps it sounds nuts - because most people are so removed from these issues that they don't have a chance to understand it at all. This video on sow housing (a topic I posted about recently) provides a balanced look at the issue.

I'm hoping that one day we'll engineer sows that don't bully and fight each other. Of course, those wouldn't be "natural" sows; sows with those traits wouldn't do well in a natural, pig-eat-pig situation.

On the topic of rare breeds, humane husbandry and sow housing, I found this post about a farm where they raise old breeds, in a natural setting, according to "certified humane" protocols, where sows are allowed to crush nine out of ten of their endangered rare breed piglets:

The sows are good for 5-10 litters, until they get too big and accidentally start squishing (and killing) the piglets when they lay down. The dirty girl in the picture below is one such sow - she had her 10th litter about a week ago and squished all but one piglet. They'll let her hang in the mud for a few weeks (primarily to allow her hormone levels to drop) and then send her to slaughter.
A few thoughts:
  • At least the 9 piglets were killed "certified humanely".
  • Were I one of those 9 pigs, I'd rather be born on a modern farm with crates and a heat lamp - because it would lessen the odds of an early death.
  • Do they always castrate those pigs in the first week? It can be very hard to do in that sort of system - one the the reasons I really don't like the "ceritifed humane raised and handled" protocols.

It is clear to me: you either want to preserve a breed, or you want to run it according to "certified humane" protocols that lead to horrendous piglet mortality - but you probably can't do both at the same time. You certainly can't do both and make any money.

If you really want to preserve a breed, you'll be doing high tech things like embryo transfer. As unnatural as that is (as if we think that way when it is time to save a human life or treat a human illness), if that's what it takes to preserve something as tasty and endangered as Mangalitsa pigs, I'm for it.


Anonymous said...

It is obvious that you know very little about raising or handling pigs. I have been involved with raising pigs for 27 years in very large and mid size operations. Parity (that means farrowing #) does not directly correlate with crushed piglets, environment does. There is no substitute for a good herdsman, someone who REALLY understands the needs of his or her livestock. Second, you apparently havent processed many piglets or you would know that no matter the environment it is better and easier to castrate within the first week. Third, It often bothers me when people talk about "hormone levels" in pigs. Sow slaughter and hormones doesnt mean anything and I am assuming, again, that you might not understand what is happening biochemically in a pig. Just a thought or two, would be happy to discuss fact based production techniques and science with you. I hope this comment makes it through "blog author moderation", though I am not holding my breath.

Zachary Cohen said...

Hey thanks for the link and the compliment on the blog. I really appreciate and am seeing some nice traffic from you!
Thanks again


Heath said...

Zach -- I thought I was the only person interested in these issues. You'd probably enjoy this video:

Heath said...

Anonymous -- Are you attributing the author's comments about parity, hormones and so on to me? I suspect so - because you attack me for talking about hormone levels in pigs, when that's what that author wrote - NOT ME.

Continuing, did I saw parity was correlated with crushing? Or did the other author?

I do agree with you that herdsmanship is crucial. The fact that those people lost 90% of that litter tells me they need a new environment for that sow - perhaps a farrowing crate.

In a pasture farrowing situation, particularly with group lactation, castrating boars at a week can be very dangerous, because you'll get bit by a bunch of sows. The people I know who do pigs that way castrate at weaning, which is illegal where they live.

My point in bringing that up is that the "Certified Humane Raised and Handled" protocols require castrating within week one, which is not feasible in a pasture farrowing situation.

Adele Douglass said...

Heath Putnam, a former software and financial analyst living in Central Europe founded “Wooly Pigs,” after “experiencing Mangalitsa pigs in Europe. He believed American consumers would find these pigs irresistible.

Irresistible they may be, but Mr. Putnam seems to lack knowledge of what “humane” rearing of pigs means.

He concluded that what people think of as “humane” for pigs is directly responsible for unnecessary death and injury. And since he is someone who really likes pigs, he’s troubled by this.

