THERE'S "a lot of chatter out there about what people think we're doing; some of the talk is right, and some isn't," Don Butler said in launching a frank, morning-long interview about his company's conversion from individual gestation stalls to group pens in its sow barns.
Butler is vice president for government relations and public affairs at Murphy-Brown LLC, the hog production division of Smithfield Foods Inc., which is the largest hog and pork producer in the U.S.
Smithfield announced six years ago that it would convert all company-owned sow farms from stalls to pens (Feedstuffs, Jan. 29, 2007) — an announcement that was one of those shots heard around the world.
It's a decision that Butler said was made in direct response to foodservice and retail customers asking about the animal welfare of sows confined to stalls.
Butler explained that customers were (and still are) being contacted by activist groups telling them that stalls — which confine a sow for the entirety of her pregnancy to a space in which she can only lie down and stand up — are inhumane.
He emphasized that Murphy-Brown and Smithfield do not take a position that any one form of housing is superior to another, but customers had questions and were worried about their brands, especially if stalls were to become a consumer issue.
He said stalls are not a consumer issue at this time, noting that the company's customers freely say they do not receive many questions from their own customers — i.e., consumers — about how sows are housed and treated.
"It's not front-of-mind" with consumers, Butler said. "If a consumer is asked if she cares, she usually answers 'no.' If she's shown a picture of a sow in a stall, she recoils. You aren't going to convince most female grocery shoppers that stalls are good places for pregnant sows.
"We support a producer's right to choose. It is not our place to tell a producer how to manage her or his animals," Butler said, but customers are dealing with this, and the larger marketplace has made up its mind.
"Our decision was the right decision for us," he said, "and we believe, over time, that the marketplace will insist on" an industry-wide conversion to alternative sow housing such as group pens.
Murphy-Brown essentially has two divisions: an eastern and a western division separated by the Mississippi River.
Murphy-Brown East maintains a herd of approximately 500,000 sows, about half of which are on company-owned farms and half of which are on contract farms.
Murphy-Brown West maintains a herd of approximately 338,000 sows, most of which are on company-owned farms.
Both divisions are on schedule to meet a target for all company-owned sow farms to be completely converted by the end of 2017.
Butler said the company's contract producers understand that they, too, will be expected to eventually convert to group pens. Discussions with contract producers are ongoing, he said, and although no date has been set for them to begin or finish conversion, "we are optimistic that they will come along."
Murphy-Brown has learned much from its conversion over the last six years and will share this information with contract producers, Dave Elkin, Murphy-Brown director of engineering, added. This will allow them to convert efficiently "for less money (and) in less time," he said. "We need our growers to be successful business partners."
Elkin recalled that when Smithfield announced its plans in 2007, there was considerable "apprehension and skepticism" — even by managers of the company farms — that conversion would be disruptive, even non-productive.
"That's gone now," he said. "When I go to a farm today, managers are excited to see me" because they understand it means renovation that will make their farms more modern and successful.
A few contract producers have, in fact, seen this, Mark Hairr, a production development manager for Murphy-Brown in North Carolina, pointed out. They are considering conversion even though they haven't been asked or required to do so, Hairr said. "They are following our lead."
Butler said the Murphy-Brown sow herd — on both company and contract sites — produces about 16.4 million head of market hogs per year, or 60% of Smithfield's requirement for pork production.
He said this suggests that even after conversion, Smithfield still will need to procure hogs from producers with housing systems that use gestation stalls. However, he said "we believe that the industry will eventually move in this (group pen) direction. The market signals will be too strong of an incentive" not to convert.
Besides, Butler said, the conversion process "doesn't have to be and isn't as painful as some think."