Nothing intensive about free range pork
Picture: Supplied

The need to feed the human population has meant that many of the animals we eat are intensively farmed. But if you've ever seen the conditions under which pigs are raised in an intensive operation, it might put you off eating pork.

The use of sow stalls and farrowing crates which restrict the movement of the sow, tail docking and teeth filing have been among some of the practices that have created considerable controversy.

Milne Agrigroup, the largest integrated agribusiness group in WA, and also the owner of Plantagenet Pork, is in the forefront of developing models for sustainable agriculture both philosophically and commercially, which is exemplified by its commitment to free-range farming.

Production of free-range pork began about nine years ago about the same time it began Mt Barker Chicken.

"We tapped into some very good expertise from the UK, who had been working with a model for growing pork in very similar conditions to the South West of Western Australia using the rotation technique," Paul Butcher, marketing manager for Plantagenet Pork, said.

Pigs don't have sweat glands and cannot cool themselves, so the cool climate of the Great Southern region is ideal. The rotation technique means that the shelters the pigs are held in are completely transportable.

"Obviously, the pigs damage the ground quite badly: they root around and they like mud baths to keep cool, and they produce a fair amount of manure which builds up in the soil. Usually, the ideal is about two years that you expose the earth to pig farming, and then you can literally uproot the infrastructure and move it along to a clean area of ground," Mr Butcher said.

The transportable units are held on mixed-use farms, and the farmers involved in the project are carefully selected. Plantagenet Pork provides the infrastructure, and the growing area is managed by Plantagenet staff, who also assess the soil, feed, water needs and the health of the pigs. After the pigs have been relocated to another area of the farm, the ground is by then charged with nutrients and is used for horticulture or grazing.

APIQ Free Range is an on-farm quality and sustainability assurance system which is granted under Australian Pork Ltd, a producer-owned organisation which resulted from the coming together of the Australian Pork Corporation, the Pig Research and Development Corporation and the Pork Council of Australia. To date, Plantagenet Pork is the only unconditionally APIQ Free Range certified pig producer in Australia.

So what sort of things does APIQ cover? "It's the way the pigs are reared," Mr Butcher said. "They are allowed to forage and roam 24/7. They have shelters with deep hay, so that they are protected from the elements. It's a hormone-free situation. It's chemical free - the pastures aren't fertilised in any way, and there's a regime of animal monitoring, and the use of antibiotics, particularly for pre-emptive purposes, is very limited. Then we have RSPCA certification which covers the whole animal welfare process even down to the abattoir, which is assessed under the RSPCA certification."

One of the reasons for having sow stalls is that there is a high mortality rate with sows rolling on to their piglets. "We don't have those. We do have a higher mortality rate among our piglets, but that said, the piglets and the sow have a much higher quality of life," he said.

Pigs kept in an enclosed space have a reputation for being very aggressive. This is one of the reasons why intensively farmed pigs have their tails docked and teeth filed: pigs kept in a confined space bite each other. "There's none of that with free range," Mr Butcher added. "The sows and piglets are separated from the juveniles and adults, and they have their own range with their own individual shelters. They are so meek and mild - you can actually go in and pat the sow and pick up the piglets, and she is absolutely fine."

This level of animal welfare, the higher piglet mortality rates, the use of premium feed and the fact that the pigs live longer so they eat more, all add to the cost. Which is why free-range pork has to be sold at a premium. "Funding growth is a delicate balance, particularly maintaining and improving our quality and consistency and locking in farmers and infrastructure," Mr Butcher said. "Agriculture is not an easy thing to fund."

The pigs down on a Plantagenet Park farm wouldn't be worrying too much about those sorts of problems, though. They are much too busy living the life of Riley.

The West Australian

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