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CNN Money: "Humane" Livestock Production Costs Hard to Gauge
*A dynamic coalition of animal protectionists seek enthusiastic, committed volunteers to join an extremely exciting campaign to protect animals abused in California agriculture. Starting in October, volunteers are needed to gather signatures for this important ballot initiative. To participate, send a quick email to volunteer [at] eastbayanimaladvocates.org.*
August 9, 2007
KANSAS CITY -(Dow Jones)- Whether animal rights activists or livestock producers and processors are right in the dispute over animal rights and humane treatment comes down to whose ox is being gored.
One difficult question to answer is just how much it will cost the livestock and poultry industries to change production methods. And, in the longer run, how much of these costs will be passed on to the consumer?
The rhetoric by both sides clouds the issue. Animal activists demand that laws be passed to change the conditions under which livestock and poultry are raised. The livestock sector argues that the changes the activists want will increase production costs and that some of the alternative programs they want are inhumane as well.
The Humane Society of the United States is initiating a petition drive to put an initiative on the California ballot that would ban gestation crates for sows, battery cages for laying hens and veal crates for veal calves. A San Francisco Bay area group called East Bay Animal Advocates is an on-the-ground group working to aid in the effort.
Christine Morrissey, director of East Bay Animal Advocates, said supporters have 150 days beginning Oct. 1 to gather the minimum 433,000 valid signatures necessary for voters to weigh in on the issue. She said organizers would try to gather 620,000 to 630,000 signatures.
Morrissey said there are nearly 20 million laying hens in the state and 15,000 to 20,000 sows that would be affected. Veal crates are going out of style across the country, but this would block their reintroduction if they ever became popular among producers again, Morrissey said.
As alternatives to battery cages and gestation crates, Morrissey suggested cage-free and free-range methods of raising laying hens and group housing for sows. Some California producers already are using these methods, she said. However, she acknowledged that the alternative practices would raise production costs.
Production costs will go up, Morrissey said, and the burden is on producers and on consumers. But consumers will have the advantage of not eating food that is produced under the currently predominating methods, she said.
Ultimately, Morrissey said she expected less animal agriculture within California's borders, so more of the meat and eggs consumed by residents would be imported from other states.
John McGlone, professor of animal science at Texas Tech University, said consumers may be willing to pay the increased costs of changing some production practices. Consumers don't seem to have balked at the increased food costs linked to greater corn ethanol production, and in his view, added costs from going away from gestation crates, battery cages or veal pens "pales in comparison" to the costs from using corn for ethanol.
Lack Of Economically Viable Alternatives
McGlone and others say a significant drawback to changes is the lack of economically viable alternatives to unwanted production practices. When activists dwell on one issue without alternatives, animal welfare can actually suffer, but people find it acceptable because it seems better, McGlone said.
McGlone visited a "high welfare" farm in Sweden, where residents are proud of their animal welfare laws. Sows were kept in group pens with straw bedding.
Group housing may be a viable alternative to gestation crates, McGlone said, but getting study grants to find the best ways to do it is difficult. To him, the Swedish farm's practices were a case study in how not to do it.
He said a study by a task force of the American Veterinary Medical Association examined scientific evidence about the welfare of sows in gestation crates. The group concluded that no one system was better than another, he said.
McGlone said during the 2005 annual meeting of the European Society of Animal Production, a Swedish scientist distributed a paper that indicated labor requirements at the Swedish high-welfare pig farm were 34% higher than in Denmark.
"If labor accounts for an estimated $5 (in the U.S.) per weaned pig, use of this system would add $1.70 to the cost of a weaned pig," McGlone wrote in his review for the AVMA. "In the United States, this would be an additional labor cost to the swine industry of more than $200 million."
McGlone said the total increased cost would be much more. He emphasized the Swedish system provides more floor space and bedding, adding to the mass of waste that must be handled. The Swedish system also has a later weaning age than the U.S., which adds another layer of cost.
Sows tend to bite and fight in open pens, McGlone said. In the Swedish case, sows had large scars and wounds from such encounters.
The liquid diet fed to the sows also left them hungry and more prone to fighting, McGlone said. U.S. producers don't feed liquid diets. The Swedish farmers did so in an effort to cut costs, he said.
A Swedish farrowing-unit employee reported an average of 12.2 piglets were farrowed from each sow, but a mean of 9.2 was weaned per litter, a mortality rate of about 25%, McGlone said. Since Sweden also does not use farrowing crates, the higher mortality rate comes as sows lay on the piglets and crush them, he said.
In the U.S., a pre-weaning mortality of more than 15% suggests the need for improved conditions, McGlone said. If the pre-weaning mortality exceeds 20%, most specialists believe a serious management problem exists. Any any U.S. farm with a 25% pre-weaning mortality rate "would be considered to have poor welfare, " McGlone said.
The Swedish housing also was open-sided, exposing the hogs to winter temperatures that are well below zero, McGlone said. This increases the stress placed on each animal.
"If we're forced to go to systems that reduce a sow's welfare, it won't result in sustainable business," McGlone said while calling for more research into alternatives to current production practices that some find distasteful.
Consumer sentiment was a big factor in Smithfield Foods' (SFD) move this year to announce it would phase out gestation crates in its hog facilities, Shapiro said. What will cost Smithfield and how much will it cost its customers? Officials say it is hard to say at this point.
Dennis Treacy, vice president of environmental and corporate affairs at Smithfield, said officials don't know the full cost of going from gestation crates to group pens for the company's sows. He said, however, conversion expenses are expected to be the largest cost. In-house experiments have shown them that group pens can work and be cost-effective, although they may take more management.
-By Lester Aldrich; Dow Jones Newswires; 913-322-5179; lester.aldrich@ dowjones.com