Pigs are very smart! They recognize themselves in a mirror and remember the faces of other pigs. Pigs also have an amazing ability to problem solve. A quick search on YouTube for “pigs playing video games” reveals that pigs learn as fast as chimpanzees and more quickly than dogs in video game tests where they can earn a food reward. Pigs have even been known to take up interior design, designating separate areas for eating, sleeping and dunging when provided with ample space.
Remember this the next time you’re at a grocery store and you’ll do the right thing: you’ll choose stall-free pork.
Confinement housing is one of the most pressing issues facing farmed animals. In the same way that we choose cage-free or free-range eggs when thinking about the welfare of chickens, stall-free pork means a better life for pigs. Female pigs spend most of their lives – about three years – in metal stalls approximately two feet wide by seven feet long.
Sows can lie down and get up, but can never turn around. Animal welfare science shows that animals confined in sow stalls experience extreme stress and frustration because they are unable to express natural behaviours.
First introduced in the 1950s, sow stalls are barren and uncomfortable for animals, but highly efficient for feeding, cleaning and preventing aggression between pigs. However, we know from published research and practical examples that farmers can achieve equal or better productivity and health in group-housing systems provided that they are well-designed and managed.
Sow stalls were among the most contentious topics during the debate around Canada’s Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pigs, which has just been updated for the first time since 1993. Farmers, industry associations, retailers, veterinarians, animal welfare organizations and other stakeholders spent months weighing the pros and cons of different options for housing, along with other pig care standards through a policy process steered by the National Farm Animal Care Council. More than 4,700 people responded during the public comment process, and even celebrities like Ryan Gosling lobbied for change to improve the lives of all pigs. Now, thanks to this work, pigs in Canada are one step closer to freedom from sow stalls and painful farming practices.
The science of pig welfare has caught the attention of big brands like Tim Hortons, McDonald’s and Maple Leaf. Mounting pressure from consumers and the animal welfare community has led a growing number of retailers to set purchasing policies that ensure meat products are raised under more humane conditions. In recent years at least 30 food processors, grocery retailers and restaurant chains have pledged to eliminate sow stalls from their supply chains – Canada’s largest grocery retailers including Loblaw, Safeway, Sobeys, Costco and Walmart committed to sourcing pork raised in group housing systems.
Pig producers are making great strides in bringing their industry up to par with other livestock industries when it comes to advancements in housing. The commitment to phase out restrictive sow gestation stalls in favour of group housing is but one step. When making this change, producers are strongly encouraged to consider pig comfort and manure management as part of the equation.
Provision of bedding has a positive effect on improving foot and leg health and reducing lameness rates, something well documented in dairy industry research. Existing slatted flooring does not allow for the use of bedding, but flooring changes are possible with new constructions, something the hog industry is considering anyway given that most existing barns are nearing their “expiration date”. Furthermore, the addition of bedding to manure shifts its makeup to a value-added compostable product worth considering given the high costs of trucking liquid slurry and manure separation technologies.
Canada’s new pig farming standards will improve quality of life for pigs and bring them one step closer to freedom from sow stalls and painful farming practices. However, for pigs, these changes cannot come soon enough. Retailers, farmers and consumers all have the power to do better through one simple act: choose to raise, buy and eat only stall-free pork. Do your part and give pigs a little more room to move.
Brandy Street has an MSc in Applied Animal Behaviour from the University of Saskatchewan, College of Agriculture. Through her thesis work at the Prairie Swine Centre, Brandy studied the effects of group size and space allowance on the behaviour, health and welfare of pigs and was also involved in studies examining the benefits of group housing for sows.
Brandy is the program supervisor for SPCA Certified, an innovative farm certification and food-labelling program dedicated to improving farm animal welfare standards in Canada.
The British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is a not-for-profit organization reliant on public donations. Our mission is to protect and enhance the quality of life for domestic, farm and wild animals in B.C.