Peeking Into the World of Hog Farming

Have you ever wondered what the inside of a modern hog farm looks like? I was more than a little nervous last week when I set off to visit the Wuebker Family Farm, but was pleasantly surprised by what I saw, smelled, and learned during the trip.

sow in gestational crate

While I probably wouldn’t pick a weekend at a hog farm over an essential oil spa massage, my visit to the Wuebker Family farm didn’t smell as strongly as I feared, particularly considering the thousands of hogs and piglets housed there. I also anticipated being disturbed by the animals’ restricted movement and crowded living conditions but all I had read about farrowing crates made more sense once I saw them in action. I was also surprised and relieved to learn that the use of hormones to speed growth is strictly forbidden by the FDA.

piglets in farrowing crate

The Pork Checkoff hosted me and five other bloggers for a trip to the Wuebker Hog Farm in Ohio to showcase the farm’s environmental efforts. The hog waste is efficiently pumped to two large thickly lined 1.8 million gallon ponds that are tested multiple times a year before being used as manure on farmland on Wuebker and neighboring properties. The hogs are kept cool with low energy technology and the entire farm is lit with environmentally friendly CFL lightbulbs. Instead of straw, the pigs are on concrete and grates that funnel all waste directly to the manure pits.

hog farm metrics

Everywhere we turned, signs of pig farming’s technological and environmental improvements were easy to see. The farm was a model of efficiency, with long rows of sows on the same birthing schedule. Each animal is neatly entered in a pig database and the workroom had a whiteboard with key metrics such as average piglets born per sow, average weaned, and average birth weight. Runts of the litter are saved by being moved to litters of smaller piglets. There was no doubt that this was the farming of the future, worlds apart from hog farms 25 years ago that let large herds of pigs wallow in mud outside, polluting nearby streams.

Functioning of Farrowing Crate

The pigs spend the majority of their life in one of two cages or crates: farrowing and gestational. Both types of cages keep the sows from turning around but let them lay down and stand up. The farrowing crates restrict their movement to protect their piglets. A mother sow weighs around 300 pounds while a newborn piglet is about three pounds. I saw a sow lay down on a piglet, completely unaware of his squeals, until the farmer nudged her over and saved his life. The gestational cages are smaller, lining the sows in the same direction to monitor their insemination and pregnancies. Once the piglets are 21 days, they are moved to a finishing facility to be fattened up for another six months. There I presume they have a little more room to roam around, but we did not see a finishing barn as part of this trip.

We were able to witness both the birth of piglets as well as the insemination of the sows. Pregnant sows are grouped in due date rows so their births can be more easily monitored. They labor over a few hours, giving birth to eight to twelve piglets, and occasionally as many as 20. The piglets latch on within minutes of being born, claiming the teat they will return to every time they feed for the next three weeks until their weaning. Their pregnancy is monitored by ultrasound. The sows have two to three litters a year, until their fertility or fetus viability decreases. As thanks for their years of service, instead of retiring to a nice community in Florida, they become breakfast sausage.

bull making rounds

Hog impregnation is something out of a science fiction movie. The insemination is done without intercourse but still with the participation of one boar whose ego must be as large as his testicles. He walks down a long aisle of sows, guided by a robot on wheels, and his manly gait and scent drives all the sows into wild, panting heat. You haven’t heard loud until you’ve heard a hundred horny pigs squealing for their stud. As the boar nears a sow, one of the farmer confirms that she is in heat from her body language and inseminates her with a bag of sperm purchased from a farm specialized in hog breeding. Through genetics, breeders incorporate farmer feedback to produce pigs with desired characteristics: leaner, longer, and better milkers or larger litters. The same process is repeated the next day and typically 85% of the sows conceive.

With so many animals in such close quarters, the risk of disease is tremendous. In January, an airborne respiratory disease called PRSS (Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome) infected the hogs on the Wuebker Farm. The sows stopped eating and spiked fevers. The farmers responded by pulsing antibiotics and ibuprofen through the feed but still lost 13% of their herd. The farm typically births 5,600 pigs a week, but while the sows were infected, weekly births dropped to 800 due to stillbirths and weak piglets.

Unlike the cattle industry, the feed of pigs hasn’t drastically changed from grass to grain. Pigs have always been omnivorous, eating scraps. Their diets are now much more closely calibrated by animal nutritionists who prescribe a precise combination of corn meal, soybean meal, and key amino acids and probiotics depending on whether they are lactating or gestating.

