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Articles from 2005 In September

Fact vs. Fiction in Animal Welfare Debate

Talk is cheap in the animal welfare debate when animal activists depict a chilling image of tortured animals on America's hog farms.

Unless hog producers take steps to prove animal activists wrong, the public won't know fact from fiction, says Don Butler, director of government relations and public affairs at Murphy-Brown.

For the country's largest pork producer, proof is in their new Animal Welfare Management System (AWMS), which comprises all of the care procedures of the National Pork Board's Swine Welfare Assurance Program, (SWAP) plus added checks and balances across the 14-state enterprise.

The animal welfare program provides solid evidence that the company is serious about addressing animal welfare issues, Butler told University of Illinois students in an undergraduate seminar class on current topics in swine production.

“We realized early on it is imperative that we have some means of assuring our customers that those claims are ludicrous,” Butler explains. “We had to demonstrate that we were doing the right thing by our animals.”

Bringing in the Experts

The first task in developing the new program was to evaluate current practices. They contacted Stanley Curtis, professor emeritus of animal science at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana; and Temple Grandin, a renowned animal handling expert and associate professor of animal science at Colorado State University. The duo examined every production practice and identified shortcomings in animal care from air quality in confinement buildings to proper use of euthanasia.

These internationally recognized experts considered most of Murphy-Brown's practices satisfactory, but the review found that the company needed to improve some of their hog handling methods, including employee training in that area.

All animal handlers involved in transporting animals must now be certified under the National Pork Board's Trucker Quality Assurance (TQA) Program. Today, even contract haulers must be certified to work for the company.

The company had identified sow lesions as an area of concern, but prior to AWMS implementation, they had no formal system to track the frequency and severity of lesions to learn the extent of the problem. Murphy-Brown worked with Curtis to develop a scoring system to systematically assess the skin condition of the breeding stock.

Since implementing the AWMS system, breeding females are checked and scored three times during each reproductive cycle — at first service as they become available to breed, at 28 to 35 days after breeding, and prior to entering the farrowing facility. The goal is to assess the status of preexisting lesions that might affect farrowing performance. Veterinary treatment is provided for the lesions, and a root cause analysis is conducted to determine whether changes are necessary in procedures or in the facility.

All on Board

An animal welfare program is only effective if it can be implemented throughout a given production system. Otherwise, employees will choose their own methods, which may not always be optimal.

“If everyone is doing their own thing, that's not good enough in an outfit like ours where we expect everybody to do the same thing — follow the established best-management practices, all the time,” says Butler.

Therefore, the company developed and field-tested new procedures before presenting the program to its production employees. The program encompasses a system of daily, weekly and quarterly checklists to ensure adequate steps are taken to provide high-quality animal care. They also have an internal auditing department that inspects facilities and addresses environmental and animal welfare issues.

“That, in and of itself, was not enough to convince McDonald's or Wendy's or anyone else that the company was following proper procedures,” says Butler. “We needed third-party verification.”

They found a verifier in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Process Verified Program to conduct random audits in different company locations. The company expects all sites to be prepared for a USDA site visit at any time. Butler believes some kind of third-party verification audit is in the future for all U.S. pork producers.

The Animal Care Conundrum

Any sound animal welfare program must identify and prioritize the factors that influence animal well-being, says Butler.

To date, there is no scientific consensus on a set of standards for animal comfort and contentment. Some groups believe that standards should be based on how the animal thinks and feels. Others base care decisions on factors that are observable and measurable.

“The different groups are arguing back and forth, and we're the industry caught in the middle,” says Butler. “I don't know where that trail ends. What we (Murphy-Brown) have chosen to do is to manage the things we can identify and measure. If you can measure it, you can manage it.

“We believe the path we've taken is the right one. And our customers seem to understand that,” he adds.

Confronting the controversial housing issue, Butler says the company has reviewed the research literature and determined there is not enough scientific evidence to prove that group housing is superior to individual stalls. (See related story on page 10).

Murphy-Brown is conducting its own commercial-scale research project to look at the variations on group housing from a management and cost standpoint.

A willingness to consider new ideas and various options, and continually look for ways to improve practices, has contributed to the success of the business, Butler says.

Customer Communication

Once the AWMS was in place, they realized they had not placed enough importance on communicating with the company's customers, such as national restaurant and grocery store chains, about their new animal welfare standards. Customer communication is the second-biggest challenge after initiating an animal welfare program, Butler says.

“I believe it is incumbent on us to tell our customers about the good things we are doing,” he says. “If we don't, other people will fill that vacuum with misinformation.”

Antimicrobials in Water a Viable Option

Research trials bear out the value of water-based medications in treating segregated early weaning nurseries.

Researchers at Kansas State University (KSU) recently conducted a series of trials to evaluate the effectiveness of replacing feed-based antimicrobials with water-based products in segregated early weaning (SEW) nurseries.

