Thursday, September 18, 2008

Iberico Extensive Systems, Pig Spaying, Etc.

Red Mountain Farm's Mangalitsa live the natural lifestyle

One interesting issue that can come up when folks like Red Mountain Farm run their Mangalitsa outside is unwanted contact with wild boar. For Red Mountain Farm, this isn't an issue: their Mangalitsa and Mangalitsa x Berkshire hogs are barrows (castrated males).

Anyone that puts a cycling female outdoors in an area with wild hogs has a problem. A wild boar will do what boars do best: he'll break in, fight off any other domestic boars (potentially killing them) and service his favorite females. The males have been naturally selected to do this - it is their only job.

All the females have been bred, so it's OK to relax.

I have yet to talk to anyone whose own domestic boars have won against a wild boar interloper. The wild boar are faster, tougher and meaner. Their small size doesn't matter; one lucky shot with their tusks and that's it. In the wild, the winning boar gets to service many females, potentially producing hundreds of descendants a season. The loser may not get to procreate at all. Natural selection ensures tha the average wild boar can defeat a commercial boar, who has been selected for carcass traits.

Unwanted breeding of domestic swine with wild boar has terrible consequences for the producer:
  • Wild boar transmit diseases to the domestic swine. That's always bad, no matter the disease. Depending on how serious the disease is, you may have to depopulate (kill all mammals on your farm), or institute permanent changes to manage a disease that you can't eradicate.
  • A bred market female is worth less than an open one. She also wastes energy producing a litter of pigs. Even if you have her farrow the pigs, they won't have carcasses like your other pigs.
In the old days, pigs spent most of their time outside, in remote places with constant access to wild boar. Some pigs still live that way in Livermore, CA. In contrast, almost all other domestic hogs are kept separate from wild animals, which reduces the transmission of disease and completely stops uncontrolled mating.

The Spanish who finish some Iberian hogs the old-fashoned way solve this problem the old-fashioned way: they spay the females. Neutering a female is trickier than neutering a male - you have to dig around in her insides. Here's a (gory) set of photos showing how it is done in a modern setting.

I find the Spanish production methods fascinating; some details are natural (hogs foraging outside), but due to the presence of natural things (wild boar) and a desire to preserve the environment, they are forced to confine and mutilate the animals more than modern producers who arguably do things less naturally. In order to economically produce acorn-fattened hogs, as described in the case study, the Iberico bellota producers:
  • keep the hogs indoors for 9-12 months. Confining the hogs takes the pressure off the landscape and allows it to recover. It is cheaper too. The hogs aren't, as many assume, roaming free their entire long life.
  • neuter the females
  • ring the market hogs, which prevents them from rooting up the oak savanna.
Another thing Iberico producers do is use a lot of antibiotics. As a Spanish guy in the business explained to me, part of Spain's culture is to liberally medicate people (and pigs). With pigs, you even treat animals at risk of becoming sick, takes you out of the premium "no-antibiotics" category (and keeps you out of markets like Whole Foods). Spain doesn't have that market segment at all.

Although the farm in that case study farrows outside (with high piglet mortality), other Iberico producers use things like farrowing crates and gestation crates - things that, in addition to the antibiotics, prevent the meat from ever being sold in Whole Foods. You name it: Albertsons, 7-11 and your mom and pop grocery will sell Fermin's product before Whole Foods.

Using farrowing crates and gestation crates is at odds with how Iberico production was done in the past. The innovations are controversial. Things are such that now, if you choose their iberico bellota, you choose taste and sustainability over:
  • minimal mutilation
  • minimal confinement
  • maximal natural behaviors
  • no-hormones, no-antibiotics
  • high piglet survivability (via farrowing crates)
The farrowing crate issue is very interesting. The goal of crates is to prevent sows from crushing pigs - a major cause of death in any pig operation. The pro-welfare argument of crates takes the view of the piglets, saying it is better for their mom to be confined a bit so that less of them get crushed to death.

Although many Iberico sows farrow in huts, some farrow in crates, like the one pictured just below. Some even use gestation crates too, which means a sow is confined her whole life (which consists alternately of gestation and farrowing, gestation being longer).

It is hard to see how a farm can use gestation crates and not be called a factory farm. If Iberico ever becomes associated with gestation crates, I think they are in big trouble.

Iberico Sow in a Farrowing Crate

I've read plenty of remarks like:
Unfortunately, heritage pork breeds are not suited for the intensive farming techniques being used nowadays, and some of the older breeds are in danger of being lost forever.
Iberico Sows in Gestation Crates

Unfortunately (for the ones that get put into gestation crates), heritage breeds like the Iberico can be raised intensively. The producer who built the confinement facility for Iberico pictured above did it because it is possible and it pays. As a result of it being possible to produce Iberico reasonably economicaly (due to innovations like crates), the breed has steadily increasing numbers.

The Iberico was never in trouble because it works well extensively; it was in trouble because people wanted cheap, lean pork, which the Iberico doesn't produce.

Seeing the Iberico sows in crates shocked me. Until I did some research, I'd figured it wasn't done.

Feral hogs aren't ringed, so they naturally destroy things.

