The production style benefits the pigs, farmers, and consumers, Brett Israel says
By Jackie Clark
Pigs on this farm in Wallenstein, Ont. can frequently be seen outside in the snow.
Brett Israel and his family have overcome challenges and found success and satisfaction in raising certified organic pork at 3Gen Organics.
The farm “truly is a multi-generational operation all under the same roof,” Israel told Farms.com. His generation, his parents and grandparents all work on the farm.
“We’re able to take a lot of lessons and wisdom from the older generation, my grandparents, who have been raising pigs pretty well their whole life,” he explained. Their traditional production style was similar to how the farm runs now as an organic operation, but “we integrate the newer technologies of today.”
For the family, “the decision to make the changes that we have to our housing and to allow the pigs to live the way they do, it’s not as much market driven as it is doing what we believe is best for our animals,” he added.
The Canadian General Standards Board outlines the standards for organic livestock production and provides the basis for certification. General livestock regulations include specifications for access to forages and outdoor space, and restrictions on certain feed additives. Specifically for pigs, requirements exist for group housing and socialization, as well as outdoor exercise areas. Farmers must also follow specific rules around how longs sows may be restrained prior to, and after farrowing.
If he had to go back to total confinement housing, or get out of pig farming, he would leave the industry behind, he said. “Once we made these changes … it’s a whole different profession. It’s not to condemn any other practices necessarily, we were there once too. But since we’ve seen the changes that we’ve been able to realize … we couldn’t go back.”
The current system benefits everyone involved, Israel said.
Their production style is “better off for the animal, it’s better for ourselves I think to be able to interact with the animals, and ultimately I believe it provides a better-quality product for our community to enjoy,” he explained.
Transitioning from conventional to organic production “was a gradual progress,” he said. “We knew where we wanted to get to, we knew there’d be incremental steps that we’d have to take to make that happen without diving in too quickly.”
The farm raised pigs in an antibiotic-free production system for a few years before transitioning to full organic production.
“In that period of moving away from any antibiotics in the feed, and not having them used save for the exception of treatment required for the humane handling of animals, there’s a lot of things we had to learn, and lessons that I think the older generations knew,” Israel said.
The farmers had to learn how to manage straw bedding, outdoor access, and prevent tail biting, because they were no longer tail docking.
Success meant “making sure that you’re managing the operation in a way that reduces animal stress and supports the immune system health of the pigs,” Israel explained. “You have to be able to improve your herdsmanship in order to make it successful.”
For their outdoor access, the goal is a “simulated pasture environment,” he explained. “All the outdoor access exercise areas are on concrete pads, so that gives us the benefit of being able to clean them frequently and reduce the risk of any buildup of parasites or pathogens. And then we provide the pigs with forage to root at outside so it’s like they’re on pasture.”
To keep the animals healthy, the farmers are always “monitoring the weather and monitoring the pigs,” he added.
Israel has become better at understanding how the pigs are feeling by looking at their behavior and demeanor. Even tail movement can inform him if the animal might be stressed.
“They love being outside and we’ve noticed no decrease in their gains and productivity,” he said. “In fact, having gone from a conventional system to our current system, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in their average daily gain, and their days to market has diminished as well.”
Israel had originally thought they’d see a decrease in productivity; however the fresh air seems to improve their growth.
The animals put on “over 30 lbs. of gain in a week their first week outside in the springtime, it’s really cool to see that,” he added.
In the organic pork market, “restraint is really needed on all parts in order to allow the marketplace to grow without flooding it with too many pigs all at once,” Israel said. “We do a lot of direct marketing ourselves, and that takes effort and time but it’s really rewarding when you get a chance to have people in your community enjoying what you produce.”
For producers who may be interested in organic production “I think there’s tremendous opportunities for growth, it’s just a matter of taking those gradual steps,” Israel said. “even if you’re a conventional producer, I really see no problem with giving more hogs the opportunity to have more space and go outside.”
Carefully managed outdoor access might improve pork production and can provide some risk management in case of processing slowdowns, he explained. “They just seem to be a more resilient animal, having that fresh air and sunlight every day.”
kadmy\iStock\Getty Images Plus photo