Lead researcher Russell Gottlob and KSU colleagues tackled the comparisons at the request of a commercial pork producer who was interested in eliminating the challenges associated with mixing antibiotics in the feedmill, yet was unwilling to sacrifice the improvements in growth rate found with growth-promoting antibiotics.

The producer's concerns centered on three key issues:

  • Feed processing limitations make it difficult to change antimicrobials used;

  • The use of multiple antibiotics in the mill requires multiple runs and adds to concern about cross-contamination with non-medicated feeds; and

  • Pulsing antibiotics can be very difficult in feeds due to difficulties in timing deliveries.

The goal of the KSU experiments was to study the feasibility of replacing in-feed antimicrobials with water-based antimicrobials to simplify these processing and handling challenges and reduce the risk of feed contaminated with inappropriate antimicrobials or residues.

Preliminary Trial Provides Guidance

An initial study involving 350 weaned pigs, averaging 13 lb. and ranging in age from 11 to 17 days of age, was conducted to determine the effects of a water-based antimicrobial on pig performance in the nursery.

Pigs received one of five different treatments — three with water medications consisting of Neomycin sulfate, Oxytetracycline or a combination of the two; another with Neomycin sulfate-Oxytetracycline HCl in the feed; and a “negative” control diet with no feed or water medications.

SelectDoser peristaltic pumps (Genesis Instruments), which are powered by electricity, siphoned a concentrated, pre-mixed stock solution through a tube and dosed the medication into the existing water supply.

At the close of the 28-day nursery trial, researchers reported that pigs receiving antimicrobials in water had higher average daily gain (ADG) and average daily feed intake (ADFI) than pigs that received no medication in feed or water. However, pigs receiving feed-based antibiotics outperformed pigs receiving the water-medicated options.

The KSU researchers noted that water usage was much higher than expected. Typical water disappearance is around 20% of pig body weight (BW) using bowl drinkers.

In this experiment, water disappearance was highest the first week, approximately 36.4% of BW, which gradually tapered off to 22.8% by Day 28. The excess was attributed to pigs playing with the nipple waterers and water spillage while drinking. This confounded the experimental results because water antimicrobial levels were based on predicted consumption without factoring in water wastage.

Consequently, pigs receiving antimicrobials in water “most likely did not receive the desired level of antimicrobial per pound of body weight,” Gottlob explains. “Furthermore, pigs provided antimicrobials through the water received an overall lower dosage compared to pigs provided antimicrobials through feed.”

“This preliminary trial told us that we could improve performance with water-based antibiotics, but that we needed to work further on the dose and delivery to ensure an adequate quantity of antibiotic was reaching the pig,” explains Mike Tokach, KSU Extension swine nutritionist. “The second trial really tells the whole story.”

Follow-Up Study

Bowl drinkers were installed in the same facility to reduce water wastage in the second trial and ensure pigs received the prescribed antimicrobial levels. This follow-up experiment also examined more antimicrobial levels in the water.

A total of 360 weaned pigs, averaging 14.1 lb. and ranging in age from 21 to 24 days of age, were given one of eight experimental treatments, including:

  1. Negative control (no antibiotics in feed or water).

  2. Positive control with Neo-Terra-mycin in the feed (140 g./ton Neomycin sulfate, 140 g./ton Oxytetracycline HCl).

  3. 38 mg. of Neomycin sulfate/liter of water.

  4. 75.5 mg. of Neomycin sulfate/liter of water.

  5. 113.5 mg. of Neomycin sulfate/liter of water.

  6. 100 g./ton of Neomycin sulfate in feed.

  7. 200 g./ton of Neomycin sulfate in feed.

  8. Combination of treatments 2 and 4 (Neo-Terramycin in feed and 75.5 mg. of Neomycin sulfate/liter of water).

Five pigs were placed per pen with nine pens per treatment. The SelectDoser was again used to dose the medication into the water supply. The stock solutions were dosed at a 1:100 ratio to achieve the desired level of medication. Each solution also contained citric acid as a water line cleaner and drug solubility aid. Medication concentrations were based on an estimated consumption of 10% of pigs' body weight, rather than disappearance. Pigs stayed on the same treatment for the 24-day test period and were weighed on Day 7, 14 and 24.

Two dietary treatments were fed, ad libitum, in meal form, with the Phase I diet fed the first 14 days and Phase II fed for the balance of the 24-day trial.

The phase I diet was formulated to contain 1.41% true ileal digestible (TID) lysine, 0.90% calcium (Ca), and 0.50% available phosphorus (P). Phase II diets were formulated to contain 1.31% TID, 0.83% Ca, and 0.39% available P.

Pigs receiving the various treatments (2 through 8) outperformed those receiving the negative control diet, when measuring average daily gain (ADG), average daily feed intake (ADFI) and lb. feed/lb. gain (F/G).

