Applying Stockmanship to Any Situation
Mark Newman lives in a small town called Myrtle, Missouri. It’s on a map but the town has no stop signs or traffic lights. Just a few single-story buildings done up in the classic porch-and-awning style, clustered beside a two-lane road. It’s a place with more churches than supermarkets. Newman raises HERITAGE BREED Berkshire pigs here. Outdoors. Not indoors. He did the latter for nearly twenty years in northwest Iowa, until he visited England, saw how pigs were raised, rediscovered the neglected principles of STOCKMANSHIP, and had his own “Road to Damascus” moment. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Mark Newman raises pigs outdoors.
“We raise about one hundred pigs per pen and our pen space is basically five acres,” he explains. “In modern pork production, pigs are allowed twelve square feet, not twelve hundred square feet per pig. So, our pigs have plenty of land and shelter. They have water. They have feeders in the fields. They have the ability to run and play and dig in the dirt. In the end it makes for a better-quality product.”
Understanding what type of pork products to buy requires learning about what they eat and how they’re raised. It also requires understanding how they aren’t raised, which gets back to the indoor pork production model.
“I was very good at teaching people how to raise pigs indoors,” Newman recounts. This was in the early eighties, when farmers started sow cooperatives across the country. “Ten local farmers would get together and house one thousand sows indoors, in one spot,” he continues, “and basically raise the pigs up to feeder pig size, then take them back to their individual farms for finishing. As time went on, these operations just kept getting larger and larger. In the nineties we went from family farms that were doing two hundred forty sows to eight hundred sows. Pretty soon two thousand sow barns were popping up. Today, five thousand to ten thousand sows per farm is not unusual.” In fact, Newman reckons that 99 percent of the pigs in this country are raised indoors. It’s what you’d call an industrial food system.
During that period he was a vocal proponent of placing sows in GESTATION CRATES, which he claims was for humane reasons. “Whenever you put ten sows or fifteen sows into a small pen, you get a situation where you have two very dominant sows and two very weak sows. Those two on the bottom get picked on by the other ten in the pen.”
“So you raise pigs in crates to protect them,” I reply. “Still, it doesn’t seem very humane.”
“I kind of agreed with confinement at one point in my life. But then I said, you know, we’re concentrating these animals so heavily and I mean, the disease situations in some of these buildings are enormous.”
Then Newman went to England.
“You know, everybody has a spot in his inner self,” he explains, “what they think is the right way to do something. I was driving across the Midlands of England, south of Bedford on the Avon, and I saw these huts outside in a field.” Newman stopped, met the farmer, and spent a few days studying how he raised pigs.
“I saw that the animals were much more content, much happier, and the STOCKMANSHIP was so much better. Today in America, one limiting thing—whether it’s in the cattle industry or pork industry—is the loss of stockmanship: People don’t really know how to read and work with animals. We happen to be fortunate. We have a daughter. You know the term horse whisperer ? We always called her the ‘pig whisperer.’ She could process pigs in a farrowing hut, with mama right in there with her, and never have a problem. I mean, some people have a way with animals that other people don’t.
“Stockmanship is applicable in any situation,” he continues. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s on our farm with pigs being raised outside or in a total indoor confinement operation. Animals have rights. We—as farmer and producer—have the responsibility to raise these animals humanely and raise them the right way. I don’t think you want to buy a product where you don’t feel the animal was raised the way it should be.”