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Gestation Crates 101

Posted by Julia Smith on

Everyone I know is pretty much on the same page where eggs produced by caged hens are concerned. Confusion with regards to free-run vs. free-range aside, I think we can all agree that keeping hens in cages so small they can't move is inhumane. Far fewer people are familiar with the similar conditions that most sows (mother pigs) are kept in. These conditions are inhumane for any animal but in the case of the sow is particularly heart breaking when you consider that they are even smarter than dogs. If you kept your dog in the same conditions that most sows are housed, you would probably go to jail. 

A gestation crate is a metal enclosure measuring 6'6" by 2' where sows spend most of their adult life. It is only large enough for her to stand on a slatted concrete floor and uncomfortably lay down. As her pregnancy progresses, she can't even lay down. When she is due to give birth, she is moved to a "farrowing crate" which is slightly wider, allowing her to lay down and feed the piglets who are housed in the adjoining crate. 

The good news is that last year, the National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC) introduced a new Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pigs in Canada that effectively bans the use of controversial gestation crates. The bad news is that it only applies to facilities built or renovated after July 1st, 2014 and it still allows for plenty of confinement and interpretation:

The primary argument for the use of these crates is that they reduce piglet mortality due to accidental crushing by the sow. They also allow a much higher concentration of animals to be housed in a relatively small area which is good for the bottom line but not so good for the animals. 

By comparison, our sows stay together in the field until they are ready to give birth. A day or two before (sows are generally very punctual) they are due to deliver, we move them into a "private room" which is about 10'x10'. To reduce the risk of the sow crushing the piglets, we install rails all the way around the outside which keep the sow from being able to squish anyone between her body and the wall. We also provide a heat source away from the sow so the piglets can sleep comfortably and safely. This system works very well for us and for the animals.

Conventional farrowing crate on left. Our farrowing stall on right.

Sadly, the vast majority of farms that raise "free-run" and even "free-range" pigs still keep their sows in gestation and farrowing crates. They will tell you that it is the only way they can do it and earn a living, and that's probably true if people are not willing to pay more for pork.

That said, it seems as if people are willing to pay more and/or eat less pork if it means that the animals can be raised with respect in an environment that meets their psychological and physiological needs. I hope this trend will continue. We've seen a groundswell of support from consumers with regards to cage-free eggs and the industry is changing to meet this demand. It is high time that we let pigs out of cages too. 

What you can do

  • Get the conversation started. Most people don't even know what a gestation crate is. Now you do. Please spread the word.
  • Ask questions. Wherever pork is sold, ask questions about how it is raised, like:

"What kind of housing do the pigs live in? What about the sows?"
"Are the sows raised in individual pens or in groups?"
"Do all the pigs (sows included) get to go outside? If yes, how much time do they spend outdoors?"
"How many square feet of living space is afforded to the growing pigs? to the sows?" 

To the best of my knowledge, there is no pork commercially available in BC that isn't raised using gestation crates outside of a handful of small farms like ours. Most places won't be able to answer your questions. Get the name of the farm where it was raised and check them out for yourself. 

  • Vote with your wallet. Don't buy  pork (or any other meat) it if it wasn't raised in a way that is in line with your personal values. Let the store/restaurant know why you will not buy it. Seek out farms who are not using gestation/farrowing crates and patronize them. If the consumer demand is there, more farms will start raising pigs using humane practices.
  • Eat the whole animal. Pigs are about 6% bacon.  In order for small farms to survive, we need to be able to sell the other 94% of the pig. Try something new! Every part is delicious and surprisingly versatile. Need ideas? Just ask :)

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