Pigs receiving Treatment 8 had greater ADG and ADFI than pigs fed Treatments 2, 3, 4 and 5. Researchers also noted that increasing Neomycin sulfate in the water (Treatments 3-5) improved ADG and ADFI. Likewise, increasing Neomycin sulfate levels in the feed (Treatments 6 and 7), improved both measures, plus F/G.

Pigs provided Treatment 8 had greater ADFI and tended to have greater ADG than pigs fed Treatment 2 or pigs receiving Treatment 4.

Generally, whether Neomycin sulfate was supplemented through feed or water did not affect the beneficial performance response to antibiotics.

“No differences were found in growth performance of pigs provided medication using either method,” Gottlob explains. “This indicates that water-based medication can be used in place of medication in the feed to yield similar growth performance.”

Table 1. Growth Performance of Early Weaned Nursery Pigs Provided Neomycin Sulfate in the Water and Feed.a
Probability, P<
Neomycin sulfate mg./L water Neomycin sulfate, g./ton feed Negative control vs. Positive control vs. Combo vs water Neo 75.5 Feed med vs. water med
Item Neg control Pos conb 38.0 75.5 113.5 100 200 Comboc Pos control Water med Feed med Water med Feed med Combo
D 0 to 24
ADG, lb. 0.81 0.89 0.91 0.89 0.90 0.91 0.93 0.95 0.02 0.01 0.01 0.78 0.36 0.09 0.06 0.38
ADFI, lb. 1.07 1.14 1.16 1.13 1.16 1.17 1.18 1.23 0.05 0.01 0.01 0.83 0.35 0.04 0.02 0.33
F/G 1.33 1.28 1.27 1.27 1.29 1.29 1.26 1.29 0.11 0.03 0.05 0.84 0.89 0.85 0.61 0.96
aA total of 360 weanling pigs, initially weighed 14.1 lb. and 21 ± 3 d of age (PIC L337 × C22). Values are the mean of nine replications.
bContaining Neo-Terramycin® (140 g/ton Neomycin sulfate, 140 g/ton Oxytetracycline HCl).
cContaining Neomycin sulfate in the water (75.5 mg/L) and Neo/oxy in the feed (140 g/ton Neomycin sulfate, 140 g/ton Oxytetracycline HCl).

Butler Named to NPPC Board

Don Butler has been appointed to the board of directors of the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC).

Butler serves as director of government relations and public affairs for Murphy-Brown LLC, the swine production subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, Inc. He also manages a 7,000-head, wean-to-feeder pig operation.

Butler has served as president of the North Carolina Pork Council, board chairman of the Animal Agriculture Alliance and as a state delegate to the National Pork Industry Forum.

Handle with Care: Farm to Fork

A vertically integrated pork system and the nation's second-largest hog producer vows to integrate animal welfare throughout production.

When it comes to animal welfare, not much at Premium Standard Farms (PSF) is standard anymore.

The pork giant is busy unveiling a new animal welfare philosophy this month. The new philosophy is being put into practice on the farm with production changes.

Welfare Focus Sharpens

For years, PSF, like most production systems, practiced good animal welfare.

However, since Jeff Hill came on board 16 months ago in the newly created position of director of animal welfare and system design, animal care has new focus at the Princeton, MO, production headquarters.

“Animal welfare is actually more than a philosophy at PSF. It guides our future decisions as we move forward in the company,” says Hill, who has degrees in swine production, animal behavior/animal welfare and is completing a doctorate degree from Michigan State in system design.

His mission: develop a customized animal welfare program that exceeds the industry standards of the National Pork Board's Swine Welfare Assurance Program (SWAP) and heightens personal accountability and consumer awareness.

An all-inclusive animal welfare program requires fundamental changes in mindset. As a leader in the swine industry, PSF officials recognize the ethical obligations and moral responsibilities to the animals under their care.

Hill likens the change to the major overhaul of biosecurity protocols in the industry in recent years. At PSF, Hill's major challenge is to ingrain animal welfare philosophy into company culture.

Potential new employees go through an orientation session that focuses on animal welfare, including reviewing and discussing animal abuses that have occurred within the swine industry. “These incidents should shock and abhor our employees. If they don't, these people are not a good fit for PSF,” notes Hill.

The animal welfare program provides a hotline number to anonymously report animal welfare or abuse concerns at PSF. “It is our employees' responsibility to act on such concerns,” he adds. “For it is the actions of our employees that determine the success of PSF.”

PSF reinforces its animal welfare philosophy to its hundreds of workers in production and administration through employee education, standard operating procedures, production guidelines and continual performance assessments. “It is the responsibility of employees to ask, ‘how will this impact the welfare of this animal?’ for every decision you make and action you take,” Hill says.

Character Building

Character training is being instituted to develop key traits that will strengthen PSF's commitment to animal welfare.