Like the dairy and corn farms I’ve visited on other blogger tours, I was struck by the difficulties and financial risk of farming life. The current drought has caused a huge percentage of the corn crop this summer to fail. The effect has already been felt in hog prices, and the Wuebkers are currently losing close to $20,000 a week as the price of a baby pig has dropped from $35 to $10. The Wuebker’s care for their pigs was apparent in their references to them as “mamas” and “girls” and the way they patted them and handled them. These animals are their lives and they work tirelessly to treat them well so they are healthy and productive.

It took me a few days to reflect and process my feelings about this trip. While I was impressed by the cleanliness of the hog farm and the measures taken to protect the environment around it, and relieved that hormones are not used to improve production, I still felt disturbed by the size of the operation. Having so many animals grouped together makes the farms very vulnerable to disease. Farmers protect the herd with preventative vaccinations and mass antibiotic administration when illness strikes. The fact that the animals have to be treated as a group, instead of individually just increases my unease. Yet pork is much cleaner now than it used to be, and the incidence of trichinosis in domestic pork in the US has been eradicated, and I am more confident now than I was before the trip about mass produced pork.

There’s no doubt that we consumers have an overly romantic notion of farming. We want the animals we eat to roam free in endless green fields, but most of us cannot afford to pay farmers’ market prices for all of our meat. And when we are confronted with the reality of what it takes to produce meat at low prices, we recoil in horror. I am still coming to terms with the realities of farming today. Since coming home from Ohio, I’ve found myself thinking of those little piglets born at my feet every time I reach for pancetta, bacon, or pork tenderloin, but I haven’t changed my pork purchasing habits, continuing to buy conventional pork products. If anything, I feel better knowing how they came to be, appreciating their flavor and tenderness.

20 Responses to Peeking Into the World of Hog Farming

  1. Thank you for sharing this very interesting article with me. Being a city dweller, I had no idea of the process involved in raising pork, nor had I ever bothered to wonder where my “other white meat” came from. I shall never again take for granted the health and well being of the life of my pork. I now understand that its arrival at my grocery is a result of loving, skilled, and dedicated farm loving scientists. After reading this article, I have a whole new understanding of the “respect life” statement.

    • Mary Ann,
      I’m glad you took the time to read the whole post and that you enjoyed it. Thanks for the comment. Enjoy your next batch of bacon! Vanessa

  2. Chef Druck,

    I would like to take a minute and say, that this is one of the better blogs/insights on hog farming that I have seen. How ever with that said, the male pig is called a boar, not a bull. This is a small but key word, when writting for conviction. This is only one mans opinion, but I would always suggest visiting more than one hog farm, or any farm for that matter when writting a story or blog about farming or ag. it will allow you to see that not every farm is not the same. It will also give you more insight on how things opperate and work on a day to day basis. I would also like to thank you for not slandering hog farmers and not making to bad of a name for them. As you can see hog farmers have a tough time, with the current grain prices, and the current pork prices. We are not making millions raising americas food. In fact it is a dieing industry. this county runs on agriculture and farming…with out it we would be naked and hungry, we need more people advocating for the farmers and not just out to shut the farmer down.

    thank you
    wyatt
    owner and operator of Farrowin’ Acres Show Swine.

    • Thanks Wyatt, for the comment and the feedback. I will change the post to call the male a boar and not a bull. Best of luck weathering this tough summer weather, and thanks for what you do.

      Vanessa

  3. I recently read an article by a pig farmer, which I cannot locate right now, with regard to gestation crates. This farmer stated that the sows do not spend their entire lives crated in either gestation or farrowing crates. Does it vary by the size of the operation? Thanks.

    • I’ll pass on your question to the Pork Checkoff to get their feedback Deborah. On this farm, the breeding sows were either in gestation crates or farrowing crates. The piglets spent the first 3 weeks of their lives nursing their mothers in the farrowing crates then traveled by truck to a finishing barn where I do not believe they were crated. However we didn’t see that facility so I’m not sure. Thanks for the comment and question! I’ll get back to you.

  4. Thank you for visiting a real farm and sharing your experience. To many writers make comments about farming without seeing the real deal for them selves. I live on a beef and dairy farm in northern Minnesota. Farming is my families livelihood and passion.
    The drought will affect everyone, not just farm families, but all consumers. People need to keep in mind how hard farm families work to put food on healthy, safe food on your table as well as their own.

