Market Views

It's A Pig's Life

Victoria G Myers
By  Victoria G. Myers , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
For a lot of consumers, meat production today is as much about how the animal lived as it is about the bacon. (Photo by Thinkstock/iStock)

Rarely has any man spoken more eloquently of a pig. Words like frolic, happy and the spirit of "pigness" come easily to Forrest Pritchard as he talks about the porcine passel he cares for at Smith Meadows, his family farm near Berryville, Va.

"If you spend any time watching pigs root, you will realize they are rooting the earth to eat," Pritchard said. "They will have grass and roots hanging out of their mouths. It's not something man taught them to do. That is their mission, a component of their pigness. They can't do that on a concrete slab or in a gestation crate."

Pritchard has built a career, and a lifestyle, out of practicing what he preaches. An author and seventh- generation farmer, he is a proponent of sustainable farming and diversity. He promotes the idea of operators feeding those geographically closest to them, spending his weekends at farmers' markets in the Washington, D.C. area. He not only sells grass-fed pork, lamb, beef, poultry and eggs, but also meets the people who buy his products.

"I believe if a farmer can support himself with local sales, that is what he should do. Leave the online sales to those in the middle of rural areas without nearby populations to support them. There is plenty of opportunity for everybody," Pritchard explained.

He is quick to add he in no way wants to denigrate how other farmers work or the systems they choose to use to produce commodities. He said agriculture is a "faith-based family," and he loves being part of the fraternity. He will admit, however, he'd like to see more free-range and sustainable producers come into the clan.

"Right now, we make up about 3% of the food conversation," he said. "I'd like to see that closer to 50%. That, to me, would be an incredible food landscape."

Depending on who you ask, that is either a recipe for mass global starvation or an agrarian utopia. It does, however, play well with a growing number of consumers who want to know where their food comes from and how it was produced. With livestock, they want to believe the animal they are eating for dinner had a nice life, albeit one cut short to meet their dietary whims. In the case of pork, one study shows consumers are inclined to pay more for the privilege of consuming those animals.

PENS COULD PAY

An analysis in 2011 by Oklahoma State University agricultural economists Lacey Seibert and F. Bailey Norwood estimated a ban on gestation crates in the U.S. could increase retail pork prices 2% to 5% per pound. Consumer surveys showed the average American would pay $0.34 more per pound for pork produced in a pen system. Cost of production in a facility converted from confinement crates to pens was $0.489 per pound of finished pig more -- a 3- to 4-cent increase over crate systems. Depending on the year and cost of inputs, this study would indicate a pen system can be as profitable for most commercial producers as a crate system. This was based on $3-per-bushel corn, 19.5 finished pigs per sow and a 265-pound finished pig.

Regardless of size or type of operation, there are challenges and opportunities ahead for all pork producers, Ohio State University swine Extension specialist Steve Moeller believes.

"If you raise fewer pigs, your cost of production is often greater because you cannot capitalize as easily on economies of scale and access to lower cost goods. You have to sell your story to recover that cost," Moeller said.

"To me, local niche producers are story-based. Then, if they are consistent, they build close relationships with buyers. Those personal ties are loyal and will keep them going. It takes hard work, but it's doable."

Large-scale production systems are more efficient but can struggle with quality, he said, adding that in the pork industry, there is no incentive, or disincentive, for meat quality and no grading system. Producers are paid on lean. That leads to a very consistent product in terms of texture but, perhaps, one not as flavorful or tender as pork raised in niche markets using heritage-type or specialized breeds outside of confinement houses.

"The operators I see really having a hard time in the future will be those in the middle," Moeller said. "I'm scared for the middle. That is where the squeeze is. To be competitive in the pig industry, you need economies of scale or you need a story. If you're in the middle, I'm not sure you have either one."

CHANGE UNDER WAY

Those in the middle will have a harder time deciding whether they are willing, or financially able, to alter existing farrow-to-weaning facilities to pen systems. Nine states have passed laws prohibiting the use of gestation crates: Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon and Rhode Island. In addition, large pork producers like Smithfield Foods and Hormel Foods have announced plans to shift company-owned facilities to gestation crate-free operations by 2017. Cargill has reported it is already 50% gestation crate-free at its operations.

