Greg and Bonnie Spragg do not live by the maxim, "Get big or get out.”
In fact, the pork producers are making a profit by keeping their pig farm small.
The Spraggs are one of a small, but growing number of pork producers across the country raising pigs the old-fashioned way, providing them with room to move.
The Spraggs, who farm at Rosemary, raise pasture pigs, allowing the critters to root, wallow and roam. They are not fed growth hormones or unnecessary antibiotics, and do not have their teeth clipped or tails docked. Sows give birth in spacious straw-filled pens.
|Wendy Dudley, Business Edge|
|Greg Spragg does not confine the piglets inside an intensive hog barn and allows the older animals to roam, which he says produces meat with a better flavour.|
The Spraggs may not garner the profits of a mega-hog barn, which can house up to 4,000 sows, but they are making money and raising stress-free animals, which improves meat flavour, said Greg.
"We've got happy pigs," he says. "I think this is a lot healthier for the pigs and for us."
Hogs in modern intensive livestock barns are crated in small pens that don't allow them to turn around, for fear they will crush their piglets. And intensive hog barn employees often suffer from respiratory problems because of inadequate ventilation, notes Greg, who used to work in a 350-sow barn.
Initially, it wasn't for environmental reasons that the Spraggs started raising pasture pigs.
"We just didn't have the money for a new hog barn. This was a way to raise pigs with a low overhead and low start-up costs," says Greg. Three years later, they wouldn't raise hogs any other way.
Modern hog farms house thousands of pigs, with sows kept in strawless slatted crates. Their manure falls through the floor, and drains into a lagoon. Such intensive livestock operations have raised animal welfare and environmental concerns, including odour and contaminated water issues.
Alberta pork producers intend to address such issues at their regional meetings held throughout the province in November.
"It's slow, but I think things are changing. People are starting to think about their food, and how farms are operating," says Clinton Cavers, who direct-sells about 100 "naturally raised" pigs a year from his Harborside Farms, south of Brandon, Man.
"It's based on morals, and how we think (livestock) should be fed, raised and handled. If a pig is scared all the time, and full of adrenaline, the meat's going to be tough."
Pigs were meant to roam around and forage, says Cavers, whose pork carries the Winnipeg Humane Society (WHS) certified label, indicating his operation meets the society's animal welfare standards that include minimum space requirements and no unnecessary use of antibiotics.
|Wendy Dudley, Business Edge|
|Greg Spragg believes in allowing his pigs to do what comes naturally.|
Marketing is a major challenge in selling traditionally raised hogs, says Michaela Daum who with husband Bruce raises 5,000 pigs on their Krisandra Farms near Brandon.
Their pigs are raised in barns where they have room to "walk and run," and develop muscle tone, she adds.
But the Daums sell their pigs to packers, not niche markets. "It would be impossible for me to (direct sell) all the pigs as humanely-raised," says Daum.
Nine years ago, Pat Swan of Stonefield Farm, north of Victoria, started pasture-raising about 10 pigs a year. Since then, demand has steadily increased. She now raises 30 pigs a year, selling the meat off the farm and at local farmers markets. "The texture of the meat is firmer because they're out there moving around," says Swan.
The Swans, who also raise free-range chickens and natural beef, cherish the lifestyle that comes with traditional farming. "You won't make the big bucks and you've got to be motivated," says Pat. "But it's a great way to live. You work earlier in the summer because it's light out, then get up later in winter because it's dark later. That's how it's supposed to be. That's the traditional way."
In Alberta, the Spraggs' pasture pork business became profitable after their first year. "Our first litter paid for all our input costs, not including the land," says Greg. A mega-hog barn costs about $4,000 a sow unit, he notes. "What we did cost us about $200 a sow."
Walking among a field of free-roaming pigs, the Spraggs take pride in watching the animals root for weeds, wallow in mud and wade through water. Bred sows are kept in a front pasture, next to the road. "I like people to be able to see them when they drive by, so they know they really are allowed to roam freely," says Greg.
The piglets are born indoors, weaned at four weeks, then let outside into a 10-acre pasture fenced with electric wire.
In conventional barns, teeth are cut so piglets don't injure the sow's udder, and tails are docked to prevent piglets from tail-chewing. The Spraggs do neither.
"I think because the piglets have so much room to run around, they don't get bored. That's usually why they chew tails," notes Greg.
From their first investment of three pigs, the Spraggs' 30 sows and three boars produce about 600 pigs a year. Of those, approximately half are sold through direct marketing at the farm gate, as well as the Millarville and Brooks farmers' markets in southern Alberta.
Throughout winter, the market hogs are housed in pastures where they keep warm by burrowing into straw bales kept inside shelters.
The Spraggs also believe a natural environment reduces stress, and improves the pork's flavour. "A lot of people think we're selling beef. It's a redder meat than other pork," says Greg. He adds his pigs hit their slaughter weight about two weeks earlier than pigs raised in confinement.
"People think you breed for this kind of meat, that it's in the genetics. But it has to do with the conditions under which they're raised," Bonnie says.
Less stress also means less disease, she notes.
"The processors will let you know if they find arthritis, or adhesions, but we haven't had anything show up in our pigs.”
Chest adhesions and arthritis are the most common reasons causing trims and carcass condemnations in hogs.
Ian Smith, of Argyle, Man., also raises about 250 hogs in roomy pens with lots of straw. His sows and boars are outdoors year-round. About 25 per cent of his pigs are sold privately, under the WHS label. "It's the only way I know how to raise pigs. My family's been doing this since 1967," Smith says.
Just down the road from Smith's farm is a Hutterite colony, with 1,000 confined sows, he says. "I have no problem with what they're doing, and they have no problem with what I'm doing. It's a free market, and I'm going for a special niche."
Frustrated from having to fit into processors' schedules, and lack of consistency in cuts, the Spraggs opened their own meat shop in Rosemary in October. The 2,000-sq.-ft. shop includes a storage and processing area, as well as retail space. It's a way to bring the consumer and producer closer together, says Greg, who expects to save half of the $2,800 it cost him to have 10 pigs processed elsewhere.
Many of Spraggs' cuts cost little more than pork purchased in a major grocery store. "We find consumers will spend about 10 per cent more to get what they want, but not more than about 25 per cent," Greg says.
The Spraggs also own a mobile rotisserie that can be hauled to special functions. "That allows me to take a $150 hog, and turn it into $500. That's value-added," says Greg.
For the Spraggs, and many other family-run farms across the Prairies, smaller is proving better. "We can be flexible, without being scared that we'll lose our shirts," says Greg.
(Wendy Dudley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)