As traumatised US farmers continue to cull their animals in response to the slaughterhouse crisis, an Iowan pig producer has developed an on-farm method which he believes is quicker and more humane than other available options.
The coronavirus crisis has hit US meat plants particularly hard. As a result there is a lack of slaughter capacity, and farmers are being forced to cull or “depopulate” their animals on-farm.
Approved methods include gassing with CO2, but the practice is controversial. “Dying this way is not a peaceful experience”, even under normal circumstances, let alone in makeshift sheds or trailers, said president of welfare group, Mercy for Animals, Leah Garces.
Gassing the animals is currently thought to be one of the fastest and most humane methods, leaving animals unconscious within two minutes and dead within 10. The carcasses are incinerated, composted or rendered for fat, fertiliser and pet food.
But for Dwight Mogler of Iowa’s Pig Hill Farms, that is too long. Mogler is a sixth-generation pig farmer with firsthand experience of gassing newborn pigs. “I have talked to people who have been on site for a CO2 depopulation and we have used it for neonatal [new-born] pigs. It can take up to a minute,” he said.
Mogler, who produces about 150,000 pigs a year, says he is fairly confident the gassing is not painful for newborns, but it is disturbing. “There are muscle spasms and the limbs flail, but no vocalising,” he said.
Another depopulation option is overheating, or hyperthermia, commonly known as ventilator shutdown (VSD). A recent undercover video of an alleged VSD pig cull at a different Iowa producer contained disturbing scenes and sounds.
Asked about the video, Mogler said it would have involved turning off the ventilation, turning up the temperature and then the introduction of steam. “It would take less than one hour and any remaining pigs would be shot with bolt guns. It might only take 10 minutes in fact for the pigs to die. But for us that is too long.”
Having rejected CO2 and VSD, Mogler decided to build his own cull facility. It will replicate a slaughterhouse death time of less than two seconds. Ready to undergo testing, Mogler’s system consists of a mobile unit with a V-restrainer, an electrical stunning point and a captive-bolt gun.
Mogler aims to slaughter about 170 pigs every 45 minutes, using a rotating slaughter crew to avoid mental or physical fatigue. “Our capacity would be about 1,500 to 2,000 pigs a day,” he said, and no pig caretakers will be involved in the slaughter.
As well as developing his own cull technique, Mogler donated two pigs to a Missouri sanctuary. Initially reluctant, because the goals of a sanctuary are so at odds with those of a farmer, Mogler changed his mind after talking to a rescue coordinator. ” I found we had so much more in common [than expected]”, he said.
Donating pigs to food programmes is another option for farmers, particularly with so many Americans facing increased financial and food insecurity, but slaughtering remains a challenge. For a few there is still space at local lockers, as Iowa’s smaller, state-inspected butchers are known. Most, however, are already overwhelmed, with some fully booked into 2021.
Despite donation difficulties, psychologist and Iowan farmer Dr Michael Rosmann thinks it’s worth the effort. “It helps the farmers a bit, to know they have tried to find a solution for at least some of their pigs,” Rosmann said. “It’s probably only going to help with about 1% of their animals. These are farmers with anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 pigs. It’s a very complex situation and it is not going to end soon.”
Farmers are extremely distressed by the possibility of having to depopulate their animals, said Rosmann, who has talked to several in the past few weeks. “One of them was in tears. He could not bring himself to kill his pigs and he was asking for advice,” Rosmann said. “My suggestion was to find food programmes or local butchers, or people who are able to butcher the animals themselves – that’s allowed by law, if you kill it and eat it yourself.” Sadly, he said, many of those able to slaughter their own animals might be illegal migrants and afraid to come forward.
At industry level, Iowa Pork Producers Association spokesperson, Dal Grooms, said its newly created food-bank donation programme, Pass the Pork, has seen 48,404lb of pork, about 456 pigs, enter the food chain via local lockers.