Friday, August 10, 2012

Sustainable Pork Tour 2012 (Part 3 of 3)

I often joke that if God didn't intend for us to eat pigs then he/she would not have made them taste like bacon.  But one of the main reasons that I wanted to visit Wuebker Farms as part of the National Pork Board's Sustainable Pork Tour 2012 was to explore my personal responsibility involving eating meat.  

I read a quote from William Cronon in On Food and Cooking (McGee) about how today's meat consumer is disconnected from the personal responsibility of what it means to eat meat.  All today's consumer sees is a neatly wrapped tray of meat. was not likely to forget that pigs and cattle had died so that people might eat, for one saw them grazing in familiar pastures, and regularly visited the barnyards and butcher shops where they gave up their lives in the service of one's daily meal...As time went on, fewer of those who ate meat could say that they had ever seen the living creature whose flesh they were was easy not to remember that eating was a moral act inextricably bound to killing.
That thought stuck with me.  So I thought that going to the farm would be a good way to learn about pork farming and get a better understanding of how I get the pork that I love to eat. 

Wuebker Farms was the ideal place for that because the brothers believe strongly that they are stewards of a precious resource.   Since they run a specialty farm for farrowing, they call it "an ob/maternity ward for pigs".  They aren't joking, they even have an ultrasound machine!  We spent the day touring the farm which boasts technologically advanced breeding, gestation, and farrowing barns that 
  • provide a clean, safe environment for the pigs
  • minimize electrical consumption & the farm's carbon footprint
  • conserve water
  • preserve air quality
The most telling takeaway of the whole day for me was actually a side comment that Jeff Wuebker made.   Even though they run a specialty operation, surely they raise some pigs to market weight for themselves right?  Nope.  Jeff said that they buy their pork just like you and I do, from the market.  He said that he just trusts the system that much.

Here are some of the questions I asked throughout the day. 

Question:  Are the pigs given any hormones to make them bigger/fatter?
Answer:   No - the use of hormones with pigs is not permitted by the USDA.  This had to be the most frequently asked question from my readers and I assumed hormones were used as well.  I was shocked at this answer and I think so was everyone else because I looked around and saw the surprised looks on their faces.  The USDA does not permit hormone use with pigs (but does with cattle) and tests for residue in samples prior to market.  They said it was a different story even just 15 years ago. 

Question:  Are pigs given preventative antibiotics?
Answer:   Not preventative.  They are only given antibiotics for treatment if prescribed by the veterinarian.  I liked Jeff's answer because he pointed out that antibiotics are cost prohibitive and they don't want to use them unless they have to.   The pigs do get vaccinations for swine flu, clostridium, and syphilis each year. 

Question:  Then how is it that pigs have gotten bigger and leaner?  What caused the change?
Answer:   Breeding, feeding, and specialization.  They use selective breeding for various purposes.  Since their current contract is pigs for eating they use landrace breed sows and use a duroc/yorkshire/berkshire blend for the male pig semen.  (The male pig was a blend....not the semen, just to be clear.)  Also, breaking down into specialties like farrowing allows them to focus on specific aspects.  This farm even has an utlrasound machine on site to assist with the breeding.  I'll address the feed later.

Question:  What becomes of the farm's waste streams?
Answer:  Solid waste (afterbirth, mortalities) goes to a series of very efficient compost bins.  They can reduce a full grown sow carcass to nothing in 45 days.  Stormwater and manure are diverted to two holding basins (one inside, one out) capable of holding 3.8 million gallons.  

They treat the manure with More Than Manure because pig shit is low in potassium, who knew?  Then they test it for nitrogen, calcium, zinc and a few other things.  Then they pump the mix on their feed farm and nearby farms.  Next they plant a cover crop on that land to grab the nutrients and then till that crop under to form a "green manure" (Think that's what he called it).  Then they plant the feed crops.

Question:  Is there anything like "pink slime" in the pork industry
Answer:  No, the process of butchering and producing pork is entirely different, there is no similar method to "pink slime".  

Question:  Several people mentioned their dislike for the new "lean" chops.  Any chance the industry will offer more marbled chops at the grocery stores.
Answer:   The farms production process is geared towards the packers' specifications, which in theory is driven by consumer demand.  So it's not likely with larger farms but some specialty farms may do that.