To research his concerns, he searched blogs on the internet, and came across thought-provoking blogs on bullying of sows in groups, that gestation crates would be more humane, and that raising pigs in natural settings (not farrowing stalls) would not be humane either.

Mr. Putnam works in software and finances, and his expertise in the management and behavior of pigs is questionable at best. Instead of consulting experts that have this knowledge, since there are many books written and universities with extension services, animal scientists and veterinarians that can provide real information on pig rearing and the needs of pigs, he consulted blogs on the internet.

If he took the time to read what humane standards include, he would find that they include veterinary health plans, as well as training and knowledge in pig health and behavior. Knowledgeable and well trained farm managers understand how pigs behave and plan accordingly.

I’d suggest he start by reading our standards. They can be found on and the scientific studies that went into the creation of those standards are reference on the back pages of the standards.

There are many small pig farmers on our program that are doing very well and managing pigs without the horrors described by Mr. Putnam. I’d suggest he get some information and knowledge, since as it is obvious, not just anyone can raise animals.

Heath said...

Adele -- Although I've worked in finance and programming, I've run a pig business for the last few years.

I've referred to blogs because they offer an easy way for people to get a good understanding of the situation. E.g. Homesteading Today has good, accessible stuff. You can see that a lot of people who love their pigs feel that raising their pigs in a "Certified Humane Raised and Handled" system would involve too many dead piglets.

I think the scholarly stuff is actually more practical, but less accessible. If you look at this peer-reviewed work on "open farrowing", people lost about 1/5 of the pigs to crushing. They lost some more too, perhaps to exposure. Those are tremendous losses.

Here's a question: what's the average pre-weaning mortality of "Certified Humane Raised and Handled" producers? How many pigs die from causes like crushing or exposure?

I've talked with people with decades of hog experience who produce niche pork in open farrowing systems. One guy explained that in the cold months, he weans from 5 to 9 pigs, depending on the weather. When I said I was bothered about the arbitrary (and completely avoidable) nature of the mortality, he explained that he doesn't like it either - but he gets paid enough of a premium that it pencils out, so he does it the high mortality way.

In running Wooly Pigs (my full time job), I work with people with over a hundred year's pig experience. They've raised pigs in primitive and modern systems. They have direct experience of the difference that modern systems make in piglet mortality.

What is the average pre-weaning mortality of the litters of "Certified Humane Raised and Handled" producers?

Heath said...

Adele -- Here's another study for you on mortality and free housing (at least, more free than farrowing crates). When things don't go just right, you can easily lose a lot of piglets. If one really cares about keeping piglets alive, crates can really help.

Tim Young said...

Have to agree with the tone expressed by "anonymous" and "Adele". I won't hide behind an anonymous pseudonym.

You can raise pigs any way you want. Others, such as ourselves, believe the pig should have the right to be a pig and be raised naturally. Guess what, Heath, there are no farrowing huts in nature. Our Ossabaws make their own out of privet or what they can find. They don't need our help...or yours. To answer your question, our Ossabaw's have close to 0% mortality pre-weaning. True, Berkshires have more, but that's because maternal instincts have been bred out. Our solution is to try and breed them back in. Your solution is to continue to prop them up with support such as crates. Wow...what a great idea.

Your high-minded comments make it seem like there is one way to farm; your way.

Heath said...

Tim Young -- I'm not saying that the solution is to use farrowing crates or gestation crates.

I think it is important that people be able to farm how they feel is appropriate.

Mostly, I just want people not involved in livestock production (the vast majority of the population) to understand the difficult choices (and compromises) that producers make.

Zachary Cohen said...

There are as many ways to farm as there are farmers

Heath said...

Zachary -- In some cases, you've got one farmer producing two different ways, on different farms. So you can have more ways to farm than farmers.

