Yes, our pigs live in barns, and I will tell you why. If we lived in a utopian world, I would have no problem with our pigs living outdoors. In fact, I probably would live outdoors right alongside them. A Utopian world means a perfect life with no discomfort, sickness, or injuries. But a world of utopia is just an ideological vision that is not attainable, no matter how hard we try.
Okay, so let’s journey our way back to reality.
Here’s why our pigs live in barns:
By far, the biggest factor is the weather. Weather in the upper Midwest can be downright nasty. Weather patterns change all the time. Days in Minnesota go from blizzard conditions of -20 (or lower), with winds howling at 30-50 miles per hour during the heart of winter, to temperatures in the 90+ with high humidity during the peak of summer. And, of course, everything in between.
For pigs, the weather extremes and volatile changes are hard for them to adjust to. In fact, genetics also plays an important part in how well they adapt to outdoor living. Providing heat in the winter and running barn fans in the summer is how we help them adapt to Minnesota weather. And, on those days with the extreme heat of summer days, we use water sprinklers to help keep the pigs cool–an important tool in animal comfort because pigs don’t sweat.
Our genetics also are not compatible to withstand the weather extremes easily. Yes, there is some genetics that handle outdoor living better, but many thrive living in barns.
So why don’t we change genetics so these animals can live outdoors?
It’s because the specific pork genetics we use results in the type of pork our meatpackers and consumers want. And it really is that simple. We don’t sell to individual consumers. We are what you would call a “grocery store” pig farmer. Our pork goes to grocery stores.
Yes, raising pigs in barns is sustainable. Our efficiency level is much higher raising pigs indoors than outdoors. The pigs require less feed and water while living indoors. Along with efficiencies, we can easily use manure as a soil nutrient replacement for our crops.
Raising pigs outdoors on pasture doesn’t allow us to recapture manure, whereas pigs raised indoors do. Manure is stored in deep pits and applied yearly on crop fields. Manure is a natural and wonderful replacement of important soil nutrients. Recycling at its best.
When pigs live in barns, we no longer have to worry about predators attacking our animals. Our biggest threat in southern Minnesota from wildlife is coyotes. Pigs could be a potential target for coyotes. And not only physical security, but also bio-security.
Pigs are also susceptible to viruses, and certain viruses travel through the air by birds or rodents. We now have capabilities to filter the air that goes into the barns and, as a result, reduce the amount of air-born viruses entering the barns. We also don’t have to treat pigs for parasites or mange when they live indoors. By keeping pigs healthy, we all benefit by providing safe and healthy pork for consumers.
Clean Water and Air, High-Quality Nutrition, Better Care
All animals living indoors have access to clean water and air. We work with an animal nutritionist to develop feed rations (same as a recipe) for our pigs. In fact, our pigs eat nine different rations during their 6-month life cycle—all designed to meet their specific nutritional needs. And not only nutrition but worms, mange, insects, and sunburn are no longer problems we have to work through.
But I think the best kept “secret” is our relationship with our veterinarian. Our vet is the best. We believe he cares at least as much as we do about our animals and their health. He has been known to email us laboratory results on weekends and nights and also demanded that we keep him updated on our pigs’ health status while he is on vacation. He goes up and above the call of duty.
Unfortunately, these are the stories nobody hears about. And they need to be told.
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Probably the biggest benefit of housing pigs indoors is during the reproduction cycle of sows. Sows can be very aggressive towards each other. Pigs have a social hierarchy that is innate, which means that pigs have a natural pecking order process – they have to determine who is the “king pig.” They determine this pecking order by fighting each other. And when I say fight, I mean really fight. They attack to injure or kill. On our farm, sows have died because another sow attacked it while determining this pecking order.
So how do barns help with this problem?
A gestation barn houses pregnant sows in individual maternity stalls. By housing them individually, we can prevent “pecking order” fights. And not only that, it is easier (and more effective) to care for them. We can give them the right amount and type of feed and provide individual medical care if needed.
The first question that is always asked is how do the animals react to individual stalls? Doesn’t stalls cause them stress? How can that be humane?
Foremost, there is no perfect sow housing. But from our experience, sows adapt very well to this type of housing. Research shows there is no increase in the stress hormone when housed individually, and not only that, there are fewer abortions, and the litter size is large. Common sense tells us that if the sows are stressed, reproduction is the first area to take a hit. Sows will abort litters, and litter size will be small. But we see the exact opposite–high reproduction rates and large litter size. And talking to other pig farmers, many will tell you (and research backs this too) that given a choice, 80% of the sows will spend 80% of their time in stalls. And I believe it’s because they feel safe and don’t have to fear being attacked.
Does this mean all farmers should use individual maternity pens?
No. Every pig farmer should raise pigs the best way they know. It depends on genetics, resources, expertise, and knowledge. But the best news? There is room for all of us. We are all raising safe and healthy food for families in the best way we know.
Complete and Utter Dedication
The bottom line is we care for our animals. And I mean, we really care for our animals. No one in their right mind would do this if they didn’t. There is a lot of risk in raising pigs that we have no control over, and not only that, it’s hard work. Period.
And I can’t tell you how frustrating it is when people who have an anti-agricultural agenda tell a story about how we don’t care. Their “little secret” is they know “emotions” sell, and by taking advantage of people’s emotions, it provides a nice mechanism to fund their “cause.” Unfortunately, the story they tell is not the truth. I can assure you they have never met a pig farmer because if they did, they would know their “story” doesn’t hold any weight.
Want to know more about pig farming and other pig farmers?
What is a Factory Farm?