Protecting piglets

I am befuddled! In the past few months, I have engaged in numerous interactions with people purported to be involved in the animal agriculture industry regarding efforts by animal protection groups to eliminate the extreme confinement of pigs on farms. Most of these “farmers” claim that the elimination of gestation crates would be catastrophic to the little piglets. You see, sometimes sows aren’t the greatest or most attentive of mothers and their piglets need to be protected from them – as sows may accidentally roll over on their piglets or even possibly intentionally injure or kill them. Well, I thought, that seems logical — so naturally we wouldn’t want to eliminate gestation crates. And then I did a little research. This topic came to my attention recently as Ohioans for Humane Farms was collecting signatures to get a measure on the ballot to, among other things, eliminate gestation crates for sows. When I did my research, I found out that millions of sows are housed in gestation crates during their four-month pregnancies. The average sow has 2 to 2.5 litters per year and as a result, assuming she is free from the crate when she is not pregnant, which is doubtful, she ultimately spends about 70 – 85% of her life in a crate so small that she is unable to turn around, extend her limbs, or lie down comfortably. I also found out, simply by reading the language of the ballot measure, that an exception was made for the use of farrowing crates. Farrowing crates are housing units into which sows are moved shortly before the birth of their piglets. Farrowing crates allow the mother to lie down so that her piglets can nurse, but the piglets are actually housed in a separate adjoining crate so as to protect them from being injured by the sow. Several studies have shown that farrowing crates typically do not improve mortality rates over outdoor systems, but that point is not relevant to this discussion as the animal welfare measure in Ohio specifically allows for the use of farrowing crates. In fact, of the seven states that have already passed measures to eliminate gestation crates, not one has eliminated the use of farrowing crates. Which leads me to my point of befuddlement. How is it that I, as a city girl, with no professional or practical experience in farming, understand the difference between gestation and farrowing crates and the average farmer doesn’t appear to? Perhaps it’s not that they don’t understand the difference — could it be that they assume that I, as a city girl, with no professional or practical experience in farming, wouldn’t care enough to learn about the issue? By falsely promoting gestation crates as the great protector of piglets, does the industry think the tide of public opinion on extreme confinement will turn? Most people are against the extreme confinement of animals in agriculture, and the industry knows that. So I suppose they choose to simply misinform people and hope they don’t do their homework. Yes, that is a cynical view of the animal agriculture industry, but frankly I’d be less shocked by that than the possibility that farmers really do not know the difference between these types of housing systems.