Back to spaying: I find it fascinating that such an involved procedure was once very common. If you go far enough back in time, you can read about sow-gelders (professional pig spayers):
22 August 1730 We hear that at the late Assizes held at Bridgwater, an indictment was preferred against a sow-gelder, for attempting to spay his wife; but she refused to prosecute, and acknowledged her forgiveness of him, and desired the Court would do the same: However, the Court remanded him back to prison, and, for the sake of the good women in general, ordered him to remain there till he could give 400l. security for his good behaviour during life...
While looking for information on sow gelding, I found a modern day sow-gelder. Here are photos (gory) showing a guy spaying a female pig in Vietnam.

Sow from 1904

I don't know why they spay them in Vietnam, but I suspect it has to do with them thinking the way we thought back in 1910. E.g. "Swine in America" from 1910 says:
Open sows running with other stock hogs are a source of great annoyance and where more than two or three are kept there is scarcely a time when some of their number are not in heat and continually chasing the others thus keeping them in a worried fevered condition extremely prejudicial to growth or fattening. If all are properly sprayed this is avoided the hogs are quiet and restful and much time annoyance and feed are saved.

All feeders agree that no animals in the swine herd feed more kindly and profitably than spayed sows and there are no buyers who would not as soon or sooner have them than barrows when they would not buy a lot of open sows at any price. An open sow when fat of the same dimensions externally as a spayed sow or a barrow generally weighs from ten to 20 pounds less.

To the feeder the buyer or the butcher unspaycd sows are usually in one way or another a cheat as they may weigh more than they are worth from having a litter of pigs in them or may be utterly destitute of inside fat from having recently suckled pigs; in either case they are of less value than their appearance would indicate. Spayed sows are not troublesome to their mates are as good as they look for feeding or marketing and command in all markets such prices as are paid for none but first class stock.


Bruce King said...

You are very concerned about pregnancy, but do nothing to control or even pregnancy test your own sows prior to sale.

While you espouse high standards of animal care and spend a lot of time posting about high end pigs, your own sows aren't even cursorily tested for fat composition, for instance.

Producers of high quality products constantly test and improve their product and husbandry. You rely on faith.

It's odd, especially for someone who's science oriented.

May I suggest you spend a few hundred dollars on a pregtone?

Heath Putnam said...

bruceki --

I don't sell sows. What gave you that idea? As my post mentions, the pigs Red Mountain Farm got were all barrows.

Why do you imply I should test my sows for fat composition? What results would I be tracking? How would that help me to improve the quality of what I sell?

I have yet to find an ultrasonic pregnancy checker that works well. Unless you restrain a female, she normally won't let you use it on her. Even then, you have use it at the right time, after proper preparation.

Bruce King said...

Heath, you're selling pregnant animals as meat, apparently failing to notice they're pregnant. Here's a quote from you in april:

"...We inspected the organs of the females. Some of them were pregnant. Pulling out the fetal pigs revealed tiny pig embryos with snouts, hooves and tails. "

Even though you said in your post this week, and I quote: "A bred market female is worth less than an open one. She also wastes energy producing a litter of pigs. Even if you have her farrow the pigs, they won't have carcasses like your other pigs."

So did you offer your customers in april a discount for selling them pregnant sows?

Teaching you how to do basic husbandry, like having an animal stand still for inspection or treatment is beyond the scope of what is possible here for me.

All of the producers you cite regularly test the fat composition and carcass characteristics so they can better serve their meat end users. While you're a big fan of this or that sort of fat, the truth is you're guessing what the composition of your animals are and don't even really know if the fat from your berkshire x mangalitsas is any different from a straight berkshire fed the same diet or a straight mangalitsa, for that matter.

Heath Putnam said...

Bruceki --

I thought you were referring to the pigs I sell live, not the ones that go for slaughter.

The ones that go to slaughter can be females or males. The ones that get sold live (e.g. to Red Mountain Farm or the Herbfarm) have been neutered.

The April customers paid by carcass weight. They were indifferent about the weight of the fetuses, because they didn't pay for them.

Your remark, "teaching you how to do basic husbandry, like having an animal stand still for inspection or treatment is beyond the scope of what is possible here for me," is insulting and erroneously implies that the problem is just getting pigs to stand still. I explained that already.

I asked you the following questions, "Why do you imply I should test my sows for fat composition? What results would I be tracking? How would that help me to improve the quality of what I sell?" You didn't answer my question.

In any case, nobody (but you) asks for meat testing data. People just don't care. Even if I had the results that you want, others would ignore them and trust their tongues, not the numbers.

Why do you care so much about how my Mangalitsa x Berkshire hogs anyway? How can it matter at all to you?

Bruce King said...

You make the claim that a pregnant animal is worth less than one that isn't pregnant, but don't bother to test if your animals are pregnant or not. Here's another quote from you:

You can't have it both ways, but you're working both sides of the fence.

Regarding husbandry, your primary objection to pregnancy testing was that the animals wouldn't stand still. If you can't figure that out I really can't help you.

There are many different pregnancy and carcass testers. Investing in one allows you to both determine the current state of a pig, and to examine things like loin size, back fat thickness and other characteristics of the pig without slaughtering the animal, allowing you the capability of delivering precise characteristics if you choose.

Heath Putnam said...

Bruceki --

Why do you care so much about my hogs? How can they matter to you?

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