PORK producers want their customers in the foodservice and grocery sectors and their consumers to know that they are sorting through the issues and questions surrounding sow housing.
They have been doing this for several years -- research extends back at least 10 years -- but the work became especially more urgent when pork producer delegates to the National Pork Forum last March adopted a resolution that asked the National Pork Board for "definitive" directions on sow housing (Feedstuffs, March 12).
The Pork Board manages the national pork checkoff that, among other purposes, is responsible for industry research and producer education, and the information is needed as the controversy surrounding sow housing intensifies.
Most sows -- an estimated 83% -- are housed in individual stalls, but customers are increasingly asking for "stall-free pork," i.e., pork from systems that use alterative housing such as grouping sows in pens.
Housing, like all aspects of animal welfare, is "an evolving science," according to Sherrie Niekamp, the Pork Board's director of swine welfare.
The early research compared one system to another and determined that there are advantages and disadvantages to both individual stalls and group pens and later focused on optimizing both kinds of systems, she said. Now, research should be honing in on the economics and key factors that need to be considered in housing decisions, she added.
Niekamp talked with Feedstuffs about the steps the board has taken since the March resolution.
In response to the resolution, Niekamp said the Pork Board, in August, issued calls for research proposals and accepted two of 10 proposals.
The first involves the extent to which sow diets can decrease aggression. In group settings, sows have a natural tendency to fight to establish dominance, Niekamp said, and the work will evaluate diet formulations to determine if that aggressive tendency can be controlled through nutrition.
The research will be done through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The second proposal involves optimizing floor space and will be done through the University of Illinois.
A related third project also is underway at The University of Pennsylvania in which Dr. Thomas Parsons is evaluating electronic sow feeding systems and the formation of groups, i.e., the introduction of sows into groups.
Due to the nature of the sow's four-month gestation period, these projects will require several months to complete, Niekamp said, and the Pork Board has put out additional calls for proposals that will be evaluated at its meeting in January.
She said the board plans to provide progress reports to producers at the Pork Forum in March.
The Pork Board also has directed staff to develop other tools that can help producers choose housing systems for their operations, Niekamp said.
First, the board is updating its sow housing calculator, which gives producers a sense of the economic implications of different systems, i.e., the costs of building or renovating barns to accommodate one system versus another.
Due to ballot initiatives in some states and to customer positions, producers need to understand what it will cost for housing systems that meet marketplace requirements and, at the same time, what hog price it will take to cover those costs, Niekamp said.
Producers then can go to their lenders, packers and customers and show them what their costs and price requirements will be to adopt a certain housing system, she said.
The calculator will consider factors ranging from the capital required to the cash flow issues associated with a disruption in or loss of production during construction or retrofitting, she said, noting that packers and customers need to understand that housing choices are expensive, major decisions and that conversions take time.
Housing systems "don't just pop up," she said.
Second, the board is documenting "key factors" producers will need to consider when adopting housing systems, including building new or retrofitting housing, genetics, feeder options, nutrition, pig flow, space allocations and how and when to group sows.
This documentation will outline "all of the options out there -- the advantages and disadvantages -- to help decision-makers" with the selection of housing systems "that are good for the pigs and the people who care for them," Niekamp said.
The information will be rolled out both in webinar and written formats, she said.
Third, the Pork Board is putting together guides for workers who are in the barns every day that have the information they will need to make a particular system work.
"There are big differences" in caretaker responsibilities when sows are in individual stalls and in group pens, she said, and workers will need to know the "core husbandry skills" that are required for pens.
The guides will cover different feeding technologies, including electronic sow feeding, free-access feeding, floor feeding and trickle feeding, and will include trouble-shooting scenarios. They will be developed as kits and videos.
The resolution at the Pork Forum last March also called on the board to expand customer outreach to make sure customers understand that producers are conscientious and responsible caretakers and that changes in production practices have implications not only for animal welfare but for the cost of production and, ultimately, the cost of pork.
This part of the resolution is being carried forward by Jarrod Sutton as part of a "No More Surprises" platform to arm customers with knowledge about production practices.