What is the single, most important issue facing the pork industry in 2008?

In the near term, feed costs would surely top most lists. In the long term, sow gestation housing would likely be a high priority. Both could very easily reshape U.S. pork production as we know it today.

It was just 12 months ago that Smithfield Foods announced their intent to phase out individual gestation stalls within a decade. As the nation's largest pork producer and processor, the ripple effect was probably inevitable.

Since then, the sow gestation housing issue has become the industry's dilemma and its challenge. Most pork producers I've talked to are trying to decide if and when they will abandon individual sow stalls.

Who's Decision Is It, Anyway?

I have no problem with Smithfield Foods making a management decision that better positions their various branded pork products for the foreign or domestic marketplace. It is a marketing decision, and they have every right to run their business in the best interests of their shareholders.

In the last few years, the citizens of Florida, Arizona and Oregon raised their collective voices in opposition to individual gestation stalls by voting to outlaw their use.

In mid-December, the debate was exacerbated by an announcement from the Colorado Pork Producers Council (CPPC) stating its members have decided to “end the use of gestation crates in response to public concerns and changing market conditions.” The release went on to say: “Colorado pork producers will embark on a 10-year phase-in (period) that will allow producers to thoroughly evaluate and determine the best animal welfare practices for group housing.”

Did the announcement appease the anti-gestation-stall campaigners?

Hardly. Shortly after the announcement, Wayne Pacelle, who heads the Humane Society of the United States, praised the CPPC decision, then quickly took aim at Colorado egg producers, calling for them to eliminate chicken cages.

Translated, Pacelle is saying: “That's nice, but now we want you to do this, and this, and this!”

What troubles me most about the CPPC statement is the implication that group sow housing is the only way to go. That seems a bit premature.

It seems to me now would be a good time to step back and consider whether there is some middle ground, which, in fact, could better serve the sows' well-being than group housing.

For example, gestation stalls could be designed with more space — wider, longer, taller.

When farms are successful at increasing the average parity of the sow herd to 3 or higher, generally they are dealing with larger sows that need more space to extend their feet and legs while they are lying down.

Modern nutritional programs and genetic selection have resulted in larger sows, too. We must recognize the fact that the “standard” gestation stall may not fit the 2008-model sows.

Some of you might also remember a turn-around gestation stall design that was studied at the University of Illinois nearly 20 years ago. Some feel the design was ahead of its time. Maybe some tweaking of the design would lead to a better option than individual stalls or group housing.

Yes, of course, grouping sows in gestation can and does work very well for some. I've seen several that deserve high marks for both productivity and sow well-being.

New Series Might Help

Negotiating the sow gestation-housing maze will take time, trial and error, and refinement — the same evolutionary process that eventually led the industry to widespread use of gestation stalls.

We recognize that there is a lot to learn, and perhaps relearn, about housing gestating sows. If the Smithfield decision is to serve as an industry standard, that means we have nine years to sort this out.

In this issue, you will find two articles describing two very different approaches to housing, feeding and caring for sows in gestation. These are the first in a series of articles we will offer on as many different sow housing options as we can find. Some will be proven and documented with sow performance data. Others will be new technologies still being refined, but worth considering.

In this industry, we are fond of saying: “There's more than one way to raise hogs.”

That's certainly true, and it remains at the heart of our editorial commitment to deliver solid information that will help you make informed management decisions.

I'm sure those who decide to move away from sow stalls will study, test and revise various options until they fit the needs of the sows in their care. We'll do our best to share as many of those stories as we can in the coming year.