In Ohio, as of 2025, pork producers will cease using crates after sows are confirmed pregnant. A 2010 agreement between the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the Ohio Farm Bureau, the state's governor and other farm organizations banned construction of new gestation crate facilities.

A 13-member Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board is tasked with creating state standards for the care and well-being of all livestock. One member of that board, Jeff Wuebker, said he and his brother, Alan, are like every other pork producer in Ohio -- trying to figure out how their 1,800-sow, farrow-to-weaning operation in Versailles will make the shift to a pen environment. They bought an Indiana pen facility three years ago with 2,600 sows, in part, to help them learn how to adapt to the challenge.

"The whole Indiana facility is what I'd call 'HSUS compliant'," said Jeff Wuebker, of the operation at Union County. Pig production in that system is still lagging behind his Ohio operation, he added, saying they are still "about three-fourths of a pig off" by comparison.

Each pen at the Indiana farm holds a group of 15 sows. They come into the pen once confirmed pregnant. Prior to that, they are bred and held in gestation stalls for about 42 days. Jeff Wuebker said the two times there tend to be problems between sows are when they first move into the pen and the last week to two weeks prior to farrowing. If a sow is picked on, they move her into a stall to protect her from the others.

PLANNING AHEAD

As pork producers shift to pen systems, genetics will be critical, the Wuebker brothers contend. "We don't want frail-framed or light-boned animals in a pen situation," Jeff said. "We want pigs with supergood bone structure and a good cover of meat. Obviously, we don't want aggressive animals. We are all white sows, and that is not normally an overly aggressive type animal."

Health issues within a pen system include bites and feet problems resulting from fighting. In addition, it may be more of a challenge to maintain body condition because of increased competition.

Swine specialist Moeller believes as technology continues to improve, those feeding issues will diminish. Newer facilities with electronic feeders tied to individual identifications (IDs) will help ensure each pig gets its share of feed and will alert managers to problems early.

"This type of system forces pigs to move around the facility, and it lets operators know if a sow is not eating," Moeller explained. "That allows a good caretaker to go into the pen and check that sow to make sure she is up and moving. He can track her activity and eating closely."

Pens can range from those that hold 10 or 12 animals, to some that hold up to 80. By comparison, in a crate or stall system, each sow has, on average, a space that is 6.5 feet long x 2.5 feet wide, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. A crate system restricts activity and can lead to pressure sores, ulcers or abrasions.

Asked if by 2025 there will be fewer pork operators in Ohio because of the mandatory switch to pens, Moeller said it's hard to know. While the number of producers may shrink, production levels seem poised to go the other direction. USDA projections call for higher per-capita retail consumption of pork in 2015, projected at 49.2 pounds -- up from 46.4 pounds in 2014.

Underscoring that optimism, a new pork-processing plant is being built at Coldwater, Mich., by Clemens Food Group. Ohio producers, and those in Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Kentucky, will be primary suppliers for the $255-million plant. Early reports predict the operation will employ 810 workers when it opens in 2017 and will process 10,000 hogs daily, boosting U.S. capacity 0.4%.

QUESTION OF SAFETY

As the debate continues over how meat is produced, aside from philosophy and taste, the important issue for many is pure and simple -- safety. Will changing how a pig lives, and how its offspring is reared, make it safer to eat? Swine specialist Moeller said meat safety won't be enhanced or diminished with new production facilities.

He stressed: "We have a safe food supply. I don't believe there is a major difference in safety between a niche pork product and a commercial-level pork product when everything is done correctly."

A 2006 study financed by the National Pork Board using checkoff funds seemed to suggest otherwise. It posed the question of safety, comparing pigs raised in an antimicrobial-free, outdoor, free-range system with those raised in a commercial indoor facility.

The report by Wondwossen Gebreyes, at the North Carolina State University college of veterinary medicine, raised red flags. Looking at 675 serum samples from North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin, antimicrobial-free herds showed more salmonella (54% compared to 41%), more toxoplasma (7% compared to 1%) and even two cases of the parasite trichinella. For aficionados of free-range or grass-fed pork, the solution is as simple as using a meat thermometer. The USDA recommends cooking whole cuts of pork to an internal temperature of 145ºF.

