Alternative swine production and marketing systems overview
During the 1980s and 1990s the United States pork industry moved toward larger, more intensive methods of production. This included the use of buildings that were totally enclosed and environmentally controlled, with liquid manure storage in outdoor lagoons or in pits under slatted floors, and with the use of crates for farrowing and gestation. Simultaneously, larger processors streamlined their operations to optimize continuous flow of pork through their systems. This took the form of contracting with farmers to ensure a steady supply of pigs.
The drive toward mass production dramatically increased production efficiency, while reducing profit on a per-pig-produced basis. This made it more difficult for smaller scale pig farmers to stay in business. Farmers felt the need to “get big or get out” of hog production. Many farmers did indeed decide to quit, so that from 1984 to 2007, the number of hog operations in the United States declined from more than 400,000 farms to around 65,640. Of those remaining, by 2007, farms with 2,000 or more pigs accounted for 82% of the inventory. In Minnesota, the number of hog farms dropped during the period of 1974 to 2007, from 29,584 to 4,700. The graph at the right indicates the number of farms and the rate of decline in number over a 20 year period.
Today's small-scale hog farms
Currently in the United States, about 110 million pigs are raised and slaughtered on an annual basis. Of that amount, roughly 5% or about 5.5 million head are raised on farms that produce 1,000 pigs or less per year. Farms of this size may raise pigs in systems that use one or more of the following alternative production criteria:
- Farrowing in bedded pens instead of crates on slatted floors
- Group nursery: pigs and sows mix together for 4 to 6 weeks or longer
- Gestation in groups, without the use of crates, or using them only for feeding, vaccinating, and artificial insemination
- Growing pigs are finished in deep bedding or in pasture. Buildings such as hoop structures are often used, to provide natural ventilation.
- Access to the outdoors, at any or all of the following phases:
Many farmers who grow pigs in alternative or smaller scale systems seek to gain access to niche markets that may not be available for pigs produced in larger scale total confinement operations. They may market directly to customers from their farm, at farmers markets, or at roadside stands. They may connect with food co-ops and grocery stores or choose to join a marketing co-op. They may sell their pigs to a company such as Niman Ranch Pork, which requires a production protocol based on animal welfare standards established by Temple Grandin, animal handling and welfare expert at Colorado State University.