Opinion: Taranaki pig farmer Karl Stanley explains why he is frustrated with the Government's decision to phase out the traditional use of farrowing crate and mating stall systems in the pork industry.
Last year, the future was looking bright.
Our family-run pig farm in Taranaki was a finalist in the Ballance Farm Environment regional awards for Taranaki.
We were also investing almost $1 million in new indoor farrowing systems – essentially maternity wards for sows - to ensure the welfare of our piglets and future-proof our business for generations to come.
However, this feeling of optimism came to a grinding halt in November when the High Court ruled that the regulations and minimum standards regarding the use of mating stalls and farrowing crates were unlawful and invalid.
This decision followed a judicial review taken by the New Zealand Animal Law Association (NZALA) and SAFE against the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC), the Ministry for Primary Industries and the Attorney-General.
The Court also directed the Animal Welfare Minister to consider recommending new regulations that provide a transition period to phase out the use of farrowing crates and mating stalls and to consider making such changes to the relevant minimum standards under the Welfare Code for pigs.
As a pig farmer, what was perhaps most disappointing was that the judgement related to failings with the NAWAC process in developing the regulations and standards.
The judge's scope was to review the legal process that was carried out by NAWAC to develop regulations and codes of welfare, rather than making any judgement on the acceptability of particular pig farming practices.
Despite this, the Government has now decided to phase out the traditional use of farrowing crate and mating stall systems in the pork industry. NAWAC is now reviewing the Pigs Code of Welfare and it is likely to recommend that further regulations are made.
For those readers with a limited understanding of the pork industry's farrowing systems, their purpose is clear. Farrowing or birthing systems support the survival of as many well-grown healthy piglets as possible, whilst also meeting the needs of the sow.
Most importantly, they save piglets' lives at a time when they are at their most vulnerable.
By limiting the movement of the sow, the movements that lead to piglet crushing are reduced and slowed down, giving piglets time to escape out of the sow's way. Sows can weigh more than 300 kilograms whereas newborn piglets are just 1.5 kilograms.
In 2016, NAWAC, the Government's independent committee tasked with advising the Minister on animal welfare matters, agreed. They concluded that the use of farrowing crates was the best system available to meet the welfare needs of the piglets and the sow.
It's devastating as a farmer to find dead piglets that have been crushed by their mother.
First and foremost, piglet crushing is a welfare issue and farrowing crates are the most effective at protecting piglets from this, and other, causes of death.
Farrowing crates allow the sow easy access to her own feed and water which avoids competition with others.
They provide a separate piglet-only area that is heated, to meet the piglet's temperature needs and attract them away from the sow when they are resting, which reduces crushing and hypothermia.
Listen to Jamie Mackay interview Karl Stanley on The Country below:
Human safety needs to be addressed in the farrowing system's design.
This also has an impact on sow and piglet welfare where a staff member is unable to rapidly treat either a sow or piglet due to concerns when encountering particularly defensive, and sometimes aggressive sows.
Stock persons are able to safely foster piglets between sows to ensure all piglets have access to a functional teat, to prevent starvation.
Sows spend a maximum of 28 days in this system after giving birth as they care for and nurture their piglets, and up to five days pre-farrowing. They give birth twice a year and typically spend 80 per cent of their time in social groups when not in a farrowing system.
Worldwide, farrowing crates are also the most common system used to house sows and piglets until piglets are weaned. No country has completely banned their use.
Frustratingly, the Government has acknowledged no suitable or viable alternative for farrowing crates has yet been identified.
Alternative systems, such as a pen, have been widely demonstrated to have higher piglet deaths, mostly caused by crushing.
This is certainly an area the pork industry is concerned about and we have raised this with NAWAC, MPI and the Government.
Additionally, pen-based systems are more expensive to install as they have a larger footprint. This means that an existing building that currently has farrowing crates would accommodate fewer sows if it was converted to farrowing pens.
So, a farm that can't simultaneously invest in converting their existing systems as well as constructing new building(s) in order to retain their current herd size (subject to consent etc. which is likely to pose a major challenge for some farms) would likely have to decrease the number of sows. This would reduce the number of pigs produced per year.
As well as a potentially smaller herd size, piglet mortality is higher in these systems, so pigs weaned per sow per year will likely be lower, further reducing productivity and production.
The result of less pork being produced by New Zealand farmers is that even more of it will be imported.
Many people are surprised to know that already 60 per cent of the pork consumed in New Zealand is imported, and that almost all of it comes from countries that are using pig farming practices that are illegal here.
Unfortunately, this will probably only increase if we are forced to adopt systems that are, as the Government themselves has determined, unsuitable and unviable.
There will still be a welfare issue present if higher piglet mortality continues to be a challenge.
This is the main barrier to adopting pen-based farrowing systems voluntarily in all of the major pig producing countries. It is an issue of animal welfare, as well as economics.
It is also not viable for the industry to move entirely to an outdoors-based system. Soil type and climate are big factors in whether pigs can be farmed outdoors.
Outdoor breeding is only possible in a moderate climate with low rainfall and free-draining soil conditions. Furthermore, a number of regional council requirements do not enable outdoor pig farming.
In New Zealand, that means most of the local outdoor production is based in Canterbury.
So, any change to the current use of farrowing crates would have a detrimental effect on animal welfare, productivity, and staff health and safety.
It would be a backwards step and result in worse animal welfare outcomes for piglets – ultimately more piglets will perish.
As a farmer, this would be heart-breaking for me and my five employees. I would hope no New Zealander will want to see this either.