If employees jeopardize the welfare of an animal, they can receive a warning, disciplinary action or termination, depending on the infraction. If they abuse an animal, they will be terminated, and if warranted, reported to officials for full prosecution.

A new company Intranet Web site provides operating procedures and guidelines to help avoid any chance of abuse.

Transportation Advances

One of the initial areas of emphasis for the new in-depth animal welfare program at PSF was transportation and market hog handling, says Hill. The National Pork Board coordinated development of the Trucker Quality Assurance (TQA) program to address those issues.

Hill comments: “We spend all the money and resources in the pork industry to breed a sow, farrow a piglet, raise the piglet through the nursery and finishing, only to lose him on the truck.”

A dead hog is worthless, costs more money to unload, and in the process interrupts plant flow, he notes.

Dead on arrival (DOAs) and dead in plants (DIPs) represent an estimated annual loss to the pork industry of $255 million, or $2.44/head. DOAs alone account for a loss of $31 million, or 0.23% of the market hogs shipped, says Hill. Those figures are extrapolated from data collected from packing plants, industry sources and the National Pork Board. The data excludes hogs stressed or fatigued during transportation.

Losses at PSF's Missouri operation, based on a five-year average, exceeded $1 million annually at slaughter due to direct losses from DOAs and DIPs and in indirect trim and pork quality losses related to handling.

In 2003, PSF experienced a significant increase in DOAs and DIPs over the previous year, and the ominous trend was continuing into 2004, Hill recounts.

Three-Pronged Program

That situation triggered Hill to conduct a systematic analysis of losses and develop a three-pronged approach for improvement. A targeted DOA/DIP program emphasized animal handling strategies, transportation systems and facility and equipment design.

“One big key has been training and education for load-out personnel to help them better understand the behavior and physiology of pigs so they can better problem-solve in the field,” says Hill. In this process, loaders learn about subtle issues that impact loading market hogs, such as the importance of lighting and shadows.

“We are holding employees completely accountable,” says Hill. PSF is tracking losses by production site, load crew and driver. Incentive programs reward good handlers, while overly aggressive or poor handlers end up being reassigned.

One important measure of proper handling is load-out times from the finisher facilities. Hill says it takes 60 minutes to load out the first and second “pulls” and 45 minutes for closeouts. “If any of our crews exceed those targets by under or over 10 minutes, they better be able to explain why,” he notes.

Animal density was a big issue in market hog shipments. The Milan, MO, plant receives 7,400 head of slaughter hogs in an eight-hour day. PSF's Lundy plant in North Carolina averages 10,000 hogs/day.

Loads used to consist of 176 head of 250- to 270-lb. hogs in standard 53-ft.-long trailers.

To determine proper shipment size, Hill developed an intricate stocking density formula taking into account market weights, hauling distance and environmental conditions. He measured trailers for usable pig space instead of total space, subtracting out the space taken up by exterior walls, doors, gates and panels.

In doing so, he removed eight market hogs from each load to give 4.67 sq. ft. of usable space for a standard 250-lb. hog.

“I was not the most popular person in the world for a while,” he says matter-of-factly. It took time for others to embrace his quest to establish sound animal welfare principles based on science and ethics. The new stocking density provides some flexibility in loading and more even distribution of hogs by compartment. In comparison, the TQA program calls for 4.45 sq. ft. of space for a 250-lb. market hog.

The transportation matrix also requires a load reduction in daytime shipments from June 1 to Sept. 1 to minimize the impact of high temperatures. This timeframe accounts for more than 94% of the days that hit 90 F in Missouri over a five-year average.

“We lose transportation efficiency because some loads that are reduced probably don't need to be, because it turned out to be a cool day. But it is hard to plan for that,” Hill laments.

Market hog trailer floors also feature wood shavings in Missouri and rice hulls in North Carolina to improve hauling conditions.

Water misters help reduce stress and cool market hogs during loading. PSF is evaluating in-transit mister systems.

Each PSF packing plant also has its own weather station that records all pertinent data every 15 minutes to help analyze the impact of load-out and transportation conditions.

The Missouri operations were already working with new and improved trailer designs. Standard are 9-ft.-wide side-unload doors on top and bottom decks for simultaneous unloading. At the plants, docks extend out to the trailer, and the pigs walk off a completely flat surface into the processing plant.

Transportation changes have had a dramatic impact on losses, Hill emphasizes. DOAs and DIPs dropped by 48% by mid-2004 and continue to be at the lowest levels in five years, significantly lower than the industry average.

Other Welfare Rules at PSF

Transportation and animal handling and finishing areas of PSF's customized SWAP are completed, says Hill.

Stocking density in finishing is a hot topic. The industry stocks hogs at an average rate of about 7.2-8.0 sq. ft./hog. PSF is assessing stocking density based on the pounds of pig in the pen, not just simply number of head.

