My very first experience with a hog confinement barn was as a young girl when my neighbor built a hog barn. We raised row crops on our farm in Southern Illinois but not livestock so I didn’t have experience with hogs. My parents took my brother and I over to see the barn right after it was stocked with baby pigs to see what it was like. My thoughts as a little girl were that the baby pigs were adorable . . . but very, very stinky.
When I met my husband in college, his family was just finishing their brand new hog barn. It was an exciting time for my soon-to-be in-laws. They had raised hogs in previous years but this was their first hog confinement barn.
When you hear the words, “hog confinement barn,” I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you’re not thinking positive thoughts. There has been a great deal of negative publicity and backlash against CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). We’ve all seen the horrible footage from different operations showing the inhumane treatment of animals. Unfortunately, people view that footage and think that all farmers are raising pigs that way. In the words of Temple Grandin, “That would be like saying that every driver is a drunk driver.” That’s not how animals are treated in a hog confinement barn. I want to shed some light on our operation and show you the reality of a hog confinement barn.
We raise about 2,000 pigs in our barn. We get them when they’re weaned from their mothers and we raise them until they reach market weight. At that point, they’re loaded out of our barn and sent to a processing plant in Ottumwa, IA to become the delicious cuts of meat that nourish our bodies, or as my daughter says, “Makes my tummy happy!”
Our barn has scales in it that the pigs must walk through to get to their feed. After being weighed, they’re sent in one direction or another, depending on how much they weigh. If a pig is falling behind in weight, they’re sent with other pigs close to their size. This helps to keep the competition under control and give every pig a fair shot at getting enough feed. If a pig is a runt or is showing signs of sickness, they’re sorted out and put in a pen with other sick pigs. This allows them to regain strength and grow without the competition of larger pigs.
When piglets arrive to our farm, they receive vaccinations to keep them healthy and give them a good start. It’s the same theory as the vaccinations that my pediatrician gave to my children during their first year of life. When a pig gets sick, they receive antibiotics to help them fight the sickness and get back to good health. It’s very important to know that with any animal, there are strict regulations in place so that when an animal is slaughtered for consumption, there are withdrawal periods to ensure that any drug that may have been used on that animal has been eliminated from their system. There is a lot of information on the use of antibiotics in livestock, written by people who are way smarter than me. Here is one source I recommend: http://porkcdn.s3.amazonaws.com/sites/all/files/documents/Anitbiotics/AntibioticUse.pdf
In my opinion, the biggest benefit that a hog confinement barn provides is a comfortable environment for the pigs. You have to remember that when you raise pigs outside, they are subjected to extremely harsh winter conditions, often dying from the freezing temperatures or suffering frostbite. They are also subjected to the scorching sun in the summer. These conditions are stressful on animals and prevent them from thriving and producing to their potential. A confinement barn provides an optimal environment year-round with heat in the winter and fans, breezeways, shade and sprinklers in the summer to keep them cool. They have a lot of room in the barn to roam around throughout their life.
Think about this . . . when an animal is stressed, they will not produce. A dairy cow will not produce milk, a chicken will not lay eggs and a pig will not gain weight if they are under stress. We are raising healthier, more productive animals with today’s technologies than ever before. Why? Because the animals don’t have to fight the stressful conditions that they did in the “old days.”
Okay, now let’s talk about poop. As a mom who’s been changing diapers for the last 2-1/2 years and as a livestock farmer . . . poop is a very acceptable topic in our house. When you raise 2,000 pigs in one barn, you collect a lot of poop. And no, it does not smell like roses. It smells like 2,000 pigs’ worth of poop! I know what you’re thinking . . . this is a waste product, right? WRONG. Hog manure is one of the most valuable, best-kept secrets in row crop production. Here’s how it works:
Our barn (and almost 100% of all hog barns) are built with a concrete manure pit underneath the barn where the manure is collected throughout the year and is not able to escape unless we physically pump it out to haul it. These pits are lined with tile completely around the foundation, which is then inspected by DNR officials to ensure no manure is leaking into the ground. The manure is then applied to our fields in the fall for fertilizer for our crops. This process is simply like recycling the manure into a very useful product to reduce the use of commercial fertilizers on our crops the following year. This is probably the most organic form of fertilizer possible. The manure is knifed into the ground where it is able to be absorbed into the soil. This practice allows for very little (if any) runoff or polluting of our waterways. The state of Iowa has regulations to restrict the application of liquid manure on frozen or snow-covered ground for that very reason.
As you throw that thick, juicy pork chop on the grill this summer, keep in mind that a farmer worked tirelessly, day-in and day-out to raise and care for the pig that made that pork chop. Remember that he or she didn’t come in the house on Christmas morning until 11:00 am while his kids waited ever so impatiently to open the gifts Santa brought because he was doing chores for his pigs and cattle in the bitter cold, blizzard conditions.
Now, go enjoy some safe, healthy, delicious pork!