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By Staff | May 15, 2015

A few weeks ago Chipotle announced that an audit of one of its hog suppliers uncovered violations of the strict protocols that the company required for its hog producers.

While not specifically saying what the violation was, it broke relations with this major supplier causing the company to have to remove pork from its menu in a third of its restaurants. While requiring that its producers do not use antibiotics or growth hormones it also requires that sows be housed in bedded pens or on pasture and that no slatted floors are allowed in buildings.

A competing producer who raises hogs in a manner similar to what Chipotle requires for another company told National Public Radio that it is difficult to raise hogs that way with any kind of scale to the operation.

There are a few farmers who like Chipotle’s nostalgic pig production system, but the intense labor requirement, reduced feed efficiency and lower productivity make it hard to make a living from it. I suspect the reason for the Chipotle producer’s failure to comply with audit requirements was due to the pressure of trying to maintain the level of production needed by the company while chafing under some of the ridiculous restrictions placed on it.

This type of pork production has a significantly higher cost of production than commercial pork production and while the premiums paid may appear superficially attractive, when moving beyond the theoretical into real production they prove to be inadequate to cover costs and produce a return.

Chipotle thinks that it knows better how to raise hogs. But this audit failure is strong evidence that their top down management dictates don’t work as well as their animated depiction of the ideal production system suggests.

They blame the farmer, but it is their system that is flawed. When Chipotle announced they had to suspend offering pork in their menu some of their consumers praised the integrity of their system. That was idealistic delusion that their system is viable. They proved it was not sustainable.

I know something about the Chipotle hog production system as I grew up with something very similar to it. Yeah … I raised hogs. In my younger days on the farm I spent a lot of time with sows in the barn in bedded pens with heat lamps in the corner in the late 1960s and early 1970s. That is the throw back time period that Chipotle tries to recreate. We would farrow 12 to 15 sows in bedded pens in the barn.

First off, we grew oats so we had straw to bale each summer for bedding. I was allergic to oats so it is not a nostalgic memory for me. We hand watered and fed the sows. We cleaned the pens by hand into a manure spreader sitting out the back door. Dad would try to get 100 head of hogs out of those sows. But there would be the sow that ate her pigs and the sows that would lay on all, but one of them. Dad would utilize my brother and me to watch the sows in the pens and if we heard a piglet squeal from its mom laying on it we would hurry to rescue it, convinced that we had saved its life. The heat lamp was meant to attract the piglets away from the sow to protect them, but was not always successful.

That is why there was a transition to farrowing stalls and what farrowing stalls were primarily utilized for. They protected the pigs from the sows. When I hear Chipotle describe bedded pens as humane, the higher death loss of pigs in those bedded pens would argue they are the opposite. Carrying a 5-gallon bucket of dead piglets to the spreader every other day was as humane as that system could be and we wanted better, which is why the industry adopted stalls. The sows never complained about farrowing stalls either and a lot more piglets survived as a result.

We didn’t have slatted floors in our hog finishing hog house back then. We bedded our hogs often having to buy straw, cleaned it by hand with a pitch fork and thought that the new skid loader was a godsend. The skid steer loader couldn’t get into all the corners of buildings so we still used a fork. I also farrowed sows in the summer in A-huts on pasture. That was an improvement over confined pens but the pasture system only could be used in the summer.

While farrowing stall barns were weaning 9 pigs per litter (much higher today) I would often wean only 6.5 to 7.5 pigs. There was no premium paid for pigs raised like this back then and land used for farrowing that could be growing corn was expensive. There was less manure to handle from a pasture system, but there was a lot of other work so it could not be described as labor saving. We had to ring those sow’s noses so that they couldn’t plow the pasture.

Whether they were our own pigs or we bought feeder pigs, we would worm them, spray them and frankly, if we did not run around with a syringe in one hand, our death loss would have been intolerable. We had to medicate sick pigs in the water or in the feed. I have seen a sick pig and you would not want to eat one. You are much better off to inject an antibiotic into a sick pig and a few days later see him looking healthy again at the feeder.

David Kruse is president of CommStock Investments Inc., author and producer of The CommStock Report.

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