PSF provides designated hospital pens in finishing barns before buildings are stocked, and analyzes if sick hogs are truly managed correctly and if euthanasia is applied properly.

Shipping cull sows is a challenge at many farms, says Hill. To solve the transit issue, PSF has recently instituted five parameters to determine if cull sows can be shipped. If sows meet any of the five criteria (sidebar) or have a condition score of 1 or 0 (Table 1), they should be euthanized on the farm.

“A lot of people at PSF don't like the cull sow protocol because death loss on the farm has gone up as we've euthanized more animals. But truly it hasn't gone up because these animals were dying during transport or at the cull market. We are just doing it in a much more humane manner,” observes Hill.

Captive bolt euthanasia is used for cull sows, late-term nursery and finishing. The key is to do it correctly so that the animal can be verified as insensible. PSF also uses a five-minute, no-reflex policy to ensure that the pig is indeed dead.

PSF instituted carbon dioxide euthanasia for piglets; however, the process is currently under investigation to ensure worker safety, as well as gas flow rate and gas levels to ensure an immediate and humane death.

Hill concludes his work on animal welfare at PSF is a work in progress. But he feels confident in the company's commitment to animal welfare and in meeting customers' expectations.

Cull Sow Criteria

Animals meeting these criteria should be humanely euthanized on the farm, according to PSF's standard operating procedures.

Do not market any sow with a 1 or less sow condition score or any animal that:

  1. Refuses to get up without undue coercion;
  2. Appears unable to walk and load unassisted, or refuses to bear full weight on two or more of its legs;
  3. Shows clinical signs of significant injury (open wounds, broken bones, etc.);
  4. Shows clinical indications of illness; or
  5. Demonstrates signs of stress or fatigue (heavy open-mouth breathing, vocalization, blotchy skin, stiffness, muscle tremors).
Table 1. Sow Condition Scoring Guide
Score Appearance Pinbones & Tail Setting Loin Muscle Backbone Ribs
0 Emaciated Pinbones (hipbones) very prominent. Deep cavity around tail setting. Very narrow. Sharp edges on transverse spinal process (lateral process of a vertebrae). Flank very hollow. Vertebrae prominent and sharp throughout length of backbone. Individual ribs very prominent.
1 Poor Pin bones obvious but some slight cover. Cover around tail setting. Loin narrow. Only slight cover to edge of transverse spinal process. Flank rather hollow. Vertebrae prominent. Rib cage is apparent but less prominent than above.

Smithfield Foods Reduces Antibiotic Use

Smithfield Foods announces it has adopted a new policy that limits the use of antibiotics for growth promotion in pork production that belong to the same class of compounds approved for human use.

The policy was developed by its supplier, foodservice provider Compass Group, North America. It also requires suppliers to report and reduce antibiotic use over time.

Denmark banned the routine use of antibiotics in pork production, cutting overall use of antibiotics in half. However, therapeutic use of antibiotics has climbed 30-40% because the animals in Denmark are sicker and require larger treatment doses, according to the Danish Institute for Food and Veterinary Research.

Trucker Program Revised

For 2005, it has been a year of recertification and minor but important changes in the pork checkoff-funded Trucker Quality Assurance (TQA) program.

The program launched in 2002, requires truckers to go through recertification classes after three years, explains Erik Risa, manager of certification programs for the National Pork Board.

This year's classes have an added video format, which poses questions and answers to provide an interactive dimension to the educational process, he says.

Truckers now learn about aspects of the Humane Slaughter Act and a new Emergency Response Plan that includes contact numbers in case the trucker has an accident or the packing plant is closed upon arrival.

The test has been upgraded using an outside vendor to provide more comprehensive questions and better emphasis on the important aspects of the TQA program, emphasizes Risa.

A policy added this year to the TQA manual and the Swine Care Handbook aims to improve animal welfare and reduce losses by limiting the number of “those animals that should not be loaded in the first place,” he states.

“Any hog that is unable to walk, is ill or injured, should not be transported into market channels,” says Risa. “When the likelihood of recovery is low, even with treatment, these hogs should be euthanized on the farm.”

Risa stresses the TQA manual has gotten away from the “downer” classification because it does not reflect the three distinct conditions of market hogs that should not be shipped, and treatment may vary for all three groups.

Since its inception, more than 10,000 truckers have been TQA-certified.

For more on TQA, go to the Pork Board's Web site,, or call the Pork Checkoff call center at (800) 456-7675.

Sow Stalls vs. Pens

A year in the making, a national veterinary group releases its official policy statement on sows confined in gestation stalls.

The debate over sow stalls vs. group sow housing may never be over, but at least the two camps have developed an official policy that says neither option has an advantage over the other.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) recently revised its official policy for pregnant sow housing, which says both systems offer advantages that should be retained, while improvements are made to overcome problems (see sidebar on p. 11).

