The world's largest pork producer and processor will end the use of individual gestation stalls in response to customer requests.

Smithfield Foods, Inc. announced in late January that it is starting to phase out use of gestation stalls at its 187 company-owned sow farms, and is replacing the industry standard with pens or group sow housing.

The Smithfield, VA-based company also plans to work with its contract growers regarding system conversion.

“Working with our customers, who have made their views known on the issue of gestation stalls, we are pleased to be taking this precedent-setting step,” says C. Larry Pope, chief executive officer of Smithfield Foods.

“During our 70 years in business, we have always been sensitive to the concerns and needs of our customers, and they have told us they feel group housing is a more animal-friendly form of sow housing,” he says.

“While this will be a significant financial commitment for our company over the next 10 years, we believe it's the right thing to do,” he adds.

In making the decision to convert from individual sow stalls to group housing, Pope stresses, “our decision acknowledges that extensive research into sow housing has concluded both gestation stalls and group pens provide for the well-being of pregnant sows and work equally well from a production standpoint.

“There is no scientific consensus on which system is superior, and we do not endorse one management system over the other,” Pope says.

National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) CEO Neil Dierks says Smithfield made a market-based decision.

“NPPC respects the rights of all producers to make market decisions they believe are in their best interest. This does not change the association's policy on gestation stalls,” he says.

Research Study

The Smithfield decision came after the company completed the second year of a three-year study into sow housing. Preliminary results indicated that, with proper management, group sow housing systems are just as good as gestation stalls in providing proper care for pregnant sows, stresses Don Butler, director of Government Relations and Public Affairs at Murphy-Brown, LLC.

Any of the three sow housing systems being studied can work, provided they are managed properly, he says.

Housing Alternatives

Two years ago, Murphy-Brown, the production arm of Smithfield based in Warsaw, NC, entered into a planned three-year research project to evaluate group sow housing alternatives. Three, 2,400-sow commercial farms were converted to research facilities. Half of the gestation facilities on each farm were converted to one of three, group sow housing alternatives to determine whether any of them could provide optimal sow performance:

  • First is a small group system of eight sows, where the back panel of the gestation stalls is removed, allowing sows to move around in an area previously used as boar pens. The feeding system remains the same.

  • Second is a six-sow group system. Sows are fed in short, walk-in stalls with solid steel dividers to provide individual feeding using a slow, trickle-feeding system.

  • Third is a large pen configuration of 58 sows with electronic feeding stations. Sows carry transponders that identify appropriate, individual feeding levels.

“Probably any of these systems can be made to work if they are managed properly, but a final decision has not been made as to which of these options we are going to go with,” says Butler, chair of the NPPC's Animal Welfare Committee.

The first sow farms to be converted will be those with the smallest gestation stalls and/or where equipment is nearing the end of its useful life.

Butler says the company announcement did not directly address how sows would be housed right after breeding. “Clearly, we recognize the need to keep sows in place until they are confirmed pregnant, so our plans are to keep them in individual, private spaces until they are confirmed pregnant.”

John Mabry, genetic specialist and director of the Iowa Pork Industry Center, says the vast majority of sows in the United States are now housed in individual gestation stalls after breeding — and for good reason.

“After insemination, it takes about 14-28 days for the embryos to be fully implanted in the walls of the uterus. During that time, they are fairly fragile. If they are in a pen situation and competing for space or feed, there is a higher likelihood that those embryos will become dislodged,” he explains.

Industry Research Agrees

Paul Sundberg, DVM, vice president of Science and Technology for the National Pork Board, says the best scientific research that the industry has conducted shows that there are several types of production systems that can be good for pigs.

“We know that regardless of the system, what matters is the individual care given to the pig, and what works best for producers given their resources, including facilities, labor, genetics and their markets,” he says.

That conclusion on the science behind sow housing is based on 10 pork checkoff-funded projects conducted over the last 10 years and reviews of the scientific literature, Sundberg says. The Pork Board spent $500,000 to evaluate sow systems that add to the body of research.

Back in 1996, the Pork Board brought international experts in animal welfare and sow housing together to conduct a complete literature review. This review, published in 2001, as well as a separate, independent review coordinated by the American Veterinary Medical Association published in 2005, both showed that there are advantages and disadvantages to all types of housing systems.

“Our conclusion then was that a major factor that affects the well-being of the sow is the skill and management of the person taking care of the animal,” Sundberg observes.

Viable Alternatives

Mabry points out that Iowa State University (ISU) has conducted studies on sow gestation housing.

“There is a fair amount of information that says hoop barns are a viable alternative in terms of production. In a trial at the Lauren Christian research farm in Atlantic, IA, we used the same genetics and put groups in gestation stalls and in hoop barns, and monitored their performance over a three-year period,” says Mabry. Results were very similar for the two groups. Hoop-housed sows actually had slightly larger litter sizes than stall-housed sows. In that trial, both groups of sows were housed in individual stalls for 10 days after insemination.

The behavioral aspects of sow housing were not covered in those trials. ISU animal welfare scientist Anna Johnson will be coordinating side-by-side trials on the behavioral differences of sows housed in individual stalls vs. pens in a new sow gestation barn being built at the ISU research farm near Madrid, IA.

Iowa Producer Prefers Stalls

Gene Ver Steeg, 2006 president of the Iowa Producers Association, participated in numerous teleconference calls about the Smithfield announcement at the Iowa Pork Congress.

Ver Steeg is a 950-sow, farrow-to-finish producer at Inwood, IA, who converted years ago from outside lots for gestating sows to confined, individual stalls as a means to properly feed and manage sows.

Ver Steeg believes that the recent announcement by Smithfield will increase pressure on all producers to switch to some form of group sow housing for gestation.

And he suggests that there are much stronger odds now for some legislative action on this issue in the upcoming farm bill. Ver Steeg is a member of the NPPC's Animal Welfare Committee.

Iowa Pork Producers Association Executive Director Richard Degner says Smithfield's move makes that unnecessary.

“If the United States' largest pork producer is going to voluntarily phase out gestation stalls, it's now evident that (language concerning a phaseout of gestation stalls) doesn't need to be in the farm bill,” Degner says.

Smithfield's action follows state constitutional bans on sow stalls, first by Florida, and within the last few months, by Arizona.

Other Comments

Based on industry literature reviews, the American Meat Institute (AMI) has said that due to the large variation in performance within both group and stall systems, that the best option is to “select the system that companies believe they can manage most effectively to ensure optimal welfare and maintain animal health.”

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) called the Smithfield announcement “perhaps the most monumental advance for animal welfare in the history of modern American agribusiness.”

The Pork Board's Sundberg says producers should weigh the pros and cons of gestation stalls before making any decision to switch. A detailed list is posted at www.pork.org.

Also under the Spotlight on Housing section of the Pork Board site is a calculator tool to help producers determine sow building and equipment conversion costs.

“This tool was developed a couple of years ago, and is not intended to advocate changing from stalls to pens. It is a tool to give producers information and resources if they are thinking about converting from one system to another,” he clarifies.