New rules phasing out gestation stalls and requiring pain medication for castration are proof pork producers are responding to consumer concerns, says the chair of Alberta Pork.
“We think it’s an important thing to have, and if we follow the code, we’ll have to deal with less random outside influence, if you will,” said Frank Novak.
“We need to have this document and this process so we can talk about production and defend ourselves from extremists.”
Most producers are already moving towards the practices enshrined in the new Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pigs created by the National Farm Animal Care Council, said Darcy Fitzgerald, executive director of Alberta Pork.
Although the code is only a guideline, producers will need to follow it to part of the Canadian Quality Assurance program.
Gestation stalls have become a flashpoint for animal rights activists, who call them inhumane. But removing the stalls from a barn and converting to a group-housing system is expensive — up to $1,000 per sow — and doesn’t automatically improve the welfare of pigs.
“There is no guarantee that you improve animal welfare by removing the stalls,” said Novak, who is a partner in Sunhaven Farms, which manages 12,000 sows in several farms across central Alberta.
“A bad loose-housing system is much worse for welfare than a good stall system.”
Effective July 1, the code requires any producer who builds a new barn or renovates an old one to use a group-housing system for mated gilts or sows. Existing stall systems can be used until 2024, when all producers will either have to have group housing or a program that allows sows to leave their stalls for periodic exercise. Exercise requirements will be developed over the next five years, said Novak.
The challenge is that pigs can be very aggressive.
“If you’ve ever had the opportunity to see what happens when you mix a whole bunch of sows that have not been together before, it isn’t pretty,” said Novak. “The fights are really quite impressive and there can be a lot of serious injury.”
From the Manitoba Co-operator website: Hog code calls for group sow housing, pain control for piglets
Changes to castration practices go into effect immediately. Pigs castrated after 10 days of age will require anesthetic and analgesic to control pain, a rule that will expand to swine of any age by July 1, 2016. Pain mediation is also now required for tail docking on piglets more than seven days old, and will expand to all piglets regardless of age by July 1, 2016.
Those rules will also add to the workload of producers and increase costs because pain mitigation medication for swine hasn’t been available or used by producers in the past, said Novak.
“By 2016, we’re going to have to figure out how we’ll do it, how it will work, and what it will actually cost in the barn,” he said. “We don’t even have all those answers.”
Even the new requirements for “animal enrichment,” which includes toys and activities for the animals, aren’t straightforward.
For example, one of the six categories for enrichments recommends bringing material such as straw or hay into the barn for animals to eat or play with.
“Those are major issues for us from a biosecurity perspective,” said Novak. “No producer will willingly bring things into the barn that could bring disease into the barn in order to meet one detail of the code. They will find other ways to meet it. Producers as a group will go to the parts of the list that do not increase the risk of bringing disease onto the farm.”
But despite the cost and effort, producers understand things need to change, he added.
“The position of the producer has always been that if the value chain, from consumers on down, want producers to do something different, then all they need to do is say that it’s important and they’re willing to pay,” said Novak. “Then the producers will find a way to make it happen. But it cannot rest on the back of the producer.”
Hopefully consumers will recognize the effort the industry is making, he added.
“When you’re making decisions about buying pork in the marketplace, you should make sure you’re buying it from people who are actually following the code, which means Canadian producers.”
The new code was developed by producers, industry partners, retailers, scientists, veterinarians, and animal welfare groups (such as the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies) over the past three years. Public consultations were held last summer and the new code released March 6. It had not been changed since 1993.
It follows a tumultuous decade for pork producers, who have been battered by low prices, Washington’s country-of-origin labelling law, and disease issues such as PEDv and H1N1.
Since 2005, the number of Albertan pork producers has fallen from 1,200 to 350.