Managing Sow Comfort

Some pen advocates, such as animal handling and livestock behavior expert Temple Grandin of Colorado State University, have argued that stalls represent very poor housing systems because sows are becoming bigger and crates are becoming narrower, commonly 20 to 24 in. wide.

That situation may exist, says Kansas swine veterinarian Lisa Tokach, but the problem usually is not with the stalls. The problem lies with the management (or lack thereof) of the system.

“The issue is really not about the housing. It's about the people and their level of animal husbandry,” she says. “I have clients who use stalls, and when they use them in the correct manner, they are better able to control the sow's individual environment and their body condition and give them more individual attention.

“But, admittedly, I have had people who have abused the stall. They have used it without applying good animal husbandry and it can be a bad thing, such as letting sows get too big for the crates,” she says.

Tokach says proper sow management starts with doing a good job of body conditioning, “so you don't get this sixth-parity sow that's huge and overconditioned.”

On many of the Kansas farms for which Tokach consults, clients are measuring backfat at each parity, trying to keep within the stated guidelines.

Most of her clients also use a combination of stalls and some pens to accommodate larger sows.

She also points out research showing injury rates for stalls as actually lower than for group sow housing systems.

As with stall housing, Tokach counts a number of producer clients who do a “fabulous job” of running group sow housing systems.

There are good sow stall systems and good sow pen gestation systems — how well they work depends almost entirely on the management expertise, she adds.

Defending Sow Stalls

“Our main argument was that the literature review we conducted for the AVMA supports that there is no data showing putting sows in stalls is detrimental in terms of health, injuries or lameness,” says the Kansas veterinarian.

The animal behavior researchers also argue that stalls produce sow boredom and stereotypical behavior such as bar biting, which indicates that sows in stalls are unhappy. But there is no factual evidence to support either of those contentions, she stresses.

CSU's Grandin also argues that a major issue not being addressed by the pork industry is bossy and aggressive sows.

But Tokach counters that aggression is just a fact of life, whether it be sows, cows or people.

Good management can deal with aggression; for example, grouping females uniformly to reduce size disparity within the group and considering different feeding regimens.

“We are doing some experiments with dropping smaller amounts of feed 10 times a day to reduce the stress of feeding,” explains Tokach. Even if the boss sow “hogs” all of the feed during the first three drops, she likely will eat her fill and provide plenty of opportunity for timid sows to eat during the remaining seven feed drops.

Tokach was one of five members of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians (AASV) serving on the 13-member task force this summer that hammered out the revised AVMA policy on gestation sow housing.

Tokach, who works at the Abilene (KS) Animal Hospital, also sits on the AASV animal welfare committee.

AVMA Revises Sow Housing Policy

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has revised its policy on pregnant sow housing. The policy states there is no preferred type of housing and that current advantages should be retained while improvements are developed.

The 13-member, multidiscipline task force conducted an extensive, one-year review of more than 200, peer-reviewed, scientific studies that dealt with the health and welfare of housing breeding sows in gestation stalls. The position statement can be reviewed on the AVMA Web site at

A review of the science of animal welfare turned up these key findings:

  • Physiology: Gestation stalls do not induce a physiologic stress response compared to group housing for pregnant sows.

  • Behavior: Sows show different behavior housed in stalls than pens due to restricted movement, reduced caloric intake, reduced opportunities to forage, absence of bedding and restricted social interaction.

  • Production: Sow performance in gestation stalls is no different than sows kept in groups.

  • Health: The rate of sow injury is reduced in gestation stalls vs. group housing.

In addition, the task force offered these considerations for sow housing:

  • Management: This in itself is a major determinant of animal welfare. Some housing systems can be expected to work well at one level of management, but not at another.

  • Feeding system: Limit feeding helps avoid health problems, but it can produce chronic hunger, restlessness, motivation to forage and competition for food. Systems may work well with one feeding system but not another.

  • Environmental features: Certain environmental features allow sows to occupy their time and escape from aggressive group mates. How well a housing system works may depend on the existence of these features.

  • Sow type: Important genetic differences influence how sows function in different housing systems. There are also individual differences; a housing system that is good for more dominant animals may not work with more passive sows.

Clearly, no single sow system fits all situations or animal welfare criteria.

The task force concluded that sow housing systems should:

  • Minimize aggression and competition among sows;

  • Protect sows from detrimental effects associated with environmental extremes, particularly temperature extremes;

  • Reduce exposure to hazards that result in injuries, pain or disease;

  • Provide every animal with daily access to appropriate food and water;

  • Allow observation of individual sow appetite, respiratory rate, urination and defecation, and reproductive status by staff; and

  • Permit sows to express most normal patterns of behavior.

Finally, refinements should be made in current sow housing systems provided technology is sound, the skills needed to operate such systems can be adopted with confidence, and systems are economically viable.