If you really want to eat animals that aren't ever confined or given meds, you have to figure some of them are going to get sick or die that otherwise wouldn't.

Some people are OK with that.

For example, that lady cheerfully described how that sow crushed 90% of her pigs. As far as she's concerned, that's a great farm, because they never confine the sow, or raise the pigs in anything but an organic, "Certified Humane" way. Sure, sometimes 90% of the piglets die, but in her book, it is worth it.

I can easily - easily imagine some consumers who'd pay 6x as much to eat the organic, certified humane GOS pig instead of a confinement-reared pig.

For example, a guy I respect, Bruce King farrows with low tech in bad weather, and he's not afraid to show you his dead piglets. I don't know if he'd qualify as "Certified Humane Raised and Handled" - but he's clearly in the natural, if somewhat Darwinian camp. He runs a transparent farm. I know people who'd rather eat his pork than stuff from a more modern farm.

Tim said...

"Mostly, I just want people not involved in livestock production ... to understand the difficult choices (and compromises) that producers make."

We agree on this. I know you raise livestock, as I do, and I suspect you care greatly for your animals. I interpret your posts, as apparently some others do, as being fairly judgmental of approaches used by others. That was the issue I took exception to.

I agree with your quote above. Mostly I believe the food system should be transparent and that carnivorous consumers should be able to see clearly how animals are raised and processed. This way they can make choices based on their values.


Heath said...

Tim Young -- Are you the Tim Young mentioned in this New York Times Magazine article? I saw this bit and thought it relates to this post:

"But nothing could prepare the Youngs for the realities of full-time farming — like finding 25 dead piglets that had been abandoned by their mothers."

Assuming they accurately described things, I'm wondering - if your sows farrow in an environment where stuff like that can happen, are you able to castrate your pigs within week one? How do you avoid getting bit?

My understanding is that any system that allows you to process the pigs in week 1, and not get bit, is going to make it hard for a sow to abandon her litter.

Heath said...

Tim -- It is very important to me that people understand there's no free lunch.

E.g. if you farrow outdoors in a natural setting, it is pretty much impossible to cut boars within the first week. That means you'll be cutting boars later. Farrowing crates make it trivial to process pigs.

If you really want boars get castrated in the first week, you might figure farrowing crates are the best alterantive, because they make it possible to achieve that goal.

Similarly, if you want the highest number of pigs weaned per sow - to reduce price and negative externalities like pollution per weaned pig (a reasonable concern in a country like China) - you might conclude that gestation stalls are the best, and that primitive farrowing systems (with concomitant high mortality) are too costly.

Tim said...


Yes, I am that person. The NY Times piece was referring to a Berkshire sow earlier this year that lost all 13 piglets within a week. Not from being trampled. From not attending to them and leaving the nest. We removed her from the breeders as that was her second chance. They have to be re-taught maternal instincts.

We do not castrate pigs. Ever. We discuss this on our blog and in the Farmer's Forum, on our site. Being from Europe, I'm sure you're aware that many countries are adopting this philosophy.

Heath said...

Tim -- Interesting!

If that sow had been penned (not even crated, but simply penned), your Berkshire sow might have weaned more pigs.

If sows are outdoors in a primitive farrowing situation, obviously they need to have the right instincts, and the environment needs to be such that it all comes together - or you'll lose a lot of litters.

If you don't need to ID the piglets (notch their ears), vaccinate them or castrate them, I can see how you could avoid containing the sows or processing them.

Unfortunately, I think the pigs that do well in that sort of environment are tough to handle, like the Ossabaw Island hogs or other feral pigs - in addition to having traits that most people don't want to pay for, like slow growth and small carcasses.

I think you are lucky to live in a fairly warm place. Even if you've got sows with generally good maternal instincts, a really cold day (e.g. 0F) means you might lose a lot of piglets. A guy I know who runs wild boar (who have evolved to live in natural situations) said he moved to partial indoor farrowing because of tremendous winter losses.

