On factory farms, the death rate of pig sows is soaring

It's not yet clear why this is happening, but there are plenty of suspects

  • A rise in mortality for factory farm pig sows has growers worried.
  • There are some obvious possible reasons, but studies are underway.
  • Rise in deaths points toward a need for more humane treatment of pigs.

While relatively little is known about the psychology of domestic pigs, what is known suggests that pigs are cognitively complex and share many traits with animals whom we consider intelligent. — Thinking Pigs: A Comparative Review of Cognition, Emotion, and Personality in Sus domesticus

Of all the animals that humans eat, perhaps the most morally troubling are pigs because they're considered to be highly aware creatures. The stories of their sentience are myriad and make a compelling case that they know just what awaits them at slaughter. That they continue to be raised as food is heartbreaking on the face of it to many, and the conditions at pork factory farms have long been troubling. (In addition, 5,500 pigs drowned in North Carolina during Hurricane Florence.)

Now there's a new problem with industrially bred pigs that has even the pork industry alarmed: Sow deaths from prolapse—a condition that causes a sow's rectum, vagina, or uterus to collapse—are skyrocketing. According to The Guardian, the pig mortality rate nearly doubled between 2013 and 2016 on factory farms with more than 125 sows across 800 pork companies. Some farmers are reporting prolapse as the cause of 25% to 50% sow deaths.

Warning: This post contains troubling images.

Wally, the slaughterhouse-truck-escaping pig, with the author at Soulspace Farm Sanctuary(Photo: Syd M Johnson)

Why are sows dying like this?

The cause of the deaths is not altogether clear. The National Pork Board is partnering with Iowa State University on a multi-year study aimed at understanding what's happening. (Iowa's the top pork producer in the U.S.) They intend to collect data on about 13% of food sows on more than 100 farms in 16 states. That's about 400,000 pigs.

As of now, there are a handful of possible causes that have been suggested:

  • Vitamin deficiencies
  • Mycotoxins in feed
  • Overfeeding to promote growth
  • Abdominal issues
  • Overly restrictive confinement systems
  • Overbreeding

(Photo: Farm Watch)

A sedentary, crowded existence

According to The Guardian, "An estimated 97% of the US's 73 million hogs are raised in closed barns or confined feeding operations." These dense-packed, restrictive environments include gestation and farrowing crates in which sows can barely move, and in which they spend most of their lives. It's a brutal way to exist as pigs have little, if any, opportunity for health-sustaining movement and exercise, and are kept from doing the things pigs like to do.

Farmer Paul Willis tells The Guardian, "I have a neighbor that has been raising pigs [in a confinement system] … and they have a dumpster, and I can go by there almost any time of the day or week and it's full of dead hogs." One company is producing the Hercules' Arm Pig Hearse, which its website calls "A unique and revolutionary way to effortlessly remove, on your own and in total safety, heavy dead pigs from stalls and haul them away to the designated area." The company adds that the device "has been specifically designed to eliminate any risk of back injury and make work so much easier."

(Mercy for Animals, MFA)

Pigs in gestation crates

Genetic manipulation for more salable pork or more pigs

Well-known animal-welfare advocate Temple Grandin of Colorado State University also spoke to The Guardian about this problem, suggesting that shifting pork-industries priorities have wreaked havoc on pigs' bodies.

In the late 1980s, she points out, pigs were bred for rapid weight gain, more backfat, along with a more lucrative loin. Later on, though, breeding goals changed as the American diet became more fat conscious.

Eventually breeding moved to pigs who could produce more piglets. New president of Mercy for Animals Leah Garces suggests this could be the cause of the prolapse epidemic: "Over the last few decades, sows to have been bred to have less back-fat—because people don't want to eat as much fat—but we also want them to produce more and more babies. And that's not biologically possible; their bones are weak and they don't have enough fat to support the reproductive process. We've bred them to their limit and the animals are telling us that."

Sows now produce an average of 23.5 piglets a year in litters of ten. After about four litters, they're done. As Grandin puts it, "They're breeding the sows to produce a lot of babies. Well, there's a point where you've gone too far."

(Photo: Farm Watch)

Exhausted Walkato sow

Considering the porcine future

Some in the pork industry are looking to establish more moderate, sustainable methods of raising pigs, including smaller farms—such as Willis' Niman Ranch, a subsidiary of Purdue—and backing off productivity goals. As Grandin puts it, "You have to figure out the optimal number of piglets these sows should have. One thing people have trouble with is asking what is optimal—not maximal, but optimal—when it comes to breeding." Hopefully, reports such as the National Pork Board's will definitively pinpoint what's causing this increase in sow deaths.

There's also another solution worthy of mention, and it's pretty obvious: We could cut back or stop eating pigs.

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