"Natural" Pork from Sows in Deep Straw Captures Guaranteed Price
|With upscale food retailer Niman Ranch unwilling to buy pork from hogs raised in crates, Minnesota pork producer Dave Serfling and three other farmers perfected techniques to farrow pigs in deep straw, even in the winter. Photo by Ken Schneider; pig photo by USDA|
When he was still in high school, Dave Serfling began raising hogs differently from the conventional confinement system. The familys herd had contracted gastroenteritis and a veterinarian had suggested farrowing the hogs outside. The sows finished the season in fine health, but Serfling no longer wanted to work indoors.
The time-consuming crate system was a lot of work, with fewer rewards. Close to 30 years later, Serfling is perfecting an indoor deep-straw systemwith the help of two SARE producer grantsto lower the cost of producing pork and earn a premium on the retail market. One grant helped him convert an old building into a pre-wean-to-finishing unit, where Serfling houses sows with three- and four-week-old piglets through weaning and finishing. With two sow groups a year, Serfling has raised up to 180 pigs in a system that requires no supplemental heat because the straw, manure and heat from the animals keeps them warmeven on days when the Minnesota farm records 30 degrees below zeroand requires little manure management.
In his other project, Serfling collaborates with three other hog producers to test farrowing in straw during the winter. Groups of 18 sows farrow every six weeks, including litters in the winter, a schedule that plays into Niman Ranchs recent push for sustainably raised pork. The winter-raised piglets supply pork in the summer when the fresh pork market tends to run dry, prompting Niman, an upscale marketer of meat, to pay top dollar to Serfling and other pork producers.
Nimans guaranteed price brings 40 cents per pound or six cents above market share, depending on the market. In return, the company requires quality, taste and good husbandry from producers. We think a lot of the conventional pork from confinement barns is too lean and dry, Serfling said. Niman rewards juicy and flavorful product and offers it to the consumers who care about how we raise them. The price guarantees provide Serfling with an average $10,000 annual premiumand the peace of mind that his methods can feed his family and create a more humane environment for his hogs.
[For more information, go to www.sare.org/projects/ and search for FNC98-208 and FNC02-379]