More and more food companies are looking to suppliers to move toward group housing systems for pregnant sows. Many of our restaurant customers have announced that they will require their U.S. pork suppliers to provide plans to transition to group housing.
Smithfield remains on track toward our goal of converting to group housing systems for pregnant sows at all company-owned sow farms in the United States by 2017. We first announced our plans to transition to group housing in 2007 but had to slow our progress in 2009 in difficult economic times. We accelerated our conversion work in 2011, and at the end of 2014 we had transitioned 71.4 percent of pregnant sows on company-owned farms to group housing.
Additionally, Smithfield announced in 2013 that company-owned farms worldwide would be converted to group housing systems by 2022. Smithfield’s hog production operations in Poland (Agri Plus) and Romania (Smithfield Ferme) completed their conversions to group housing facilities on company-owned farms a number of years ago, and the company’s Granjas Carroll de México (GCM) and Norson joint ventures in Mexico are committed to phasing out gestation stalls on company-owned farms by 2022.
[Percentage of Sows in Company-Owned Group Housing Chart]
All values reported by calendar year.
Smithfield and our hog production subsidiary, Murphy-Brown LLC, also announced in early 2014 that we are recommending all of our contract sow growers join with the company in converting their facilities to group housing systems for pregnant sows. Growers who commit to convert to group housing will receive contract extensions upon completion of the conversion. Although the conversion of contract growers’ facilities to group housing systems is being encouraged, it is not mandatory. If growers choose not to participate, their current contracts with Murphy-Brown will remain unchanged, although extensions are less likely.
Our decision to transition to group housing has been controversial within our industry. We have never argued that the science suggests one type of housing is better than another. We decided to move to group housing after consulting with many of our customers.
Research we conducted over two years shows that different housing types can work equally well from both an animal care and a production standpoint. Studies by the National Pork Board and others have also shown that a variety of housing methods can provide good care for sows.
Group housing conversion is a complex process that can’t be done overnight. Group housing systems require nearly double the square footage of individual stalls. To maintain the same number of sows on a farm, we need to either build new barns or expand existing ones. The process of doing that can lead to additional construction work, such as moving septic systems, changing the location of farrowing barns, digging new wells, or removing buried utility lines. In addition, feeding and watering systems may need to be changed and ventilation systems may need to be revamped. In some instances, due to permitting restrictions, we reduce the number of sows on a farm.
Sows housed in group systems require different animal husbandry practices than sows in individual stalls, and our farm workers receive specific training to carry out the new techniques. For example, we must monitor the animals to protect docile sows from harassment by more aggressive sows. In addition, group pens make it more challenging to observe pregnant females that are in need of medical attention.
We estimate the total cost of our transition to group pens will be approximately $360 million. Many of our barns require extensive retrofits and reconfigurations to create the new housing systems.
As we implement the new systems, we’re simultaneously taking the opportunity to make other improvements to the facilities. For example, at many barns we’re investing in improvements for farrowing facilities, increasing the size of the areas to provide more room for the sows and to allow for pigs to be weaned at 23 or 24 days old—several days longer than in our older systems. (Longer weaning periods mean healthier, stronger pigs.)
Murphy-Brown Takes You on an In-Depth Tour of a Sow Farm
Changing to new housing systems means we must also help the sows grow accustomed to the new housing arrangements. In addition, we require contractors to be mindful of the animals and to do their work in ways that won’t disrupt the hogs. Wherever possible, we’re using local construction crews to perform the work. In North Carolina, where many of our hog farms are based, we have been employing two North Carolina construction firms. In our western U.S. operations, we have established several preferred contractors to retrofit or construct the gestation spaces to our specifications.
Expert’s Perspective“Throughout 2012 and 2013 I have been assessing sows in newly converted housing at Murphy-Brown farms. The sows I have seen appear to be thriving within the new systems. There was an expectation of increased welfare issues due to bullying among the group housed, but I have not been seeing that within the barns I have been auditing, as observed bullying has been minimal. The barns are significantly quieter with the new housing and sows are quite docile. I attribute the latter to the fact that the pens are walked quite frequently and there is a greater level of interaction between the handlers and the sows. The overall condition of the sows also appears to be better in the converted housing. The new facilities are also more aesthetically pleasing than the old system and I believe it has been money well invested.”
—Jennifer Woods, Murphy-Brown Third-Party Audit Review Report, Spring 2013
Generally speaking, the U.S. pork industry uses three types of housing arrangements for pregnant sows: individual stall housing, free-access pen housing, and small group housing. Murphy-Brown currently uses all three methods at company-owned farms, but has chosen to convert to free access and small group systems by 2017. The number of sows in a group may vary on some farms.
Individual sow housing. Used by most of the pork industry, this system puts pregnant sows in individual stalls for the duration of their pregnancies. This system allows for individual medical care and attention, minimizes fighting between sows, and allows personnel to monitor a sow’s pregnancy more accurately.
Free-access pen housing. In this system, a large group of sows (between 30 and 40) has access to a common area for lounging and exercise, as well as access to individual stalls for feeding. Sows can come and go as they please and can close a gate behind them in the stalls if they choose. On our farms, we have observed that about 90 percent of sows choose to spend a majority of their time in the individual stalls rather than in the common area.
Small group housing. This form of housing allows small numbers of sows to be in a common open pen once they are confirmed to be pregnant. These pens typically include individual feeding stations, which help to minimize fighting among sows for feed.