Question:  What causes the price of pork in stores to fluctuate?
Answer:   Food.   65% of "pig to market" expense is feed cost.  It takes about 3 lbs of feed for every 1 lb of pork produced.  

Question:  How representative is Wuebker Farms of the average US pig farm?
Answer:   Slightly smaller than average and from the tour, obviously on the leading edge of technology.

Question:  How are the pigs raised, in a cage or free roaming?
Answer:   The sows are kept in pins and are not free roaming.   

As part of the bio-security, we all had to suit up for the tour.  One of the diseases they are trying to prevent is porcine respiratory syndrome (PSR).  It hit their farm in January of this year and resulted in losing 249 sows and an estimated 10-12,000 piglets as a result of weak and lost litters.  They didn't recover to full production until June.  Even then, they only used minimal antibiotics (1/2 cc of penicillin) were used.

Photo courtesy of the National Pork Board

Wuebker Farms use of data and daily tracking metrics impressed me.  I honestly did not expect a pig farm to have a such business minded approach.  They plan, track, and measure everything.

Jeff explains some of the controls the farm uses to minimize energy & water consumption and maintain a comfortable 72f environment year around.  They use water cool cells, CFL lighting, and automated vents.  If something does go wrong at anytime of the day, the farm has an alert system that pages the Wuebker's cell phones immediately.

One of my tour-mates holds a piglet.  You can tell this one is several days old because it's split hooves have developed, it's umbilical cord was falling off, and....he isn't covered in placenta!   A pig will grown from 3lbs to 20lbs in just 20 days and then 270lbs by 5 1/2 months.

The average litter is around 11-12 pigs but they have had a record of 24.  When that happens, "there aren't enough dinner plates" for the piglets so the farmers will cross-foster some of the piglets with other sows with smaller litters.

Jeff explains the feeding system.  The feed is metered out and measured.  The amount and composition of feed varies depending on whether the pig is breeding, gestating, or nursing.  The average is 12 lbs a day.

Each pig has a tracking card that will be used for data entry.

The farm uses a computer program called Pigwin for tracking all critical data about the 1,800 sows.  This information can be used to spot trends, potential problems, and maximize efficiency.  I bet when the owners are asleep the pigs use the computer to play Angry Birds, they love that game.

Photo courtesy of the National Pork Board

Everything in this place is metered, monitored or automatically controlled.   Heck, I was afraid to ask to use the restroom because I was worried I'd have to pee in a beaker and record the data (kidding!).

Artificial insemination.  Yep, I did it and it was an interesting process.  The sows are in these stalls and they bring a boar through in front of them.  The sows get all hot and bothered.  Then you slide a hollow lubricated tube into the pig at a 45 degree angle until she "grabs a hold" of it.  The black bar in the picture is designed to simulate a boar "grabbing" the sow.  Next you attach the semen package to the rod pictured below and squeeze it in like a pastry bag.  They do this two days in a row and then check with the ultrasound at 28 and 50 day intervals.

Jeff explains how they process the corn from their crops used for feed.

Photo courtesy of the National Pork Board

The feed is ground corn mixed in precise ratios with calcium, lysine, amino acids, soybean meal, phosphorous, selenium, vitamin E and probiotics (like Activia for pigs!).  They do different blends for the different birthing and nursing phases.

All of that processing is done on site with an assortment of equipment.  Expensive equipment.  Everywhere I looked I saw capital investment, farming is NOT cheap.

We ended the tour with a cookout.  Check out Alan's awesome cooker.  It is a propane fired unit with an internal rotisserie of 6 racks (a meat Ferris wheel).  Can you believe he bought this thing for only $250 at an auction!?!?!?

It rained during our cookout but the area needed the rain in a big way.  So we all gladly adjusted and moved inside for a great meal with the Wuebker families.

On the menu?  Pork of course!  Pork chops and bratwursts were the meats with a bountiful assortment of sides.

Our hosts and my tour-mates.
Photo courtesy of the National Pork Board
Thanks to the National Pork Board and the Wuebker families for this educational and fun opportunity.  I feel like there is so much to say but I have already rambled on for too long.  Here are my quick takeaways:

  1. Hormones are not permitted for use with pig farming in the US.  (shocker for me!)
  2. Today's pig farmers are serious business men and women that use modern technology and practices.
  3. Today's pig farmers are taking steps to minimize their impacts on the environment.
  4. I looked a piglet in the eye and still have no problem eating pork but appreciate it much, much more.