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"WABASH – The mother hardly grunted as she delivered 12 offspring in rapid succession. Each newborn weighed between 3 and 4 pounds. The first-born siblings eagerly drank their mother’s milk as she delivered the rest.
The delivery volume represented the routine at Liberty Swine Farms. The Wabash County farm raises 22,000 hogs each year, including females other farms use for breeding stock.
It’s a job fewer hog farms are undertaking as farms specialize in certain life stages. Most farmers buy 3-week-old piglets and raise them until they reach market weight. Breeding and monitoring pregnant hogs requires additional time and labor, said Randy Curless, Liberty Swine Farms’ owner.
Newborn piglets, for instance, know how to eat but need a little help getting clean. Production manager Michelle Workman showed me one key job – drying the piglets’ slick skin. If the newborns aren’t dried properly, their belly buttons can become infected.
I expected this job would involve a towel, but instead Workman carried over a plastic tub filled with white powder. Each piglet had to be gently pressed into the floury stuff so the powder covered its sides, front and back. Easier said than done, particularly when the piglet is slippery and squealing.
I picked up a piglet around its middle and gingerly set it in the tub so the powder covered one side. But flipping the animal on its back and stomach proved tricky. When I struggled to maintain my grip on the squirming piglet, Workman grabbed its legs and turned it over easily. This probably isn’t a job for amateurs.
The piglets spend the first three weeks of their lives in a 5-foot-by-7-foot pen. Metal bars keep their mother confined to a 2-foot-by-5-foot space inside the pen.
Curless said the pen is designed for the hogs’ safety. The bars force the mother to wriggle between them before she lies down. That slight delay gives her piglets enough time to get out of her way. Otherwise, the sow could crush the piglets. “They’re not particularly good mothers if left on their own,” he said, “so we do everything we can to facilitate their life expectancy.”
Liberty Swine Farms also keeps pregnant sows in individual pens, allowing employees to treat animals individually, he said. First-time and older mothers receive extra food to keep them healthy.
But the Humane Society of the United States, an animal rights organization, opposes confining sows to individual pens during pregnancy. Gestation crates as narrow as 2 feet prevent the sow from turning or taking more than one step forward or one step back, said Paul Shapiro, senior director of the Humane Society’s factory farming campaign. Confining a sow this way during a four-month pregnancy can lead to muscle atrophy and joint pain, he said.
“The pigs can’t even turn around for months on end,” Shapiro said. The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production concluded these crates should be phased out.
Some companies, such as Cargill and Smithfield Foods Inc., already are eliminating the use of gestation crates, Shapiro said. It would be more humane to keep pregnant sows penned in small groups, the way weaned hogs are, he said.
Individual enclosures prevent the sows from fighting and seriously hurting or killing one another, Curless said. Some of the sows had scratches from fighting as they were moved to their crates, he said. Liberty Swine Farms’ staff had treated the scratches.
Curless said farms like his care for their livestock, and owners carefully consider the best ways to raise animals. Curless, who is president of the trade association Indiana Pork, views answering consumers’ questions about how meat is raised as a key part of being a farmer. Many grocery shoppers are several generations removed from farm life, and he wants them to understand the process.
Raising animals in a temperature-controlled environment also helps more hogs to survive until they reach market weight, he said. The lean hogs consumers want don’t have enough fat to protect them from cold temperatures.
Another risk to outdoor life is drowning. Hogs living outdoors tend to dig “nests,” and the animals can drown if rainstorms fill these depressions with water. Curless remembers helping his father rescue hogs during rainstorms when the family raised hogs outside.
Raising the animals indoors allows about 10 hogs from each litter to survive until they are weaned from the mother at 3 weeks of age, Curless said. Before management practices improved, the age was 3 weeks to 5 weeks.
The piglets displayed distinct personalities during our visit. The way the month-old pigs wrestled with each other and playfully gnawed on Curless’ boots reminded me of my mother’s puppies.
And hogs have a clear social structure, Curless said. Each litter of pigs assigns its members one of the mother’s nipples, so every pig drinks from its delegated spot. When the animals are moved to a new pen, they spend several days sorting out a pecking order.
Liberty Swine Farms carefully controls the environment to protect the hogs from cold temperatures or illnesses. Journal Gazette photographer Sam Hoffman and I had to change into two sets of coveralls and boots before visiting the barns so we wouldn’t spread any germs to the hogs.
Confined animal feeding operations keep animals safe and lower consumers’ grocery bills, Curless said. If government regulations force farmers to shift to cage-free operations, he said the largest meat companies will simply raise more livestock in other countries and import meat to supply the nation’s supermarkets.
“Someday the consumer will realize that we’re right,” he said, “but I’m afraid it’s going to be too late.”
Regulations would force farms like his out of business, Curless said. A hog farm the size of Liberty Swine Farms can gross about $1 million a year, he said.
But current pork prices don’t cover most farmers’ expenses, Curless said. He estimates Liberty Swine Farms is losing $12 to $15 a head because prices are so low. Farmers were earning around 42 cents a pound for selling live hogs last week, he said. Farmers were suffering larger losses – as much $30 a head at Curless’ farm – when grain prices soared last summer, but weak global demand amid the recession continues to depress prices.
Liberty Swine Farms earns more for the sows it sells for breeding. These female pigs earn about $150 more than the market price for pigs used for food, Curless said. To cushion against the pork industry’s cycles, Curless said he saves money during strong years. Those savings help see the operation through lean periods.
“Farming, you know there’s good years and bad,” he said. “So when you have good years you slap a bunch of money in savings. But we’ve lost so much in the last 18 months; we’ve lost almost everything we made the last three years in 18 months.”
Along with the economic struggles, Curless keeps fighting the perception that large livestock farms are not the best environment for raising livestock. Someday, he wants to pass the farm to Workman, the farm’s 20-year-old production manager. Curless’ teenage son also could help lead the company if he decides to pursue a farming career.
Curless said he wants consumers to know livestock farmers also have the animals’ welfare at heart. Farms like Liberty Swine can raise inexpensive food in a humane way, he said.
“We hope to stay in business and keep it here,” he said, “at least if the consumer will let us.”
I have a good friend, several good friends who try to make their living this way but it's an uphill battle. We have to do all we can to support them. They are good people taking better care of animals better than we ever could the way I was raised on the farm. Our death loss was much higher in the old days than it is now and the quality is so much better today. We are truly fortunate.