Sudden Finisher Deaths Baffling

Few finisher problems have been more frustrating than those sporadic, unexpected and unexplained deaths of nearly market-ready hogs. These losses are dramatic and costly.

There seems to be a seasonality to the prevalence of hemorrhagic bowel syndrome (HBS). In some finishing groups, often in summer, HBS can account for 75% of all mortalities.

The syndrome usually occurs in fast-growing pigs at 4-6 months of age. Rarely are the problem pigs identified prior to finding them dead in their pens. The carcasses are markedly pale in color with an extended abdomen. Whenever I autopsy these pigs, the producers always tend to step back a few feet.

What Causes the Syndrome?

The root cause of HBS is the subject of debate among veterinarians, researchers and producers. The debate is whether HBS is an infectious disease syndrome or is merely the result of a 180-degree twist or rotation of the entire intestinal stalk.

Those in the “infectious cause” camp strongly believe that these deaths are due to a release of bacterial toxins. Veterinarians who believe this theory think bacteria such as clostridium or E. coli begins growing in the gut; then, due to some event or change, the gut chemistry or flora changes, which allows an overgrowth and release of these toxins. Some farms have seen reductions in HBS cases with strategically placed doses of antibiotics in late finisher feed, giving credence to this theory. Of course, the problem is in the timing of any such protocol.

Veterinarians in the “twisted intestine” camp believe the entire intestinal stalk turns on its axis inside the abdomen creating a situation where blood rushes into the guts via the higher-pressured arteries, but cannot escape due to collapse of the lower-pressured veins. Giving some credence to this theory is the fact that “feed interruption events” can sometimes correlate to increased incidences of HBS.

Also, postmortem tests reveal many victims of HBS have a full stomach and displaced intestines. On occasion, you can actually feel and see the twist of the intestinal stalk. This theory is also given some credence because of spikes in HBS in hot weather.

It is also agreed that larger, older pigs eat far fewer meals while consuming larger quantities at each meal.

What to Do for HBS?

The list of “cures” for HBS is long and getting longer. I have informally surveyed veterinarians and producers from around the world and many think they have the answer until the “next turn through the barn.”

This list of cures includes feed and water additives, genetics changes, feeding methods and in some cases, “foo-foo” dust.

Any syndrome such as HBS that is sporadic in nature and of low incidence is very difficult to study in a way to control all of the variables. Researchers have been unable to create field conditions that trigger HBS, again making it a difficult syndrome to study.

This same difficulty in the science leads many to believe that a change they made in the diet or an additive they put in the feed or water worked, when in reality, the problem most likely went away by chance.

A few large studies that have been conducted in field conditions show only a slight reduction in the number of HBS cases when the pigs were fed certain feedgrade antibiotics. But here again, the science is very “thin.”

Case Study Proves Frustrating

Last summer, a manager from a large finishing site in the western Corn Belt called to report that while the overall health of his pigs was excellent, 75% of his mortalities were due to HBS.

I had recently heard that distillers dried grains with solubles (DDGS), a by-product of ethanol production, had been helpful in reducing (and sometimes eliminating) cases of HBS.

This finishing site was large and had been filled over a fairly short period of time with pigs of similar health status and the same genetics.

We decided to run a “trial” by adding 200 lb. of DDGS/ton of finishing ration in every other 1,000-head barn, and attempting to hold all other variables constant.

After one month there were no noticeable changes in mortality rates in the DDGS or control barns, and in fact, there were slightly more deaths from HBS in the DDGS-fed barns.

For now we will continue to be frustrated by HBS. The good thing about a frustrating problem such as HBS is there seems to be no shortage of potential “cures” and suggested solutions. We will continue to run field trials in search of the elusive solution to HBS.

Thousands Sign Up for EPA Air Compliance Agreement

More than 2,000 animal feeding operations (AFOs) have signed agreements to participate in the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) air compliance initiative.

Many operations that signed up have several farms that will come under the agreement, says EPA.

Applicants hail from 37 states and represent pork, egg layers, meat birds and dairy industries.

By signing up, farms commit to air monitoring and taking steps to comply with clean air standards. In return, EPA will not sue AFOs for certain violations of the Clean Air Act.

The two-year monitoring study is set to start in early 2006.

Tucked in the trees

Richardson Family Farms • Rob and Regina Richardson • Vicksburg, MI

Without the sign by the roadside, you'd never know Rob and Regina Richardson have a 4,000-head pig nursery tucked into the trees a few miles from Vicksburg, MI.

Get out. Take a look. Sniff the air: no odor. There are trees, corn and soybeans in the distance. But the sign definitely says there's a hog farm back there somewhere.

Drive a few hundred yards more, curve around the towering trees, and there it is.

As realtors are fond of saying: “What counts is location, location, location.”

