FAIR OAKS, Ind. — If your image of a pig farm involves barnyards, mud and pails of slop, the Cambalot pig farm would come as a surprise. The first thing you notice upon arriving here — OK, the second thing, after a certain recognizable aroma — is that there are no pigs in sight.
What you see instead are four long, low-slung metal buildings amid the rolling green hills. In a modern pig farm, the animals reside indoors.
My host today is Malcolm DeKryger, a rangy 52-year-old with brush-cut brown hair, a goatee and an eagerness to inform urbanites about modern livestock production. With a master's degree in swine nutrition and management from Purdue University and 22 years at Belstra Milling, where he serves as vice president, DeKryger is well-equipped to defend conventional factory farming.
It's not an easy job these days. Cambalot keeps sows in gestation crates of the sort that are losing favor with almost everyone but producers. Last week, Burger King announced that over the next five years, it will end purchases of pork from suppliers that use this confinement. The Humane Society of the United States said the shift "will improve life for countless farm animals."
McDonald's had already announced plans to curb the use of gestation stalls. Eight states have passed bans.
DeKryger thinks his animals enjoy enviable conditions compared to pigs of the past, which were exposed to bad weather, predators and disease. The Cambalot swine live in a clean, safe, climate-controlled home where they are fed regularly, treated for illnesses and shielded from aggression by other hogs. "Our standards of care are only short of an animal hospital," he says.
He's not exaggerating. Before we can enter the facility, we have to shower and change into company-provided apparel, to ensure "biosecurity." (Showers are recommended afterward as well, to ensure social acceptability.)
The gigantic gestation building is 535 feet long and 120 feet wide, housing nearly 3,100 sows. They are kept in long rows of metal stalls, with a feeder in each and concrete floors with slatted openings for waste. Aisles in between let employees patrol to monitor and attend to the animals.
"They are watching, listening, smelling and touching the animals to know how and what they're doing," says DeKryger. Everything is "done on a technical level beyond most people's comprehension."
This regimented, technologically advanced approach is meant to minimize costs and maximize output by promoting healthy sows that deliver lots of live offspring on schedule. Each sow can bear nine or 10 litters, each pregnancy lasting 114 days or so.
The gestation crates, where these hogs spend months on end, are about two feet by seven feet — just slightly larger than the animals. They facilitate individual attention and control.
Their drawback is that the sows can't so much as turn around. Nor can they engage in normal behavior such as walking, rooting in the dirt and intermingling with other pigs. "It's like being stuffed into the middle seat of a jam-packed jumbo jet for your whole adult life," writes Colorado State University animal scientist Temple Grandin.
DeKryger, however, says using larger stalls would cut in half the number of pigs that would fit in this barn. Using pens that hold multiple pigs, he says, would invite fighting that can cause injuries. Either would raise costs to the company and consumers.
When asked about the mental welfare of his livestock, he betrays a hint of impatience. "That's probably where I'll draw a line," he says. "They're animals."
But even animals have interests that human beings ought to accommodate when possible, as it is in wealthy nations. It's one thing to say that animals may be eaten, and another to say they may be subjected to needless suffering for their entire lives. Big food corporations are betting that consumers are willing to pay to improve the lot of farm animals.
Pork Magazine, an industry publication, recently advised producers that "on the issue of gestation-sow stalls, at least, it's increasingly apparent that you will lose the battle." To the general public, wrote editor Marlys Miller, "gestation stalls seem extreme. It's too small a space for too long a time." To the lay observer, this facility brings to mind a high-tech prison for pigs.
Cambalot may be a model of state-of-the-art production, with the highest standards of hygiene and efficiency. But soon it could also be obsolete.
Examiner Columnist Steve Chapman is syndicated by Creators.