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this little piggy

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Posted by Simon Bryant

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Okay, this picture of the crispy pig belly looks nice enough but could you eat it while thinking about images of sow stalls, farrowing crates, pigs crammed in sheds?

Thankfully the decision by Australian Pork Limited last year to phase out sow stalls voluntarily by 2017 should improve conditions somewhat but some producers and consumers feel this is only one step of many needed to ensure a happy life for pigs.

The ethical issues around farrowing crates (designed to stop sows crushing piglets after birth), which confine the sow in an area not much larger than its body size are still a concern. Sure, no one wants a crushed piglet but there are alternative solutions.

Warren Smith of Minniribbie Farm (free range Berkshire Pork), has two acres of his free range area set aside on his property, about 10kms north of Coffin Bay, for mothers to farrow piglets. It is a shared area for the sows and while he acknowledges you might lose a piglet now and again, comparatively mortality does exist in factory farms due to the associated stress and over crowding.

A comparison between Danish factory farmed pigs with sows confined in farrowing crates and Swedish farms where the crates are banned (sows are in 5 metre pens), showed no significant difference in mortality rates.*

Warren adds the key is in the Berkshire sows, who are naturally good mothers. Combined with the litter sizes that he achieves of 7 (ideal) to 8 (max) piglets, this enables the sow to care for all of her offspring effectively without losing condition or becoming exhausted.

Compare this with the traditional Large White and Landrace litter sizes that we have selectively bred to produce a dozen or so piglets and you can understand why you may not need farrowing crates if the mother can cope with the litter size and is not stressed from confinement.

Density rate and confinement are also issues in the intensive factory systems. Warren gives his animals no iron supplement, no antibiotics, there is no tail docking or teeth clipping done on the piglets. The latter common place (and quite painful for piglets), to stop tail biting which is often brought about from boredom, over stocking and confinement in factory systems. Warren points out the sows teach appropriate social behavior to the offspring and his livestock do not exhibit the above mentioned behavioral problems.

This view is shared by Louise Smith of Loxton who is one of a growing number of farmers producing Berkshire Free Range Pork for Richard Gunner of Feast Fine Foods. Feast started off with a handful of producers farming Berkshire's (among them Colin and Joy Lenient from the Barossa) and has now grown to a group of 10 free range producers, as awareness of factory farm conditions has risen and consumer demand for free range pork has subsequently grown.

Louise, a 26 year old who along with her brother, has joined the family business says the ease of managing and herding the intelligent, little, black Berkshire pigs is why her family started free ranging them. The Smith family provides ample straw bedding, chains and toys for the pigs to play with, shade and windbreaks for weather protection and has found no need for docking and clipping if the pigs are happy and active in their free range environment.

The resurgence of Berkshire pigs has come about because they are a hardy, little heritage breed ideal for free ranging due to their darker pigmentation, which means they don't sun burn like the modern factory farmed breeds that just would not tolerate our climate out doors.

Warren makes a point of providing conditions as natural as possible for his livestock, like wallowing baths for cool-down (pigs cant sweat); wallowing also enables the pigs to get a natural layer of "sunscreen " from the mud. Warren's favorite time of the day is feeding time, "...and the sense of well being from seeing his pigs healthy and content." This is a stark contrast with Warren's memory of visiting a commercial piggery, "...and leaving quite distressed from seeing these intelligent creatures in such conditions."

There are a few hitches with free range systems. Warren has a separate paddock for less dominant pigs and is able to put the more gentle animals in together to avoid the associated bullying that can occur from dominant pigs. Louise says on hot days they are out in the paddocks every hour or so replenishing wet areas to ensure the pigs are not heat stressed.

Growth rates are almost twice as long when free ranging, it takes 7 months to get a porker to reach 45kg as opposed to factory systems which can yield the same weight in 3½ months. This obviously is going to add to the cost of the final product but the price difference really isn't that great to the consumer. At the end of the day the meat of a free range Berkshire is moister, sweeter and the worth the price.

Here's a recipe you might want to try....crispy skin free range berkshire pig belly

*Weber R., Keil NM, Fehr M, Horat R. (2009) Factors affecting piglet mortality in loose farrowing systems on commercial farms. Livestock Science 124, 216-222.

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