FAIR OAKS, Ind. —
Americans pig out on pork, eating an average of 45 pounds per person each year. Sales were worth more than $97 billion in 2011, according to industry groups.
Most of the hogs bought by Indiana Packers Corp., a major meatpacker, come from open-pen gestation and have for several years, President Gary Jacobson said. The switch has been hastened by laws in Michigan and Ohio requiring farmers to phase out gestation stalls by certain dates, but Jacobson said it also makes business sense.
“Given the controversy with the gestation crates, we would encourage people to look at the alternatives for that,” he said.
The alternatives aren’t cheap. Malcolm DeKryger, a partner in Fair Oaks’ hog farm, said a 2,400-pig barn with gestation stalls typically costs about $1.8 million. The feeding system, other equipment and extra space required for group pens can push the cost to $2.5 million. He and his partner spent even more because their farm, about 1.5 hours south of Chicago, has observation areas for tourists.
DeKryger isn’t entirely sold on group pens, which remind him of the farms where he worked as a teenager.
“We would throw feed over the gate, and the sows would all go crazy ... one sow would eat three times as much, and others would get gypped or didn’t eat enough. And that system is happily gone,” he said.
Gestation stalls became standard in the 1980s and enabled farmers to feed each sow individually. The stalls also prevented pecking-order fights and injuries caused by sows mounting each other.
Better technology addresses some of those problems in group pens. The sows at Fair Oaks go through a monthlong boot camp at about 6 months old to learn to use electronic feeders that ensure each one eats the right amount.
A scanner reads the sow’s ear tag when she enters the stall, and computer-controlled equipment dispenses the recommended portion, usually about 5 pounds. When the sow leaves, the door can open either to the right for veterinary care or left to the group pen.