Oklahoma foundation seeks improvement in housing, treatment of pigs


Source: The Oklahoman

Oklahoma held its first-ever conference to discuss humane treatment for pigs Wednesday.

About 100 animal welfare advocates gathered on National Pig Day to talk about how the animals are treated, particularly female sows, at an event organized and supported by the Kirkpatrick Foundation.

They also discussed how owners of the nation’s major pork producers typically raise the animals in a way that favors mega-business profits at both farmers’ and consumers’ expense.

Various speakers addressed the group about confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), how rural economies are impacted by industrial farming, consumers’ attitudes about animal welfare issues, better ways to raise animals consumed for food and pending litigation before the U.S. Supreme Court that challenges a proposition California voters approved in 2018 that established minimum square-feet confinement requirements for veal calves, breeding female pigs and egg-laying hens.

The California measure, called Proposition 12, also banned sales of products related to those animals inside the state if those minimum requirements aren’t met, even when the animals are raised and harvested outside the state. The Supreme Court has not yet ruled on the case.

In Oklahoma, female pigs and egg-laying hens are most confined

Foundation officials said Wednesday that more than 4 million pigs raised in Oklahoma each year, including 470,000 pregnant sows, are confined inside such small spaces they cannot turn around or stretch throughout their adolescent and adult lives.

The size of a typical gestation crate is 2 feet by 6.2 feet.

“Current industrial use of these crates in CAFOs was adopted as many family farms were taken over by large, corporate farms,” said Louisa McCune, executive director of Kirkpatrick Foundation.

“Justified by the need to monitor each pig and decrease any aggressive behaviors, gestation crates became the answer of the pig industry to raise the most pigs with the most efficient use of resources and space. It’s also the most-cruel treatment of any species in Oklahoma — and at the greatest scale.”

Of Oklahoma’s 220 million farm animals, foundation officials said about 4 million live in extreme confinement cages or gestation crates, and that 100% of those are either pregnant pigs or egg-laying hens.

“Oklahomans believe we can do better, and 91% are strongly supportive of regulatory policies that require sufficient space for farm animals to stand up, turn around, and stretch their limbs in any cage, crate, or pen,” said veterinarian Lesa Staubus, who serves as a program officer for the Kirkpatrick Foundation.

A bill will test that assertion, at least on a legislative level.

A bill authored by Sen. George Young, D-Oklahoma City and co-authored by Rep. Jason Lowe, D-Oklahoma City, proposes setting aside $47 million for pig growers who agree to voluntarily quit using gestation cages for sows as part of their operations.

The measure is pending before the Senate’s Agricultural and Rural Affairs and Appropriations committees.

How much money, how many jobs does pork industry bring to Oklahoma?

According to a recent economic impact study completed for the National Pork Board, Oklahoma’s pork industry supported more than 34,000 jobs, with many of those in rural communities.

The same study found hog sales in Oklahoma generated 14.5% ($976 million) of Oklahoma’s total cash receipts from all agricultural commodities in 2019, making pork production Oklahoma’s second-largest agricultural enterprise behind cattle production, at an estimated $3.27 billion for the same time period.

Oklahoma is consistently home to more than 460,000 sows.

Kylee Deniz, the executive director of Oklahoma’s Pork Council, said measures like California’s Proposition 12 make it more costly for growers to do business.

For a farm that keeps 4,000 sows, the industry estimates its owner would have to invest $14 million in new barn construction costs to meet its requirements.

Deniz said there are pros and cons to what the foundation and its supporters seek.

While a gestation stall provides only enough room for a sow to stand or lie down and restricts the animal’s ability to move and exercise, it minimizes aggressive behaviors involving competition for feed and other resources, allows for each animal to be cared for individually and reduces farm worker injuries.

Group Sow Housing Systems, on the other hand, can hold anywhere from five to more than 100 animals, giving them abilities to move about more freely and socially interact with their pen mates.

However, the arrangement poses a safety risk to the animals when one or more sows become aggressive, plus makes it difficult for farm workers to ensure that each animal receives its proper nutrition, which could lead to poor weight and pregnancy issues.

Deniz said Oklahoma growers meet foundational needs of animal care and welfare by making sure the animal have access to feed and water, are protected from extreme weather and other hazards that might injure or make them ill and are cared for in environments with good air quality and proper sanitation.

Oklahoma’s growers, certified through a Pork Quality Assurance program, continually make science-based decisions in consultation with animal care experts like veterinarians to determine their farm’s best practices to ethically produce affordable animal protein.

High-quality, safe and nutritious pork begins with high-quality care on pig farms, Deniz said.

“Oklahoma pork producers have long been committed to six ‘We Care’ ethical principles to sustainably provide a safe, affordable, nutritious protein to customers in Oklahoma and around the world,” Deniz said. “These six priorities include food safety, animal well-being, public health, the environment, our people and our community. In tandem, these principles are the foundation of a successful pork industry that seeks to help feed the world.”

Better education for consumers recommended

Dr. Bailey Norwood, a professor of agriculture economics at Oklahoma State University, researches peoples’ points of view about animal welfare issues.

On Wednesday, Norwood observed that while consumers may tell a survey taker they care about animal welfare, their shopping habits usually don’t show it.

“People tend to have a consumer self and a citizen self. When you are a consumer self, you tend to be more myopic, a bit more stingy with your money. When you are in citizen mode, like in the voting booth, you tend to be more altruistic or at least try to appear to be more thoughtful.

“We don’t have one set of beliefs or practices when we have to make a decision, and we usually set our preferences based within the context the question is asked.”

Norwood said his research attempts to negate both of those tendencies by bringing people in, educating them about the issue and then have them work together to determine what all parties involved in any particular issue would support.

Norwood said about a quarter of people don’t care about animal welfare, while a much smaller percentage believe livestock should be guaranteed a happy and content life.

“But a majority of people are in the middle, where they agree our main obligation to livestock is to make sure the animals don’t suffer.

“I believe if you took regular Americans and put them into a room with hog producers and if you gave them good information and enough time to talk through the issues and decide what consumers would pay, I don’t believe there would be gestation crates,” he said.