  5. Chef Druck,

    As someone who both works in the swine industry and has a family operated farm with hog barns, I wanted to thank you for the positive light you shed on my industry in this post. I know visiting hog barns can be overwhelming to the public, I am so glad you went with an open mind and were willing to learn. Like you said, the risk of disease is very high, so unfortunately we can’t have everyone visit that might want to, although many farms are accommodating to visitors. You are so right in the gestations stalls and farrowing crates having a purpose – I’m glad you could see that. Gestation stalls also help protect the pregnancy and keep “bully” sows from ganging up on smaller, weaker sows. I’ve written some about this on my blog. Thanks again for your insight – great post!

  6. Nice post. I’m from a dairy farm, and don’t have a lot of familiarity with the hog operation side of ag but know some basics. It’s good to hear this perspective. I was recently at a family reunion at what used to be a 5,000 cow farrow to finish hog operation in Iowa – my distant relatives now farm just crops.

  7. This is one great article you have about hog farming and what I saw here it’s a very conventional and environmental friendly farm. This is a good example of a hog farm. Thanks for sharing this post.

  8. I don’t see anything ethical about treating animals this way. It all seems very self-centered. People who eat animals care for animals about this much: “The sows have two to three litters a year, until their fertility or fetus viability decreases. As thanks for their years of service, instead of retiring to a nice community in Florida, they become breakfast sausage.”

    When people actually care about animals they don’t do these things, people who profit from them do.

    “Instead of straw, the pigs are on concrete and grates” I’m sure as a mother you could appreciate the comfort of concrete and grates after giving birth to your child.

    Your blog seems incomplete without a visit to the slaughterhouse. With 5600 piglets being born every week I’m sure they had plenty of “mamas” and “girls” going off to be made into your pancetta and bacon. That would be a picture worth a thousand words.

    • Shannon,
      I would have LOVED to have finished the trip at a slaughterhouse. I completely agree that it was an incomplete vision of the industry. I would have also loved to see how the pigs were treated at their finishing barn. I’m hopeful to get a chance to see those parts of the hog industry some time. If we enjoy meat as consumers, we have a responsibility to be aware of how it is produced, and the more we know, the better.

      Thanks for taking the time to read about what I saw and leave a comment. I appreciate it. Our food production is in the midst of such momentous change and we have to stay informed, involved, and aware. The fact that the food industry is inviting bloggers, and not just mainstream media, to tour their facilities is incredible. Seeing these farms first hand is life changing.

      Vanessa

      • I noticed you had anticipated being disturbed by the animals’ restricted movement and crowded living conditions but, all you had read about farrowing crates made more sense once you saw them in action. However, this technical approach fails to allow the sow’s own protective instincts to function. Farmers who still use traditional farming methods already know what a study demonstrated not long ago. It traced the development of commercial pig rearing in America and took a group of pigs that had been raised in a factory farm setting (i.e. gestation and farrowing crates) and released them in a natural setting to be observed: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9MSc0R4fp8w
        Despite their upbringing, and their parents upbringing, and theirs before that, the pigs reverted quickly to their natural instincts: building nests to lay their young, separating their manure from living areas, and defying many other stereotypes about them proliferated by modern day farmers including the claim that they will carelessly squish their young without our assistance. Given enough space to maneuver a sow instinctively lowers the front of her body and slowly crawls forward giving any piglets that may be beneath her time to make room. If they didn’t, it wouldn’t be conducive with natural selection and they would have gone extinct long before their unfortunate terms of domestication.

        • I would also note a level of psychological deprivation caused by the animal’s unnatural setting that inhibits her normal social development. A pig that doesn’t grow up normal won’t act normal. This is another reason that you may have seen a mother almost squish her own baby aside from what I wrote above. This is well documented in the works of animal behaviorists. Mark Bekoff comes to mind. As well as, the infamous psychological deprivation experiments conducted by Dr Henry Harlow.

          It’s this I believe that should have made more sense to you about farrowing crates once you saw them in action, rather than the overused pork industry talking point about hero farmers saving piglets from their careless mothers.

          Isn’t it fair to say that animals in this case have their most important interests sacrificed to satisfy some of our most trivial interests and that locking a dog in a small crate for a similar time period would be grounds for animal abuse charges? It just seems like we’re losing a bit of our humanity racing to keep up with population growth while we build gestation crates as far as the eye can see and battery cages to the sky for the sake of cost-efficiency.

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