The pork industry’s advocate in the crate debate
Hill says getting rid of the stalls will hurt consumers, farmers
Source: Des Moines Register
An undercover video of what appeared to be animal abuse sent Howard Hill into action.
An activist shot the video last year at a confinement barn near Kamrar owned by Iowa Select Farms of Iowa Falls, the largest producer of hogs in the state. It was the latest in a series of such videos of hog and hen operations, produced and distributed to the media for maximum shock effect.
Shaken by the publicity and loss of some business, Iowa Select was jarred into what Hill, its director of external operations, said became “a whole new corporate culture.”
“We hired four new animal welfare specialists and adapted externally designed training programs to make sure that our employees treat the hogs with respect,” said Hill, who holds a Ph.D. in veterinary science from Iowa State University. He said several Iowa Select employees have been fired in the past year for improperly handling hogs.
The undercover videos are a public relations matter, but probably not the biggest problem that Hill and the hog industry face as he becomes president of the National Pork Producers Council in 2014 after serving the stepping-stone progression through NPPC vice presidencies.
He will deal with a range of issues growing out of the consolidation of hog production from small farm barnyards to the giant confinements that now dot the Iowa countryside.
Confinement critics have zeroed in on the issue of the gestation crates that hold pregnant sows in place.
Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, has taken that organization beyond its traditional role as the nation’s caretaker of dogs and cats and turned it into a politically savvy activist group that has scored bans on animal crates in at least nine states.
“All animals deserve humane treatment, including farm animals, and it’s just wrong to immobilize animals for their whole lives in crates barely larger than their bodies,” Pacelle said.
Although Hill wonders whether someone will invite martyrdom of sorts by violating Iowa’s new “Ag Gag” law that makes it illegal to apply for a job under false pretenses, the crate issue is a more serious threat to hog producers than the occasional video.
This spring, a stream of announcements from major fast food purveyors, from McDonald’s on down, and large supermarket chains asserted that they will stop buying pork from producers who use gestation crates for sows.
The matter isn’t imminent. McDonald’s, for instance, is doing a 10-year phaseout. Most other companies have set their new rules effective anywhere from 2015 to 2022.
But it means that the issue is likely to be in front of Hill during his NPPC presidency.
“The Humane Society and other activists have changed their tactics,” Hill said. “They’ve gone after the end users of pork. Those people are in the retail business, and they don’t want to be picketed.”
“This is the perfect example of the law of unintended consequences,” he said. “The effect of the end of gestation crates will drive up prices for pork, and it will drive producers out of business, which will have the effect of consolidating the pork-producing industry further.”
On his own hog operation near Nevada, Hill manages 600 sows, which produce about 12,000 pigs. He finishes the castrated males, but sends the females to other finishers.
Hill doesn’t use gestation crates. His sows live in open stall, “group housing” structures that were built in the mid-1970s before the advent of the confinements that now dominate hog production.
“This is an older operation,” Hill said as he walked around the complex of buildings. “I don’t have gestation crates, but I wish I did.”
What stops Hill from making the $250-per-crate investment is the possibility that the retailers and the Humane Society will make a crate ban stick by the end of this decade.
“This isn’t the most efficient way to produce hogs,” he said. “I’m just not sure that I can afford to change it, then have to change back.”
Hill said the public, not to mention animal welfare activists, is misinformed about gestation crates. The crates have been criticized because the sow cannot walk around.
“The crates are for the protection of the sow,” he said. “Impregnated sows are very temperamental. They’re not like cattle. Sows can become aggressive and vicious. They bite and fight each other, and occasionally one gets killed.”
Hill and other defenders of sow crates point to greater productivity and efficiency in hog births and growth compared with previous generations.
U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics released last week show that although Iowa’s sow population dipped slightly in the last year, the average sow now produces 10 pigs per litter and the state’s hog population is at an all-time high of 20 million.
“I understand the desire for people to return to the bucolic days of farming in the past, where the hogs were raised in the barnyard, but the economics of the business just don’t support that anymore,” Hill said.
Instead, big operators like Iowa Select dominate the industry. The company has about 1,000 workers in 34 sow farms and 500 finishing barns.
Hill acknowledges that the hog industry has bad actors.
“Are we perfect? No. We’re better than we were a year ago,” he said
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