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Farm Animal Welfare: Pigs

Pigs for Meat Breeding Sows On the Farm In the Slaughterhouse Fun Facts

Life of a Pig on a Factory Farm

Pigs for Meat

According to the USDA, in 2019, pork production totaled 2.44 billion pounds, a 9% increase from 2019. As piglets, they are subjected to painful mutilations without anesthesia or pain relief; notches are taken out of piglets’ ears for identification and their tails are severed to minimize tail biting, a behavior that occurs when pigs are kept in deprived factory farm environments.

Piglets are taken away from their mothers when they are as young as ten days old and crowded into metal-barred and concrete-floored pens in giant warehouses. Pigs live in these pens until they are separated to be raised for breeding or meat. Nearly 1 million pigs die annually just during tranport to slaughter.

Meat pigs are kept in confinement until they reach a slaughter weight of 250 pounds, usually at 6 months of age. Male piglets are frequently castrated without anesthesia or pain relief. Being in such crowded conditions causes stress-related behaviors like tail-biting. Rather than addressing the root of the problem, pig agribusiness combats this negative behavior by docking their tails — again, without the use of pain relief.

Pigs for Breeding

In the U.S. Pork Industry, nearly 6 million pigs were kept for breeding in 2015 and the number is expected to be higher today. Breeding sows are treated like piglet-making machines, living a continuous cycle of impregnation and birth. Each sow is forced to produce more than 20 piglets a year with little time to recover between pregnancies. Many factory farms are now striving for litters of upwards of 40 piglets per sow. During their pregnancies, sows are kept in two-foot wide gestation crates, intended to allow pigs only enough movement necessary to stand up and lie down. These pigs frequently chew on the bars of their crate out of stress and boredom.

At the end of their four-month pregnancies, the sows are moved into farrowing crates, where they spend about a month until their piglets are weaned. The farrowing crates are slightly larger than gestation crates to allow the sows to lie on their side to nurse. After the sows nurse their young for two-to-three weeks, the piglets are taken away to be fattened, and the sows are re-impregnated and returned to the gestation crates. This cycle continues for the pig’s entire life, about three to five years.

On the Farm

This continuous grueling cycle of moving breeding sows from gestation crate to farrowing crate to gestation crate was developed as an economically efficient method of pork production, requiring less labor and feed than other housing arrangements.

Researchers have found outdoor, crate-free systems, and group housing systems to be better for sow health and longevity. In typical U.S. factory farms, however, 100 or more sows per warehouse are kept in gestation crates placed side by side in rows of often more than 20 sows.

Alternative housing exists. An Iowa State University study found that sows housed in group pens produced healthier, larger litters, and were breeding faster after weaning compared to sows in confined housing (link to the study below). Research also supports that group housing allows for better welfare as sows are more able to express natural behaviors. More technologically advanced forms of group housing, those which allow you to track individual sow food intake, can also help farmers better track the health of their sows and save money. Some studies have stated that group housing can increase lameness and aggression in herds, but this is easily avoidable within farms. Proper flooring (not slatted concrete), with bedding will keep sows from developing lameness. Introducing sows slowly and understanding social dynamics, along with proper feeding methods will keep herd aggression low. Other alternatives to gestation-crate housing systems include “turn-around” stalls, free-range systems, and indoor group housing.

The overcrowding and confinement that is typical of pigs in factory farms is unnatural. Pigs are actually very clean animals; if they are given sufficient space, pigs are careful not to soil the areas where they sleep or eat. But in factory farms, they are forced to live in unsanitary conditions  in their own feces, urine, vomit and the corpses of other pigs.

Physical/Behavioral Effects

Scientific evidence suggests that intensive confinement causes physical disorders in sows. Unnatural flooring and lack of exercise leads to obesity and crippling leg disorders. Further, the air in pig factory farms is laden with dust, dander, and noxious gases, which are produced as the pigs urine and feces builds up inside the warehouses. These problems cause respiratory difficulties and spread infectious diseases amongst the pigs.

Psychological Effects

Scientific evidence also suggests that intensive confinement causes psychological disorders in sows. The lack of environmental stimulation in the stall environment and the sows’ inability to perform normal behaviors (rooting, foraging, nest-building, grazing, wallowing, social behaviors) leads to psychological disorders including chronic stress, depression, and aggression. Sows can also develop abnormal and neurotic coping behaviors, such as bar biting and sham chewing (chewing nothing).

In the Slaughterhouse

In addition to overcrowded housing, pigs also endure extreme crowding during transportation. This crowding often results in rampant suffering and death, even before they arrive at the slaughterhouse. At the slaughterhouse, pigs are first supposed to be “stunned” and rendered unconscious, in accordance with the federal Humane Slaughter Act. The stunning is done prior to being hung upside down by their back legs and having their throats sliced open with a knife so that they may bleed out. However, stunning at slaughterhouses is terribly imprecise. Conscious pigs are often left to hang upside down, kicking and struggling, while a slaughterhouse worker attempts to slice their throats. If the worker is unsuccessful at this first station, the pigs will be carried to the next station on the slaughterhouse assembly line, the scalding tank, and boiled alive fully conscious.

Fortunately, Massachusetts has taken a step in the right direction for animal welfare. In 2016, voters passed a ballot measure that prohibits the inhumane confinement of egg-laying hens, breeding pigs, and veal calves, as well as the sale of products made from animals raised using the production methods.

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