What I know of farming is…minimal. I grew up in the rural country, yes. We had chickens, pigeons, gerbils, fish, rabbits, dogs, and the occasional cat.
I know I like bacon (yum) and watched Charlotte’s Web countless times…and that’s the extend of my pig knowledge.
I had an opportunity this past fall to visit a conventional pig farm located in Des Moines, IA. The US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance hosted a group of retail registered dietitians so we could better learn the ropes and educate our shoppers.
And pigs. Boy, did I ever learn. I thought that once I’d laid eyes on the operation I’d be a vegetarian for sure, but that wasn’t so much the case. One of the biggest messages I took away, above all else, was the passion behind the pig farm. This was a career for so many people, their livelihood, and they really do care about their animals and operation.
We were bussed to a privately owned pig farm known as Iowa Select Farms, the largest pork producer in Iowa. There they move over 70,000 pigs a week for production. And talk about biosecurity, we weren’t even allowed to have our shoes touch the ground from the bus without having sterile booties cover them. Then we each had to shower in the facility and wear approved clothing that was laid out on the “clean side” of the shower. No brush, no makeup…just a sopping wet head, jumpsuit, men’s socks and a generic sports bra on the other side.
Once we were officially inside the pig farm we were met by the veterinarian who taught us all about the pig operation.
The pigs there are artificially inseminated by using superior boar genetics. What I found fascinating is that they take a boar around to “sniff out,” if you will, the females in heat and those are the ones they inseminate.
A female pig is pregnant for about 115 days and they typically give birth about 4 times before their litters become smaller and smaller. They usually have their first litter around 1 year old. About 3 weeks before birth they’re taken to the “farrowing barn.” Here we got to see the piglets being born and hold them right out of the hatch. And…WOW. What a job. After the sow was on her 16th piglet we watched the staff search for any that were still in the womb. If any were left inside they could become stillborn and cause infection. What a job! It was thrilling to see birth all around you and watch them fight for their mother’s milk.
After that group is done farrowing they’re sent to another barn where they spend the next 3 weeks nursing and growing. Here the sows are lactating and have free access to grain. Other than that, they’re fed once daily and that is a very stressful event in the pig world. I wasn’t aware how aggressive pigs were! Many had scratches and the sounds were atrocious.
At this pig farm, antibiotics may be used on a pig in only a few cases. They are “livestock grade” and may be put in the feed to help a sow’s milk letdown or induce birth if needed. They follow very strict guidelines and there are strict standards as to the length of time between when oxytocin is given and when a pig can be processed. Typically, pigs do not receive any growth hormones. So when you see signs saying “no growth hormones” for pigs…that’s just how pigs are. Growth-hormone-free!
After a pig is finished farrowing for their lifetime they’re put on the trucks for processing. These trucks are put in an oven type of thing before coming into the farm to keep things sterile and prevent disease to be brought in. The truck and trailer is washed and baked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit before pigs are loaded.
This was one of my favorite life experiences to date. I’m just astounded by everything we have accomplished in food production, and while many of us like to villain-ize the food industry for some of its faults, I choose to see the passion and drive toward developing better products, better processes, and better production. There certainly are practices we could do better. There certainly are improvements that can be made in the food industry. This is where education is key. Get yourself involved and get the facts.
by Jessica Miller, Price Cutter Dietitian