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Special Report: Illinois Pig Farmers Brace for Implementation of Proposition 12

PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — A shakeup on the pork shelves at the grocery store is coming as local pig farmers prepare for the January 1 implementation of a California animal welfare law mandating larger space requirements for pigs, cows and chickens.

The fourth largest in the country, Illinois’ pork industry contributes nearly $14 billion to the state’s economy, according to Illinois Pork Producers Association.

Fourth-generation pig farmer Cheryl Walsh owns one of the more than 2,100 pig farms in Illinois that will be impacted by the new law.

“Right now, the hardest part of my job is not knowing what the future holds for me and my family business,” said Walsh, owner of Cowser’s Family Sow Farm in Bradford.

The Farm Animal Confinement Initiative, better known as California Proposition 12, requires sows to have at least 24 square feet of space with the ability to move and turn around. Most pregnant sows are kept in gestation stalls measuring two feet wide and seven feet long.

“The gestation crate is the most severe form of confinement that exists in American animal agriculture…The crates are so narrow that it’s like you or I being in a coffin or in a refrigerator for potentially four months,” said Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Welfare Action, an animal rights organization that advocates for animal welfare legislation.

In order for pig farmers to sell their “whole muscle cut” pork products in California, which consumes 25 percent of the nation’s pork, they must be Prop. 12 complaint. However, ground pork is exempt.

Gestation barn at Cowser’s Family Sow, Bradford.

On Cowser’s Family Sow Farm, their gestation crates and open pens are not considered to be Prop 12 compliant, but Walsh said farmers know what’s best for their animals.

“The pigs, they don’t want that extra space. They really don’t. You can see in this barn how clean the animals are, they have no marks on them from fighting. Half of them are laying down, they’re really content. The only time they get up is to drink, or to eat, or if they have an itch they want to scratch,” she said.

With an expected reduced capacity of 30 percent and expensive infrastructure upgrades, Walsh said complying with Proposition 12 could put her out of business.

“I would have to rip out all of the feed lines, I’d have to rip out all the gestation stalls, all the water troughs…It would cost me millions of dollars to make this one barn right here Prop 12 compliant,” she said.

She said she felt “defeated” when the Supreme Court upheld Proposition 12 in May.

The gestation barn holds 1,048 sows. To comply with Prop. 12, Walsh said that capacity would be cut by 30 percent.

The gestation crates afford each sow her own water and food lines; and it’s by design.

“This is a way too that we can know exactly what animal is sick potentially, because they don’t eat when they don’t feel good…As producers, we’re all about the animal husbandry and the care of the animals, and to make sure the animal has the best care its entire life. This is the best care we can give these animals, this type of a life,” she said.

Chad Leman, president of Illinois Pork Producers Association and owner of Leman Farms Inc. in Eureka, said when sows are put in open pens, they establish a pecking order. Farmers also will not be able to tell who is sick since there are no individualized food and water lines.

“The dominant sows will get too much feed, and the weaker sows will not eat enough. So we know we wont be able to take as good care of our animals. There’s a reason that the pork business has evolved to where we are today. It’s because we found out that what we used to do didn’t work as good as what we do now,” he said.

“When they are in those pens like that, all they do is fight. They have scratch marks all over them…Pigs are very aggressive animals. There’s a boss sow in every pen,” added Walsh.

Pacelle, who worked for the past 20 years to pass Proposition 12 in California, said 40 percent of pregnant sows already live in group housing. He contends gestation stalls are inhumane and cruel to pigs, who are considered to be as intelligent as three-year-old children.

“Immobilization should not be a customary animal husbandry practice. These are feeling thinking animals. They have behavioral needs just like a dog or a cat. If you immobilize them indefinitely, it causes psychological and physical problems,” he said.

Pacelle said pork producers are not obligated to sell to to California.

“It’s their choice. No one is forcing them to do anything…That means that no Illinois producer, if he or she doesn’t wish to sell it to those markets, needs to modify anything. Forty-eight states and 139 countries already get conventionally raised pork,” he said.

On Chad Leman’s farm in Eureka, pigs are raised from three weeks to six months, then sent to slaughter. Leman also contracts with multiple family growers who depend on the income from his pigs.

Leman Farms raises pigs from three weeks to six months. If they come from sows in gestation crates, they cannot be sold in California

For Leman, the most challenging part of Proposition 12, is the unknown.

“Conceivably, you could have multiple states with multiple ballot initiatives, all with slightly different specifications on how they want their pigs raised, and its impossible for us to do that…The value of pork is going to go down. So as producers, one of the most challenging things we face right now is the uncertainty of the next six months,” he said.

The National Pork Producers Council is working with Congress and state lawmakers to identify a legislative solution. Leman said farmers are hoping to carve language into the Farm Bill that will allow them to circumvent Proposition 12 when it goes into effect on Jan. 1.

“Because it is a big problem.. It’s not only going to affect producers, but going to affect corn growers, soybean growers, all the allied industries that support our business. Eventually its going to affect consumers,” said Leman.

The IPPA estimates it will cost $3,500 per sow to upgrade infrastructure to become Proposition 12 complaint. Those costs will also be passed on to the consumer, Leman said.

But although the future remains uncertain for many pig farmers, Dr. Nick Paulson, associate head of the department of agriculture and consumer economics at University of Illinois, said consumers will not see a big impact, at least not right away.

“There will be a transition period. I think in the short term we could potentially see possibly lower prices for non-Prop. 12 pork because there might be a relatively short term excess supply of that pork going to all other non-California markets. But I think I think there will be a relatively good adjustment period where the producers that are needed to service the California market,” he said.

Paulson said eventually the market will rebalance for pork farmers and consumers.

“It’s gonna force some differentiation into the marketplace. This will complicate supply chains, but they’ll figure it out. It’ll be cost associated with keeping Prop 12 pork separated from non-Prop 12 pork and processing it,” he said.

Source : clproud.com