Tim said...

We actually did "pen" her in a way. Since it was her 2nd chance, we ran a 25' square electric fence around her and her nest and put food/water inside. This was to resist the temptation to go running with the others. Regardless, she still didn't care for her young, who essentially died in the cold. At the same time, Ossabaws were having no problem making nests and keeping babies alive and warm.

We don't notch, vaccinate, castrate, worm or anything. We're trying to replicate nature within an agricultural context, so we have to endure some losses to get there. The NY Times didn't mention that we understood that sacrifice, but it's part of our long-term value system to build the farming model we believe in.

I think you're correct that the kind of pigs that do well in this model are the more wild/heritage breeds like Large Blacks and Ossabaws. You're also right that growth rates are slow and yields are lower. So be it. We believe in preserving them so it's our job to create a market for them, which we're committed to doing.

Finally, you're right that it's warm here, but we had a lot of 11 degree days last winter, and pigs were born then too. No one provides a blanket for the pigs in nature.

Thanks for your comments.

Tags said...

One of the best books I've seen on the subject of raising animals is Temple Grandin's recently published "Animals Make Us Human." She is rare in that she is an animal activist who works in the industry for meat producers (who haven't always listened to her) and assiduously weighs the benefits of humane treatment and profitability. There are some surprising revelations about pigs in the chapter on pigs, and some innovative ways to address the fighting and the crushing and behavioral issues.

I highly recommend this book.

Tom Hutchinson said...

Very interesting thread so far...

I have a farm in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, where I'm raising both Ossabaw Island hogs and Berkshires. I've had the farm for only a year and a half, and started buying piglets last fall. There are so many different opinions on how to do EVERYTHING that it's hard to sort all of this out for I usually gather the information as I can and try to pay attention as I go along, and keep an open mind.

My first sow to farrow on the farm was actually one that I got from Tim. She hadn't been successful with her first two litters, and Tim was willing to trade her to me for some other Ossabaws that I had. She had eight piglets, and they're all two months old now. After five more sows farrowing here since then, I can happily report that she has been the best mother, by far. I kept her in a barn stall (10 x 20) with a dirt floor and plenty of hay for bedding. My neighbors thought I was a fool for not having her in a crate, or for not building rails along the edge of the stall. I didn't quite get what difference that would make, since she was so careful not to lay on any and made such a nice nest...I mean, why would the piglets want to get away from her, when they had such a cozy nest and all the milk they could drink? I merely observed and even though I thought that some might not make it, even though she stepped on them, or they seemed to be wandering away, I left her completely alone.

One of my Berkshires was moved into the same exact stall two weeks ago when she was showing signs that she was about to farrow. She had twelve piglets, and one was stillborn, and one too weak to move or nurse. This sow did not have nearly the same awareness of where the piglets were and even though I was checking in on her regularly (counting piglets, pulling them out from under her, adjusting her so her teats on both sides were accessible...), she smothered or crushed two that day, and then one per day for two days. Whether the piglets were just more agile/faster or she learned, she's been a stellar mother since then.

The second Berkshire to farrow was the first's littermate, identical in size and condition, and I let her farrow outside in the pasture. I don't know exactly when she gave birth (sometime between 7 pm and 8 am the next morning) or how many she had, but by the time I got around to the pastured pigs at 8, she was nursing seven very vigorous piglets. These were the biggest, healthiest ones we've had. She had already cleaned up the afterbirth, and I'm sure "removed" any stillborns or other casualties...or maybe another pig did. Since then, she's smothered one, and I found one that was a little too adventurous that had strayed too far from the nest and when I found it, it had too much exposure overnight to recover. All I did for her was to check in...and maybe I moved a piglet a time or two, to get it back in the next to nurse.

Tom Hutchinson said...