Carl Link, a member of the Pork Checkoff Board, stressed that in today's pork business, there is a place for all producers, niche or commercial.

"I think how a person produces pork should be about freedom of choice," Ohio's Link said. "If they want a pen system or a stall system, or something else, it should all be acceptable. I believe performance in a pen system can be as good as that in a stall system. But because several states have outlawed gestation stalls, and companies are moving toward pen gestation, I think we will see more of our pork coming out of those [pen] operations."

Virginia niche producer Forrest Pritchard admits it can be challenging for smaller operators to get a good production system in place for pork. He said almost every picture he sees of "free-range pork" shows pigs in mud and dirty water, a recipe for illness.

HELPING HAND

In his book, "Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers' Markets, Local Food, and Saving the Family Farm," and through his blogs and Facebook posts, Pritchard tries to guide new farmers past the various learning curves by detailing challenges of his early experiences raising pigs.

He described his approach, saying: "I'm a practical farmer. If an animal is sick, I treat it. When that happens, and it's rare, we slaughter for personal use. We know the withdrawal period, and we know they are safe. But our focus is on prevention, which means sunshine, fresh air, reducing hog wallows where water can stagnate, rotation to clean pasture to lessen the impact of parasites, clean feed, clean water and low stress."

Pritchard's system focuses on about 15 acres, off of which he will grow out 250 to 300 pigs yearly. The area has a hub in the middle and is divided into 26 sections. Every two weeks, pigs are moved. They eat orchardgrass, fescue, bluegrass, clovers, vetches and legumes.

The pigs come from area breeders who do not confine them and farrow outdoors. The animals weigh 80 to 150 pounds when they arrive. Buying pigs in this weight range means a lot of the risk for mortality is past. Pritchard stocks 50 to 60 pigs at a time, finishing them at around 265 pounds in 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 months.

"Pork is the product, but we are raising forages," said Pritchard, explaining a system that sounds a lot like that of a grass-fed beef producer.

Besides foraging, pigs are fed a non-GMO blend of barley and wheat mids, which is 12% protein. The feed costs about $375 per ton and comes from a Mennonite feed mill. For every 3 pounds of feed, Pritchard gets about 1 pound of pork. Come harvest, he trucks the animals, about 10 at a time, to a USDA-approved facility.

PERSONAL PRIDE

"I load them, so I know they are treated with integrity. I unload them, so I know they aren't moved with a cattle prod. You can run 99 yards and fumble at the end. I want to take it all the way. It's incredibly important to me."

For all of the time and effort, he gets a $2 to $3 premium for his pork at the farmers' markets compared to retail. He said some consumers buy his pork for the flavor, some for environmental reasons, some for sustainability -- and they all feel they are getting a value.

At Wuebker Farms, there are the same long hours and fixation on health and care -- but a different philosophy and a lot more than 10 head at a time to handle. The home operation in Ohio weans 43,000 pigs annually.

Comparing 43,000 head to 300 underscores a major difference between small, niche farmers such as Pritchard and guys such as Wuebker who are responsible for what most consumers toss into their grocery carts every week. It's the question of large-scale availability at an affordable price point for the average consumer that underscores a philosophical difference between the production systems.

Wuebker speaks earnestly about the importance of feeding the world. Pritchard's view is unapologetically quite different. He wants everyone in the world to eat, but he believes meat is a luxury, not a necessity.

"Nowhere does it say we have the right to a cheap, endless supply of meat," he said. "We've made it cheap, yes, but that has come with consequences. I think there is more room for smaller farmers. I see opportunity. I believe we can do so much better."

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

-- To order Forrest Pritchard's new book, "Growing Tomorrow: Behind the Scenes with 18 Extraordinary Sustainable Farmers Who Are Changing the Way We Eat," or to learn more about his operation, visit www.forrestpritchard.com and www.smithmeadows.com.

-- Follow Wuebker Farms at www.facebook.com/pages/Wuebker-Farms/1541045762816825.

-- To learn more about research by the Pork Checkoff, visit the National Pork Board's website at www.pork.org.

-- To see details of the Ohio Livestock Care Standards agreement and to follow its progress, visit www.agri.ohio.gov/LivestockCareStandards.

(VM/CZ)

Victoria Myers