Influence from the marketplace shaped Cargill's decision to transform all company facilities for sows to group housing by 2015 and for contract hog farms by 2017.
"Over the past two years, many of our retail, foodservice and food processing customers have made decisions about future sourcing of pork products from suppliers that use group housing for gestating sows," Mike Luker, president of Wichita, Kan.-based Cargill Pork, said.
In 2002, Cargill installed its first group housing system and has maintained this alternative sow housing for 50% of company-owned sows over the past several years.
"While Cargill was a pioneer in the use of group housing for gestating sows dating back more than a decade, in the past few years, growing public interest in the welfare related to animals raised for food has been expressed to our customers and the pork industry," Luker explained.
Moreover, Cargill acquired an idled hog farm facility in Dalhart, Texas, and invested $60 million in acquisition and improvement costs, which included conversion to and construction of sow housing without gestation stalls for more than 60,000 sows on the 22,000-acre site.
Michael Martin, Cargill director of communications, told Feedstuffs, "Our Dalhart property has allowed us to aggressively move towards 100% group housing at Cargill facilities by the end of 2015, which represents our ongoing commitment to continuously improving livestock production."
In addition, Cargill announced that all contract farms with Cargill-owned sows will make the transition to 100% group housing by the end of calendar year 2017.
Research has shown that different types of housing can work equally for the care of the gestating sow and from a production standpoint.
Nevertheless, the actual management of the system will have the greatest impact on the welfare of the animal, according to the Livestock Behavior Research Unit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.
In comparison to individual stalls, group housing systems require almost doubling the square footage to sustain the same number of sows, so contract hog operations currently raising Cargill-owned sows will need to make sizeable investments in converting the facility to group housing systems.
Martin explained that Cargill does not provide financial assistance to contract hog operations for installing the alternative housing system; however, the company does offer contract extension.
"Both group housing and individual housing have pros and cons, and we continue to learn and evolve best practices from our transition to group housing," Luker noted.
"While an industry change of this magnitude is challenging and costly, we believe it is the right thing to do for the long-term future of pork production in the U.S., and our customers agree with us and support our decision," he added. "Nevertheless, we need to be mindful that many family farms involved with raising hogs have their life savings invested in their operations, and it will require time and other resources if they choose to make a conversion to group housing."
Furthermore, hogs produced by Cargill-owned sows represent approximately 30% of the total hogs slaughtered at the company's Illinois and Iowa pork processing plants.
According to Cargill, based on the time table it has set up for completing the transition to group housing for gestating sows, the company will be prepared to support "early-adopter" customers seeking pork products from alternative sow housing in the next few years.
Martin noted that Cargill is not asking external suppliers — representing the remaining 70% of hogs processed at its facilities — to make the sow housing conversion.
Still, Cargill said it is willing to do what is required to meet the needs of its customers to provide certain types of pork products.