Several "undercover" animal-rights videos have now shown farmers appearing to mutilate baby pigs in large farms. Why do pig farmers do that to newborn pigs?
Almost all pigs raised in this country, whether in large barns or in small houses on outside lots, undergo what is commonly called "processing," usually within a week of being born. In most cases, that involves these practices:
Teeth clipping: Although not as common as it used to be, many pig farmers still routinely clip the tips off the piglet’s eight eye teeth, often appropriately referred to as “needle” teeth. Because piglets often are born into litters composed of eight, 10 and even 12 siblings, competition for space at the mother pig’s udder can be fierce. That competition often leads to fighting that can cause injury not only to the snout and face of fellow littermates, but to the sensitive teats of the mother—which can leave her reluctant to nurse, eventually depriving the young pigs of needed milk. By using either sharp sidecutters or an abrasive grinding tool, farmers remove the sharp end of the tooth to dull them and prevent their use to hurt other pigs.
Ear notching: Ear notching uses a system of shallow notches in the skin of the ear to permanently and inexpensively number baby piglets so they can be inventoried and tracked throughout their lives. Farmers typically remove one of more notches about a one-quarter-inch deep on both ears, which corresponds to a unique number for the pig and its litter, based on where the notch lies on the ear. Although little formal research has been done to try to quantify the amount of pain and distress the practice causes, farmers have traditionally compared it to ear piercing for a young girl—it does cause brief pain, which is apparent from piglets shaking their heads for several minutes after the procedure, but any longterm suffering is likely insignificant.
Tail docking: For reasons animal scientists still don’t quite understand, older pigs will occasionally fall into the vice of biting the tails of their pen-mates. If it becomes excessive enough to cause an open wound to the tail of the bitten pig, it can then escalate into a destructive “feeding frenzy” in which most or all pigs in the pen are attracted to repeat the habit. In severe cases, it can lead to infections, spinal abscess, paralysis and even death among the victimized pigs. So a common practice to help prevent tailbiting is to dock the tail while the baby pig is young--much as the tails of some breeds of young dogs are docked. Is it painful? Again, common sense would suggest it probably is, but researchers aren’t certain as to the degree. The entire tail does have developed nerves, even in the youngest pig, so it's apparent some pain may be felt. Docked piglets can be seen wagging the tail stump or clamping it between their back legs for a few moments afterward, which scientists believe does indicate a pain response. However, most pigs return to normal feeding almost immediately after the procedure, which farmers take to indicate as the best sign it causes no longterm consequence.
Castration: Almost all pork farmers carry out the longstanding practice of surgically removing the testicles of male pigs to prevent the tainting of pork with foul odors and off flavors, as well as to reduce aggressiveness of older boars. The vast majority still do it by cutting open the scrotum and cutting or pulling out the testes--without anaesthesia. Until fairly recently, it was assumed by farmers that young animals did not have as highly developed nervous systems as older animals, so they felt less pain when the process is done at a young age--the same rationale for circumsicing young boys without anasthesia. As with the other practices, some are now questioning that assumption. However, most farmers still concur in the belief that castrating before weaning causes much less stress than waiting until pigs are older, and the behavioral indications--eating, returning to interacting with the group, ceasing to squeal immediately after they're returned to the security of their mother and littermates--all indicate little or no long-term suffering.
Each of these common procedures can be performed in a matter of minutes--even seconds--by a farm-hand experienced in husbandry. What may look to the untrained eye as a flurry of knives, pliers and needles punctuated by screams of "terror" is a well-orchestrated execution of necessary procedures that, although they may cause short-term pain or distress to the confused piglet, benefit the animal over the long term.
We often hear the comment repeated that the food system will need to double its food output by the middle of this century to keep up with world demand. Are we up to it? Newly published research by University of Nebraska crop scientists raises a grim warning. They suggest the fields across the world in which almost a third of the rice, wheat and corn is raised have likely either peaked in their productivity or may actually be declining.
“Previous projections of food security are often more optimistic than what historical yield trends would support,” the researchers, Nebraska Agronomists Patricio Grassini and Kent Eskridge, write in the scientific journal Nature Communications. Many of those projections of farm productivity in the future assume the rates of gain in crop yields will compound, rather than simply grow in a straight line. But history doesn’t bear that assumption out, they believe. They challenged the assumption by testing six statistical models that are widely used in the economics literature for describing trends in crop yields over time. Using their framework to characterize past yield trends, the Nebraska researchers argue that straight-line increases are much more likely. Therefore, even though production can be expected to continue to increase, the relative rate of increase will slow over time, leaving production far below the levels the more optimistic compounded predictions suggest.
In fact, they believe, good evidence suggests crop yields have already either leveled off or actually fallen in some of the world’s major cereal-producing regions. Although their study did not specifically take on the task of predicting why those plateaus have happened, they suggest any farm will naturally face a productivity wall at some point due to limits of biology unique to the region, climate and crop.
“As farmers’ yields move up towards the yield potential threshold, it becomes more difficult to sustain further yield gain because it requires fine tuning of many different facets of management in the production system,” they write. “Such fine tuning is often difficult to achieve in farmer’s fields, and the associated marginal costs, labor requirements, risks and environmental impacts may outweigh the benefits.”
They believe that situation is now happening in the high-yield cropping systems for rice in China, Korea and Japan; wheat in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and India; and corn in Italy and France. Other factors could also be at work, they suggest, including changes in weather cycles, land degradation, a shift in where crops are produced to regions with poorer soils and climate, policies that restrict the use of fertilizers and pesticides, and reduced or poorly targeted investment in agricultural research and development.
