2018/10/01: The hog industry is losing sows—pigs that are raised solely for the purpose of breeding other pigs—at an increasing rate. Reports vary, but the number shared last year at an annual gathering of pork producers showed a rise in sow deaths from 5.8 percent to 10.2 percent in just the last three years.
As hog farms have consolidated, and the number of pigs each animal gives birth to has also gone up, sows have born the brunt of the changes. Removing the large, up-to-800-pound animals has also become such a challenge on hog barns that a $7,000 motorized removal machine—called the Hercules Arm—went on the market in 2017, promising to “a unique and revolutionary way to effortlessly remove … heavy dead pigs from stalls.”
These animals have been dying for a range of reasons, ranging from accidents, to disease and heart problems, for years. But the recent rise in numbers may be caused by a troubling rise in prolapse—or the collapse of the animal’s rectums, vaginas, and uteruses. And while the industry is scrambling for data and solutions, some experts wonder whether this is just the latest result of the larger trend toward engineering farm animals for profit—regardless of their suffering and early mortality.
“We’ve bred a contradiction into these animals,” says Garces. “Over the last few decades, sows have been bred to have less back fat—because people don’t want to eat as much fat—but we also want them to produce more and more babies. And that’s not biologically possible; their bones are weak and they don’t have enough fat to support the reproductive process. We’ve bred them to their limit and the animals are telling us that,” she added.
ways in which highly focused breeding across the livestock industry has led to unintended consequences.
Take lameness for example, another factor that can lead to early mortality in sows. “Lameness has been a problem for quite a long time,” says Grandin. “What happens is when you select an animal just for production traits, there are going to be some problems with leg conformation [which can lead to lameness]. And people didn’t notice it at first, because it got worse slowly.”
In the late 1980s, Grandin adds, pigs were bred with three traits in mind: rapid weight gain, thin back fat, and a big, huge loin. Now, she notes, “they’re breeding the sows to produce a lot of babies. Well, there’s a point where you’ve gone too far.”
Grandin hasn’t looked into sow mortality as it relates to prolapse, and she says if it is a breeding issue, it’s probably something that can be fixed. But it might not allow for the kind of rapid growth in productivity the hog industry has come to expect.