Walking into the hog barn, the strong smell of pig manure pierced my nostrils. As my body adjusted to the smell, my sight was the next sense to be overwhelmed. Row upon row of large hogs were lined up in stalls just bigger than their bodies. Literally hundreds of 250 lb animals were shoulder-to-shoulder in crates too narrow for them to even turn around in.
These cages are known as gestation stalls. I had visited the Gould’s third-generation family owned and operated grain and livestock farm in Western Kane County as an Illinois Farm Families 2014 Field Mom. Most of the pigs on this farm were pregnant, as it is a farrow-to-wean swine operation consisting of 750 females producing 16,000 piglets annually. That means female pigs are housed to be bred. Piglets are nursed until weaning, then moved on to another operation, which raises them to market weight. Animal activist and industry debates center on the use of such constrictive confinement. I don’t have to tell you how cruel it seems to be unable to walk or even turn around.
When confronted with swine housing, most consumers automatically suggest open pens. They seem more natural and idyllic of farms. But most of us, like me, have absolutely no experience raising livestock and need to understand the issue isn’t quite that simple.
Hogs can demonstrate very violent social behavior as alphas try to establish dominancy. Sows, or mother pigs, have to be on specialized, measured diets to ensure optimal health during pregnancy. In open pen situations, the more aggressive pigs end up with more feed than they should, the timid hogs with too little, and all suffer from fighting for feed. The scratching and biting result in open wounds, leaving pigs hurt and sick.
However, the eeriest thing in the Gould gestation barn was that it was almost silent. All those animals lined up one after another and there was no snorting, no grunting and no aggressive behavior. For as much as a non-animal-expert can tell you, the environment seemed to be low stress. Perhaps larger stalls that allow room to at least turn could improve the pigs’ lives, but currently they seemed to be clean, calm and healthy-looking.
Next we moved onto the farrowing barn, where newborn pigs nurse with their mothers. They were housed in farrowing stalls, where piglets have an open pen, but bars separate the mother from rolling onto and crushing her babies.
It was hard not to squeal with joy at the piles of tiny pink piglets. New brothers and sisters were grunting and pushing as they clamored for warmth and milk. But just as my heart filled with the joy of new life, my eyes laid upon a smaller, thinner one shivering in the corner.
“Oh no,” I said, pointing. “I think that one needs help.”
Eldon Gould, owner of the farm since 1968, reached into the pen and pulled the struggling newborn into the warmth of the heat lamp.
I looked at Eldon and the piglet with my sad but hopeful eyes. We moved on. Several stalls down I saw another runt shaking.
“Diarrhea,” Eldon said.
“What do you do?” I asked.
Eldon shrugged, “Mother Nature can be very cruel.” He explained how they didn’t want to force things or take artificial measures. “Sometimes they’re just not going to make it.”
I stopped taking pictures of the piglets.
“How many of them don’t make it?” I asked.
“We have a 10-12% mortality rate,” he answered honestly.
While it was hard to stomach the image of a struggling newborn pig, I appreciated the fact that the Gould family was not sheltering us from the reality of hog farming. After all, that was why I was there.
I asked the Gould family what the most difficult thing about being farmers was. The answer was uncertainty, and usually a different kind each day. Farmers have to play mental games with finances and resources as they struggle with variable weather and fight diseases. “One year there’s a draught, the next there’s a flood,” said Sandy Gould, Eldon’s wife and co-owner of the farm. I nodded my head in understanding as we were huddled together on a 30-degree day in late March. I think we can all agree that farmers have tough jobs and many mouths to feed.
I was impressed by the amount of science incorporated into farming today. Genetics help ensure sows have healthy litter sizes and hogs are bred to ideal weights and lengths. Proper nutrition and care is taken and measured for each hog on “baseball card stats.”
“What’s good for pigs is good for us,” Eldon said. “Like your kids, keep them healthy rather than try to get them better after being sick.”
Leaving the Gould farm, I felt they were doing their best to raise healthy animals to feed our country and make a living. While my first look at gestation crates and farrowing stalls was alarming, the images I truly can’t shake are of the baby piglets that were simply born unstable. The cruelest thing I saw on that hog farm was at the hands of Mother Nature, not a farmer, as some alarmist propaganda may have you believe.
“Are there some bad farmers?” Pam Janssen, owner of another hog farm, asked us on our previous Field Mom excursion. “Sure. Just like there are some bad teachers and bad priests. But does that make them all bad?”
I suggest going and seeing for yourself.