August 3 will be remembered by most Manitobans as a rather pleasant long weekend mid-summer Saturday. But for hog producers, it marked their Custer-like last stand against a tidal wave of change coming their way.
Last weekend ended the public-comment period on the draft of a new welfare code for the care and handling of pigs. While not legally binding, these species-specific codes of practices for animals used in agriculture become the standard of care by which industry players are expected to abide.
Farmers who choose not to comply when the final code for the care and handling of pigs that comes out later this year will in all likelihood find their marketing opportunities limited. And in extreme cases, animal welfare investigators will refer to the code when assessing whether animal-cruelty charges are in order.
All major species used in agriculture have been working through the process of reviewing and updating the existing codes, but the hog-code review has been the most controversial by far. It is also the one that has met with the most resistance from producers.
The draft code proposes that starting in 2014, sow gestation stalls should be replaced with group housing when new barns are constructed, and the practice of confining sows for the duration of their pregnancy will cease in all production facilities by 2024. Producers would be allowed to confine sows in stalls for short periods, but generally, the industry is expected to move to a group-housing system.
Other changes include providing pain relief if castrating pigs after 14 days after birth. By 2019, pain relief must be provided for pigs during and after castration at any age. Young male pigs are castrated to reduce aggression and to avoid an off-flavour called boar taint in the meat.
Efforts by producers to protest these changes have been out-shouted by the system's critics. Criticizing sow-gestation stalls has become a fashionable way for those seeking to get publicity. What else could explain the lead sentence in this release from Humane Societies International?
"Tricia Helfer -- known as the host of Canada's Next Top Model and from her starring role on Battlestar Galactica and soon set to star as the lead in the new series Killer Women -- has penned a letter to Canada's National Farm Animal Care Coalition urging reforms in its recently released draft code of practice for the care and handling of pigs," it says. Helfer's claim to credibility on the issue is that she grew up on an Alberta farm, "getting my hands dirty, riding tractors, fixing machinery and more."
This is not to suggest Helfer, Ryan Gosling or the 21,000 others who signed a statement calling for the proposed draft regulations to become code don't deserve their opinion on the issue. They do. They represent the marketplace and those opinions have proven very effective in convincing major retailers, food-service providers and processors that a change is in order.
Producers are the last holdouts, saying they remain unconvinced existing methods are inhumane and that capital cost of making changes will put them out of business. So would losing their market.
Once these changes are made, productivity and profits might well increase, according to a scientific review conducted by three leading industry researchers on behalf of the National Farm Animal Care Council task force considering the new code.
"It is possible to achieve equal or better productivity and health in group-housing systems compared to individual gestation stalls provided that they are well-designed and managed," the scientific review team concluded.
As for castration, alternatives already exist, such as an immuno-vaccine, which renders the pigs sterile and reduces the risk of boar taint. Producers here could also follow the lead of their counterparts in several European countries who have stopped castrating pigs altogether. Boar taint and aggression are managed by genetic selection and herd management.
For their own sake, hog producers need to accept change is coming, and get on with it.
Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org