Animal Health Blog: Investigation #2 – Feed and Non-ambulatory Animals

Why are some American farmers avoiding pesticide dependent, genetically modified feeds? Is there any connection between the feed supply and non-ambulatory animals?  By L. Dunham

Most American farmers feed their cows, pigs, and chickens corn and bean products.  As I mentioned in my last article, many of these feed products are genetically modified to tolerate herbicide applications and pests.  But some farmers have decided to avoid genetically engineered, chemically treated corn and bean products altogether.  They, like my veterinarian father, are fed up with the conventional feed supply.

A recent article in The Salt describes several farmers who have created niche markets for pigs fed alternative feeds.  One such farmer is Russ Kremer, a Missouri pig farmer who has decided to raise his pigs on pasture, supplementing their diets with locally grown crops and oregano oil (to boost immunity).  According to the article, “Kremer says he can afford homegrown feed because he saves money on veterinary care since he doesn’t use antibiotics.  His pigs also have a higher survival rate than average (just 1% mortality compared to nearly 5% industry-wide).”

As we learned in America’s Two-Headed Pig, this 5% is, at best, an under-estimate of the industrial pig’s mortality rate.  Losses due to fertility and developmental complications are often culled from the data, while gains are highlighted to help the industry achieve higher productivity and efficiency measures.  Piglets, especially, must avoid a range of illnesses to get off to a healthy start.

I was thinking about this statistic (5%) recently while re-reading an article called “More Livestock Being Euthanized as Down,” in an Iowa newspaper called the Quad-City Times.  This spring, farmers throughout Iowa reported higher euthanization rates at area packing facilities, in some cases rates that had jumped from one animal per month to two animals per week!

These animals are put down after being off-loaded from a semi because they appear ill or non-ambulatory.  The packer has to decide whether or not the animal is fit for slaughter, a matter dictated, in large part, by current packing regulations.

A non-ambulatory animal cannot walk properly.  In America’s Two-Headed Pig, I describe various reasons why confined animals might become non-ambulatory.  In addition to these reasons, farmers report that pigs shipped to packing facilities can have a difficult time finding their footing after a discombobulating semi journey.  If a packer does decide to put a non-ambulatory animal down, the farmer is later charged a rendering fee to properly dispose of the animal’s body.  He or she also loses the entire monetary value of the hog.  Given the competitive nature of our industrial meat production system, neither loss is insignificant.

Ironically, according to this article, some individuals blame animal welfare groups for the recent increase in euthanization rates.  Packers are quick to make sure any non-ambulatory animal is put down because these animals are a threat to plant safety, public perception, and the plant’s on-going business.  The public they are concerned about is a public that is increasingly concerned about animal rights issues on modern industrial farms.

On one hand, farmers’ frustrations seem pretty understandable.  It doesn’t really make sense to put an animal down moments before it is about to be slaughtered anyway.  Is a pig’s inability to walk a reflection of its meat quality?

Unfortunately, the answer is sometimes yes.  Animals that are sick or injured can be at a higher risk for bacterial infections, nutrient deficiencies, and disease.  If packing plants don’t hold farmers to some standard here, confined hogs might arrive at packing plants in any number of atrocious conditions.  An inability to walk is an indication that an animal has poor health.  While a ride to a packing plant might discombobulate an animal for a short duration, the animal should be able to get back up again, given some time.

On another hand, the entire notion seems somewhat absurd.  Why would any animal welfare advocate, of all people, prefer a hog dead and wasted to dead and used for human food?

The blame directed toward animal welfare advocates might be better directed toward a system than is increasingly consolidated and delocalized.  Pastured hogs don’t have as many non-ambulatory issues.   Furthermore, when there were more local slaughterhouses, pigs endured fewer minutes in densely packed trailer beds.  There were fewer chances for hogs to become injured along the way.

The real issue here is that consumers are finally paying attention to the food supply and are more worried about food security, the environment, and health.  The packing plants and their respective industries don’t want high-risk pigs to find their ways into the supply chain and consumers are holding the industry more accountable.  Unfortunately, the farmer is the one that has to bear the brunt of our previous laziness.  These farmers are right to be surprised because suddenly consumers care.  Suddenly consumers are aware.  The market value of a hog isn’t changing fast enough for them to recoup their losses when more hogs are held back.  Furthermore, the market value of this hog still doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of an animal’s health.  Unfortunately, for reasons, I don’t yet understand, these hogs are euthanized rather than treated or returned to the farmer.

All of this discussion leads to a larger veterinary question: are animals more non-ambulatory than they were last year?  It’s hard to tell because the data isn’t readily available.  According to the article in the Quad City Times, some packing facilities haven’t kept track of these numbers.  Are they more non-ambulatory than they were thirty years ago?  Yes.  If you want to learn more, read my book.

Boshart, Rod.  “More Livestock Being Euthanized as Down, Farmers Say.”  The Quad-City Times.  April 21, 2013. link to article

Greenaway, Twilight.  Avocado-Fed Pork?  Why Animal Feed is Going Gourmet.  The Salt.  June 28, 2013. link to article

2 thoughts on “Animal Health Blog: Investigation #2 – Feed and Non-ambulatory Animals

  1. Shipping animals in the US is a concern. Packing them in trucks like sardines they will sustain injuries. Far worse is shipping animals/hogs as cargo to Hawaii. This to be a common practice. Upon arrival animals are slaughtered. Seas can be significantly more rough than a ride in a semi-truck. 20-30 foot seas knock animals down completely. This practice of import over the ocean is horrendous. Small groups are trying to stop the practice yet it prevails.

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