Survey shows 17 percent of the nation's sows are in open housing
DES MOINES — A survey, conducted by University of Missouri Extension economist Ron Plain for the National Pork Producers Council, found that 17.3 percent of sows spend a portion of gestation in open pens.
The survey results were released at last week’s World Pork Expo. Plain’s study targeted pork operations with 1,000 or more sows. Seventy firms responded, and those firms own 3.6 million or 63 percent of the nation’s 5.7 million sows.
When asked what their expectations were for two years from now, the weighted average of all producer responses was that sows in open pen gestation would increase to 23 percent.
"While the numbers are slightly higher than we anticipated, it also points out that many are mixed within the operations and not exclusive stand alone facilities," said Dallas Hockman, NPPC vice president of industry relations.
Hockman said gestation housing is a complex issue, and there is a need for more dialogue.
"Our challenge to our customers is that we deserve to be part of the discussion and to date very little discussion is being had with producers on the impact of pronouncements that they will only use pork from operations that are gestation-stall free," Hockman said. "There needs to be an understanding of the ability of the supply chain to meet these demands."
Hockman said there must be a process of segregation, verification and traceability so that consumers get what they think they are getting.
"There must also be a willingness to pay for the product," Hockman said. "Our pork industry has demonstrated the ability to meet the wishes of the customer if they are willing to pay for it."
It will be a financial burden to producers who convert from individual gestation stalls to open pens because studies show that it will require more square footage and result in reduced output, Hockman said.
Mark Greenwood, vice president of agribusiness capital at AgStar Financial Services in Mankato, Minn., estimated that among producers he works with closer to 90 percent have individual stalls vs. pen gestation. He said his borrowers are more independent family farm-type systems that are much more Midwest-based than the companies Plain surveyed.
He projected that it would cost $200 to $300 per sow space to convert a facility from individual stalls to pen gestation.
"From a lender’s view, you inherently will not get any extra value for that facility if you go to pen gestation," Greenwood said. "It will come straight out of working capital. There are a lot more questions than answers in how the industry will work from a capital perspective in order to pay for this and still be competitive in the marketplace."
Hockman said Plain’s survey was conducted because customers requested the information. They were hearing from activist groups that 30 percent of the industry has converted to open pen gestation.
"We want to deal with factual information on the industry’s ability to meet customers’ requirements," Hockman said.
Plain said a lot of producers don’t have a commitment either way. If the market is willing to pay them the extra cost of moving to open pen gestation, they will do so.
"But so far there are not a lot of firms that have stepped forward and said they’re willing to pay a premium," Plain said.