Pasture-Raised Pigs: Are They Living Better?
In the last two decades, animal welfare has gained increasingly more popularity among Western consumers. In fact, studies from the United States show that 78% of consumers consider the way farm animals are raised as “important.” This attention has generated an interest in alternative farming methods devised to satisfy the demands of a niche — but growing — base of consumers.
It is no secret that consumers tend to associate pasture-farming with improved animal wellbeing, but are the animals actually living better under such systems??
This literature review analyzed 238 scientific papers on pasture pig production in order to identify potential detriments to pigs’ wellbeing. The study focused on research published between 2000 and 2020, and only took on-farm production processes into consideration, with transportation and slaughter not being included. Besides identifying welfare-related weaknesses within the pasture-farming system, the authors offered a series of recommendations to increase animal welfare and productivity through improved management methods, attention to pigs’ different needs, and even genetics.
Pasture farming tends to be automatically associated with better living conditions for farmed animals, but this system still presents specific challenges in relation to animal welfare. Despite a similarity between pasture land and the pigs’ natural habitat, pasture-farmed pigs can have poor levels of wellbeing, mostly due to the complexity of the pasture ecosystem and the needs of keeping up with productivity demands.
This study, in particular, found flaws in the following areas:
- Pigs’ physical health: Pigs raised on pasture land can be exposed to extreme temperatures – either extremely hot or cold weather – and even suffer from sunburns or hypothermia. They can also come in contact with pathogens such as parasites or fall prey to predators. Depending on the time of the year and on the environmental condition of the land, pasture-raised pigs and sows in particular can suffer from malnutrition. Poor hygienic conditions are another risk, as is premature death, particularly in pre-weaning piglets.
- Mental distress: Despite increased physical space and a higher proportion of environmental stimulation, pigs can suffer from mental distress. In fact, practices such as mixing unfamiliar pigs, and the routine use of painful procedures can lead to behavioural and physiological changes which affect pigs’ mental wellbeing. Examples of these procedures are castration, tail docking (the removal of a portion of the tail), ear notching (cutting different portions of both ears to mark an animal), tooth clipping and the insertion of nose rings to prevent the pigs from damaging the vegetation and soil. All of these procedures are routinely carried without anesthesia, even in pasture-raised systems, and can affect pigs’ behaviour. Examples of behavioural problems and distress include tail biting, aggressive behaviour towards subaltern pigs, and aggression towards piglets.
- Management practices: Finally, management practices have a crucial importance in determining the degree of welfare of pasture-raised pigs. The training and attitude of staff, as well as practices like cleaning and disinfection of facilities and equipment can have a huge impact on pigs’ health and wellbeing. Difficulties in monitoring pigs’ health status, in order to isolate and treat ill individuals or to provide adequate nutrition or shelter from hot or cold weather all undermine the pigs’ wellbeing.
Pigs are intelligent and social animals who show great awareness of their surroundings. Pasture-raised pigs can suffer from a number of physical and mental issues spurred by their condition as “farmed animals” in general, as many standard practices still remain in place.
Animal advocates can use this study as supporting evidence to the claim that pasture-farming doesn’t necessarily mean improved welfare for the animals. Moreover, it is useful to note that, as shown in this research, animal welfare considerations are generally meant to meet the farmers’ need for increased productivity. In this context, a certain degree of animal welfare, be it in pasture farming or in indoor farming systems, is inevitably sacrificed to productivity demands.