The score so far? Barn farrowed Ossabaw 8, barn farrowed Berkshire 6, pasture farrowed Berkshire 5. Which were handled in the manner that would be considered the most "humane?" I think that each sow and her litter were treated well, each were managed to the best of my ability, as an admitted novice. To be honest, I don't know which was better. I wanted to share this little situation, partly as a nod to Tim...

The Ossabaw I got from him didn't fit in well with what he was doing and how he wanted to operate. I understand and admire that resolve, but I don't feel the same way. I'm also not going to put a sow in a crate. Exactly where our farm will fall on that spectrum I'm not sure yet, but it will certainly be near Tim's. The sow from him had bad luck with a snowstorm on the night she farrowed if I recall correctly, and this time it was in a barn with dry hay and 50 degree nights instead of 20 degrees, or whatever it was.

We don't clip teeth, we don't castrate, we don't give shots; We pasture, we supplement with local, non-organic feed, we talk to them, we rub their heads and belly if they want, and leave the alone if they don't. The only stand-offish pigs we have are Ossabaws that we got at an older age. The two month old piglets are as friendly as can be. Zucchini is a wonderful incentive for them...

With 28 hogs and 35 piglets right now, I can do that and consider them to be treated very humanely. With 200 hogs, I certainly couldn't give them the same attention or care. Regardless of how well I feel that we care for our animals, not all of them will thrive, and not all will survive. The definition of humane is that we act with human feelings of kindness and benevolence, which is contrary to what the natural environment serves up at times. It seems that sometimes the right thing to do is to let nature take it's course, and sometimes you pick up that piglet and put it back in the nest.

I don't notch my Berkshire's ears so I can't register them with the ABA. If I recall correctly, I can't get Animal Welfare Approved or Certified Humane unless I separate my herds by size...although I don't have any bullying or aggressive hogs to worry about. So, we're currently label-less on the farm.

The humane thing, the kind thing, compassionate thing, to ME seems to be that we should let the pigs be what they are: some that I have are near-wild animals, and some are very much domesticated. They'll be handled differently, it seems, depending on breed and weather conditions, but it is ALL humane.

Heath said...

Tom Hutchinson -- Thanks for your comments. That's very interesting. I can believe the Ossabaw in a pen would beat all the others in avoiding crushing the pigs.

You mention one of Tim's Ossabaw's doing badly (and presumably losing its pigs). I found that to contradict his comment to this post:

"Guess what, Heath, there are no farrowing huts in nature. Our Ossabaws make their own out of privet or what they can find. They don't need our help...or yours. To answer your question, our Ossabaw's have close to 0% mortality pre-weaning."

That fits with my understanding of things: no matter how good a sow is at not crushing the pigs, if it builds its nest in an area that gets too cold, the pigs will probably not survive.

If Certified Humane Raised and Handled requires (or allows) people to farrow their sows outdoors in cold weather, they arguably encourage the unnecessary death of piglets.

Tom Hutchinson said...

Here's a couple of links that would be good to review:

This is the post on Tim's blog that talked very openly and plainly about their Ossabaws, and White Tail is the one that I got from them, already bred. Again, she showed wonderful instincts, in my opinion, and did wonderfully with her third litter.

This is the Humane Farm Animal Care guidelines for their certification. You may be able to just click on the link and see the document, or not, based on whether you provide them with your name and email address. It covers THEIR policy, which includes indoor and outdoor standards. What I do or anyone else does is their own choice, and this is the standard that they expect to receive their certification.

I just got in from checking on another sow that farrowed this morning. It's one that showed no interest in her piglets, and isn't nursing... Farrowing crate or no, warm weather or cold, I don't see what can be done with that. Some do well and some don't. That's life.

Heath said...

Tom Hutchinson -- Thanks.

Now I'm really confused. If Tim Young has sows that lose enough pigs pre-weaning that they get culled, how does that fit with the following statement he made on this blog:

"To answer your question, our Ossabaw's have close to 0% mortality pre-weaning."