Female Pigs in U.S. Are Dying in Record Numbers

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The premature deaths are linked to excessive breeding.

As the death rate has surged for sows in the United States, pork producers, farmers, and veterinarians are left scratching their heads, trying to figure out what is wrong. The rate has climbed from 5.8 to 10.2 percent in the past three years, and one common factor -- prolapse -- appears to link many of the deaths. A veterinarian for Smithfield Foods said, “We have seen farms with as much as 25 to 50 percent of the sow mortality due to prolapses.”

Prolapse happens when the pressure on an animal's uterus, vagina, and rectum becomes too much and it collapses, leading to premature death. (The condition also affects middle-aged women, particularly if they've given birth vaginally earlier in life, though it can be treated.)

Sows are female hogs that are used strictly for breeding; they produce multiple litters of piglets annually that fuel the rapid growth of the pork industry. As a spokesman for the Ontario Pork industry told me at a fall fair this past weekend, a typical gestation period is 3 months, 3 weeks, and 3 days in length, and the new piglets stay with their mother until around 25 pounds in weight, at which point they're weaned and moved into another barn to get fattened for slaughter around 6 months of age.

The rise in prolapse, experts suspect, is due to the increased rate of breeding. (There are other possible causes for prolapse, outlined in this article for Successful Farming.) As Twilight Greenaway explained in Civil Eats,

"In this [farrowing] system the average sow produces 23.5 piglets per year – or ten per litter at a rate of 2.35 litters annually. After two to four litters, most sows tend to be replaced by younger gilts who can produce piglets at a higher rate... When this happens, the sows being replaced are typically culled and sold to sausage companies."

Combined with other breeding goals, such as a consumer-driven desire for less back fat, it is difficult for the sows to meet pregnancy and lactation demands, placing them at greater risk of death.

Mary Temple Grandin, the well-known designer of animal livestock facilities and professor of animal science at Colorado State University, said that, in the late 1980s, pigs were bred with three traits in mind: rapid weight gain, thin back fat, and a big, huge loin. But now, “they’re breeding the sows to produce a lot of babies. Well, there’s a point where you’ve gone too far.”

Farmers who raise their hogs in more natural, less confined conditions where the animals can engage in natural behaviors report lower rates of prolapse and premature mortality. The tradeoff is that they produce fewer piglets, but then a sow may live longer to have another litter of piglets.

The facts about prolapse are disturbing because they illustrate yet another serious problem with our industrial food production system. As a society we have become accustomed to eating excessive amounts of meat and paying very little money for it, which drives the intensive farming operations that cause these very issues. When shoppers balk at the idea of paying top-notch prices for, say, an organic, free-range Berkshire pig, while insisting on having dirt-cheap bacon every morning for breakfast, it's no wonder these animals are being "bred to their limit," as Leah Garces, executive director of Compassion in World Farming, told Greenaway.

Unless you're a farmer, you probably can't go out and help a pig directly, but you can do so by voting with your dollars. Do not buy supermarket pork. If you eat meat, purchase it from local farmers whose care standards are transparent and ethical. Farmers who put in extra effort to ensure a natural life for their animals make it very clear to their customers, as it justifies a premium cost. Eat less of it, too. Meat should be more of a special occasion meal or a garnish.