For example, they say, ag R&D in China increased by three times from 1981 to 2000, but the rates of increase in crop yields there remained constant for wheat, actually fell relatively by 64 percent for corn and has been only negligible for rice. Similarly, in the United States, despite a 58 percent increase in both public and private investment in agricultural R&D in the United States for the same time period, the rate of increase for corn yields has only been linear, not compounded.
The overall implication? In order to keep up with expected increased demand, future grain production will require large increases in average crop yields in countries where current yield gaps are large—the countries that have the poorest access to technology, infrastructure and capital required for agricultural development. At the same time, continuing to improve the rate of gain on farms in developed nations will require adoption of technology that wrings even more productivity out of existing land, water and fertilizer. Such technology is often under attack today by opponents of modern, high-technology agriculture in the guise of such marketing schemes as "GMO-free," "natural," "antibiotic- and hormone-free" and even organic.
Cold weather may seem a bad time to have baby calves, but here's why beef cattle farmers purposefully deliver them in late winter. It helps make beef more affordable for you.
Viewers of evening newscasts in the U.S. urban centers watched in horror this October as a sudden blizzard killed an estimated 3,000 cattle in Nebraska and as many as 15,500 in South Dakota. The devastation served as reminder again that "natural" farming practices like cattle ranching are often brutal and unforgiving.
Yet thousands of Nebraska beef cattle ranchers are even now preparing to enter a three-month season of trudging through the dark in rain, snow and mud to find, check and, if necessary, assist cows and their calves that are in the process of birth. For this part of the country, almost eight in every 10 calves will be born between the beginning of February and the end of May. Despite temptations to shift the all-important calving season to warmer, drier months, when the weather is not so harsh, farmers continue this traditional winter calving season. Why?
• It gives calves the chance to best use the feed Mother Nature provides—grass. Despite criticism that the modern beef farming system relies on “unnatural” feeding products like corn, the truth is nearly all beef calves raised in Nebraska and the United States spend most of their lives eating grass. Cattle farmers understand cattle are very efficient converters of grass and forage into meat, so the more opportunity they give the calves to eat grass, the more productive they are, and the cheaper it makes beef for your customers. Calves born in the late winter and early spring are being weaned from complete reliance on mother’s milk and prepared to start eating grass just as the fresh spring growth in pastures comes on strong. Ensuring those calves are ready to start grazing as soon as possible gives farmers the maximum number of months on grass to put on weight for sale by the end of the summer.
• Generally, having calves in the late winter and early spring is helpful in spreading out the work requirements on mixed family farming operations. There, farmers still rely predominantly or completely on their own labor and their family’s. Getting the high-labor tasks of calving out of the way before spring cropping season begins ensures the cow/calf enterprise doesn’t interfere with labor demands.
• It helps the mother cows, as well. Because farmers typically get only one calf out of each mother cow per year, it’s critical to their success to make sure each cow gets the full opportunity to deliver and raise that healthy calf, and then be prepared to breed for the next year’s calf. To maintain their best fertility, cows are generally given about 1.5 to two months to rest and fatten up a little before they are bred for the next year's calf. By calving in the early spring, cows can take advantage of the natural pasture growth, which is relatively high in protein in the early spring, to put some flesh back on before farmers start breeding them.
• By carefully scheduling the breeding of those cows in order to concentrate the delivery of all their calves within a narrow window of time—typically within one month, ideally—farmers produce a more uniform crop of calves that can all go to market together at the same time, improving the efficiency of the marketing system and making the entire group more attractive to buyers.
• And last but not least, many ranchers still calve at a particular time of the year because that’s how it’s always been done on their farm.
Thousands of people flock to the more than 8,000 local farmers markets around Nebraska and the rest of the country every Saturday morning. If you believe the numerous consumer surveys, they do so because they believe the produce there is higher quality, more nutritious and safer than what they could find at supermarkets. But “surprisingly little research” has really addressed the food safety practices used on small to medium-sized farms selling locally or in farmers markets, according to a team of researchers from Georgia, Virginia Tech and Clemson. So they looked into that question.
The results were not pretty.
Their study, just published in November’s Journal of Food Protection here, evaluated current food safety practices used by 226 small to medium-sized farms and 45 managers of farmers markets in Georgia, Virginia and South Carolina, based on responses to a series of mail and online surveys. The results showed:
Once those crops reach the farmers market, the study showed, sanitation conditions don’t improve much.
When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced in late August it was finally pulling its regulatory approvals for several old feed additives used in poultry and pigs that contain traces of arsenic, the media spun the move as FDA "finally putting an end to using arsenic" in animal feed. California's largest National Public Radio beacon was typical in its reporting, proclaiming "FDA Finally Bans Most Arsenic in Chicken Feed." Bloomberg News, similarly, pronounced FDA had at last "ordered the withdrawal" of arsenic-containing products from the market. More activism-oriented web outlets repeated and amplified the news, lamenting the fact that such a dangerous poison as arsenic was still being used up until FDA's announcement.
A more careful reading of FDA's own announcement here hints at the truth. The agency in fact officially refused--not agreed--on Sept. 30 to act on a four-year-old petition filed by the Center for Food Safety and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy which demanded FDA revoke the decades-old approvals for the arsenic-containing compounds roxarsone, carbarsone and arsanilic acid. FDA correctly noted an inconvenient fact many of the news reports missed: Nobody was using the drugs in chickens and pigs anymore, because no company was selling them in this country.
FDA in fact took two significant steps in August and September:
Where then does that leave grocers who have to interpret this panicked food-safety string of news stories to consumers? A few points to put a little context around the reports include: