Henceforth, January 25th, 2007, will serve as a milestone in the U.S. pork industry.

On the second day of the Iowa Pork Congress, the trade show floor was abuzz with talk about Smithfield Foods' announcement that it would phase out gestation stalls in their company-owned sow farms over the next 10 years.

Smithfield CEO Larry Pope acknowledged that extensive research into sow housing alternatives did not favor group housing over stalls. Both “provide for the well-being of pregnant sows and work equally well from a production standpoint,” he stated.

In other words, this was a market-based decision. Whether it was driven by pressures from Wal-Mart, McDonalds, the Humane Society of the United States, European decisions to outlaw sow stalls by 2013, or the successful referendums to ban gestation stalls in Florida and Arizona doesn't really matter at this point.

Naturally, the Humane Society of the United States was quick to jump on Smithfield's announcement, calling the move “perhaps the most monumental advance for animal welfare in the history of modern American agribusiness.”

Monumental? That may be a bit of a stretch, but the move will likely signal a “paradigm shift” for how gestating sows are housed in the future.

Intended or not, when the world's largest pork producer publicly announces a major change in the way they house and care for their million or so sows, a ripple effect will be felt throughout the industry.

In fact, just a week after Smithfield's pledge, Canada's largest producer, Maple Leaf Foods, announced they would follow suit with their 116,000 sows.

Take a Deep Breath

There are valid arguments on both sides of this issue.

If you're solidly on the defensive side, the arguments that gestation stalls optimize individual care and performance ring true. However, from a purely emotional, “the-poor-sows-can't-even-turn around” point of view, the arguments are not so clear-cut.

Now would be a good time for the industry to take a big, collective breath before it heads pell mell into the next generation of group sow housing. It is important to remember, the move to environmentally controlled sow housing was not done hastily. Much research and trial and error carried us through various configurations of pen gestation and eventually to individual sow stalls.

The thermometer at my rural Minnesota farmstead fell to a frigid -24° F this morning. Housing sows in outside lots in these temps is not welfare-friendly for man or beast. When things begin to thaw, trudging through knee-deep mud to feed and care for these animals is not much fun either.

Many have forgotten — or more likely never experienced — these battles with Mother Nature.

Granted, almost no one is suggesting we return to the very challenging outdoor housing methods, but it is important to remember why individual sow housing evolved as an industry standard.

I wonder — isn't there a compromise in there, somewhere?

All or Nothing?

I accept that a 112- to 116-day stint in a 2×7 ft. stall is difficult to defend to the welfare-conscious consumer. However, many have not witnessed the aggression, injury and chaos that ensues when a group of newly weaned sows of various sizes, parities and conditions are mixed. There's a lot of fighting, biting, running, riding and retreating. Sows get hurt.

These battles continue until dominance and social ranking of the group is established.

I've long felt there is a good and humane compromise to this management challenge — shortening the weaned sow's stay in the individual stall to 30-35 days, for example. This would give her time to recover from weaning and allow milk flow to subside. Sows could be given important vaccinations and any health concerns treated, individually.

An abbreviated stay would also allow ample time to manage feed intake — boosting her daily allowance to get her back to good body condition or reducing her feed allowance if she's in danger of becoming obese.

Once bred, the embryos safely implanted and pregnancy confirmed, sows of similar size and parity could be grouped with minimal fighting.

Whether these groups are small (6-8 sows) or large (20 or more) will depend on the management and stockmanship abilities of their caretakers.

Electronic feeding for group-housed sows is one option. Other technologies will surely surface. But, much as the ability to manage sows in stalls had a learning curve, we must study the best possible means of allowing them to cohabitate.

Individual care should be tantamount in our efforts to better care for and house our sows. Anything short of that is indefensible, regardless of your stand on sow housing.