A survey released at the 2012 World Pork Expo found that a majority of the U.S. sow herd spends some time in individual housing or gestation stalls. Recently, several large fast-food companies announced they will only use pork from pig operations that are gestation-stall free.

The survey, conducted by University of Missouri extension economist Ron Plain, found that currently only 17.3 percent of sows spend a portion of gestation in open pens. Plain surveyed pork operations with 1,000 or more sows and received responses from 70 operations, which combined about 3.6 million of the nation’s 5.7 million sows.

“Today’s survey shows that these food companies obviously haven’t thought through the complexities, logistics or implications of their requests,” said National Pork Producers Council President R.C. Hunt, a pork producer from Wilson, N.C. “Simply making an announcement without understanding the entire supply chain’s ability to meet these requests or the challenges involved are utterly befuddling. We feel it is important to have this first-hand information available to our customers.”

See a video of Hunt's discussion: Pig industry responds to open sow housing. 

The Plain survey found that 20.2 percent of sows on operations of 1,000-9,999 sows, 18.9 percent on operations of 10,000-99,999 sows and 16.4 percent on operations of more than 100,000 sows are in open pens for some portion of gestation. When asked about plans to put more sows in open pens, the largest operations indicated that 23.8 percent of their sows would be in them in two years, operations of 10,000-99,999 sows would have 21.3 of their pigs in such pens and operations of 1,000-9,999 sows would have 20.7 percent.

“Given that few sows always are in open housing and that producers may use both individual and group housing, it would be extremely difficult and costly for the pork supply chain to sort, segregate and trace product to meet the requirements of these food companies,” said Hunt. “Regardless, this issue is about giving animals the best care possible, and hog farmers like me know through years of experience that individual housing provides that best care.”

But it is important to note, according to the NPPC, that an operation may use both individual and open pen, or group, housing and that sows on some operations may spend time in both systems.