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Sow freedom comes at a price for producers

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People notice when the world's largest fast-food chain decides to make a change, then announces it to the world.

Such was the case this week when U.S.-based McDonald's Corp. publicly said it was instructing suppliers to phase sow gestation stalls out of the production systems delivering bacon, ham and sausage for its breakfast sandwiches.

Saying the narrow stalls in which pregnant sows spend most of their lives were "not a sustainable production system for the future," McDonald's has told suppliers to come up with a timeline for phasing them out.

"There are alternatives that we think are better for the welfare of sows," Dan Gorsky, senior vice-president for supply-chain management for McDonald's North America, said in a statement.

McDonald's joins a growing list of food producers and retailers, including Smithfield Foods, Hormel, Cargill, Burger King and Wolfgang Puck, that have made similar moves. Seven U.S. states have passed laws to end the use of gestation stalls. Europe's conversion is expected to be completed by 2013.

While it's hard to imagine people are thinking about the plight of pigs as they line up in drive-throughs for breakfast sandwiches on their way to work, it's clear these companies now perceive a marketing advantage from being animal welfare-friendly.

The economics of animal welfare are consumer-driven, and they are now trumping the economics of production efficiency.

This is a hard concept for front-line producers to swallow. But it underscores the findings of a recent paper by two Oklahoma State University economists, who argue animal welfare has moved from the fringes to the forefront of discussions about the future of animal farming.

Further, these economists warn, the agricultural industry needs to rethink its fallback position.

"The underlying logic is that farm animals that receive better care will be more productive, and as a result, will be more profitable," write Jayson L. Lusk, professor and Willard Sparks Endowed Chair and F. Bailey Norwood, associate professor in the OSU department of agricultural economics.

They question whether that's really true. Research has demonstrated individual animals given more space and a more natural environment are more productive. But the farmer's economic reality is maximizing the volume produced by the barn, not by individual animals.

Invariably, it makes better economic sense to forgo a degree of individual productivity in favour of having more animals in production.

"In a competitive environment, producers who wish to stay in business face incentives to adopt production systems and practices that maximize profit, and profit-maximizing outcomes are not the same as animal-welfare-maximizing outcomes.

"Thus, the real question of interest is not whether profitability must be sacrificed to achieve higher levels of animal welfare, but rather how much?" they say.

That explains why producers have been reluctant to implement changes. After years of resistance, the Manitoba Pork Council committed last year to phasing out sow stalls by 2025, a date critics say is still too plodding.

The fact is, most of the competition has already made the move, so it's likely local producers planning to stay in business will be making the transition much, much sooner.

It's an expensive proposition, however, and producers have no way of recouping the cost. The pork council puts the cost of converting a barn to group housing at $1 million.

The hullabaloo surrounding McDonald's announcement certainly caught the attention of Laurie Connor, the head of animal science at the University of Manitoba. She was preparing for a previously scheduled seminar on the factors affecting the success of group sow housing when the news broke this week.

The veteran animal scientist has been following the hog-housing issue since before the animal-welfare implications were on the public's radar.

Connor was involved with research back in the early 1990s that explored the economics of group sow housing, in that case, open-ended shelters where the animals bed down in straw. At the time, one of the secondary questions was whether it was cruel to house hogs in open shelters in a Prairie winter.

The research found although feeding costs were higher and different levels of management were needed, the system could match the productivity of conventional systems due to its lower capital cost. As it turned out, the pigs were happier, too.

A couple of decades later, there is a sense of urgency as scientists such as Connor revisit the issue, this time with financial support from producer groups.

Their task today is identifying what it takes to make various group-housing systems work -- not as an alternative for producers seeking lower-cost or niche-market options, but for conventional producers who could lose market access if they don't transition out of gestation stalls.


Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 792-4382 or by email:

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 18, 2012 B8

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