Rob Richardson agrees. The saying applies to his hog farm built in 1997, too.

“We carved it out of the woods and left a 50-ft. buffer strip of trees and bushes. The mature trees are a natural biofilter and a visual screen.

“People smell with their eyes,” he says. “They see a hog farm and think it's supposed to smell. It's fine with me if they never realize there's a hog farm back here.”

New to Pork Production

Richardson is a first-generation farmer, son of a lawn and garden implement sales representative, grandson of an ag banker. He started farming in 1975 and went full-time in 1994.

“I started working for a farmer here when I was 9 years old. The ag bug bit me and never let go. After a few years he had me out there working with a Farmall M. It just seemed like a great way of life,” Richardson says.

“Later, when I started farming on my own, I bought his M and I use it to this day as an anchor tractor for traveler irrigation. I also rent his farm.”

Today, Richardson has 2,300 crop acres, much of it devoted to seed corn production, under 19 center-pivot irrigation rigs and four travelers.

He got into pork production when an integrator, 2,400-sow Kazoo Pork, asked if he'd be interested in becoming part of their team.

“They saw we'd done a good job with our facilities and the crop farming. It takes a little higher level of management for a nursery and they thought we could do that. We never had hogs, other than the 40 or 50 at a time our sons had fed out,” he says.

Being new to the hog business wasn't a detriment. The Richardsons built a seven-room, continuous-flow nursery facility. Pigs arrive weighing about 10 lb. and leave weighing about 48 lb., roughly 6-½ weeks later.

The pigs fit perfectly into their row-cropping operation. Working with a consultant, they developed a complete manure management system to utilize the nutrients on cropland.

“We only produce enough nutrients to cover about 10% of our acres, but it saves us about $10,000 per year on starter fertilizer, which we basically eliminated,” he says.

They must be doing something right. In 2004, the nutrients helped the Richardsons grow an irrigated corn crop of 262.6 bu./acre, second in the state class for the National Corn Growers Association yield contest.

The nutrient plan is key to being certified by the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP). In June 2002, the Richard-sons passed the state's livestock system verification. In September 2003, they passed the farmstead system verification. That helped them win the Michigan Farm Bureau award for Proactive Leadership in Ecology Management in December 2003.

“MAEAP shares my personal philosophy, which is for voluntary incentives for stewardship efforts as opposed to top-down, regulatory efforts. I have a hard time with somebody who wants to regulate my business but isn't as knowledgeable about it as I am. That's why I'm a whole-hearted believer in MAEAP,” Richardson says.

“I'm the first to admit I didn't know all the answers when we started this. I learned a lot. I take the philosophy of having continuous improvement. This is another step in the learning process,” he says.

Richardson learned that little things count big in safety and environmental efforts. For example, his operation wasn't properly disposing of “sharps.” Now they're dropped into a one-gal. windshield washer jug. When it's full, it goes into a five-gal. pail, which is filled with concrete and sent to a landfill.

At the pig nursery, the Richardsons take other steps to reduce odors and improve surrounding air quality. In addition to the buffer zone of trees and the location, all manure is stored in underground concrete tanks that are also covered with concrete. One tank holds 323,000 gal., the other, 134,000 gal. That's enough storage for 120 days. The manure is injected into the cropland, never spread on top of the soil.

“The tanks are 6 in., tongue-in-groove, precast concrete, with concrete pillars, beams and sealed joints. There's a monitoring system around the bottom called a sock tube system. If a tank should ever leak, it will go into the monitoring system,” he says. “These were designed by an ag engineering firm to be a low-cost alternative to monitoring wells.”

Tanks are emptied in late fall, again about April, then again in August on wheat or green bean ground, explains Richardson.

A new swine mortality composting facility designed by Dale Rozeboom, Michigan State University, was just finished to eliminate burying mortalities. The compost will be applied to cropland.

“Composting is a better method than burying because we have shallow groundwater and coarse sandy soils,” he explains.

Being Proactive

Rob and Regina Richardson operate the farm with sons Roy, 20, now a full-time employee; Randy, 17, a high school senior; and Robbie, 14, a freshman. A daughter, Rita, 25, lives and works in Boston.

Most of their neighbors work in town and have no farming background.

“Not many understand production agriculture. Everybody wants to see the guy in coveralls, with 80 acres and a red barn. There aren't many of them around these days,” Richardson says.

To help neighbors understand, the Richardsons held a community-wide open house when the pig nursery opened. More than 400 people showed up, toured the facility, and shared a pig roast.

“Most people's view of farming has not evolved. They don't know about the practical, technological improvements in the industry. We thought it would be good to let the people who were curious about it see what we're doing,” he says.

“I think we have to be proactive. We're trying to take all the steps, use all the common sense techniques available. We're not perfect, but I'd say we're 98% successful. We're doing the best job we can with the best facility possible,” Richardson says.