In Defense of Castration

Whenever a new undercover video of hog farming surfaces, usually at the hands of an animal rights organization, there is a good bit of the video included that centers on the castration of young pigs. It’s a convenient part of hog farming to show, since it involves cutting otherwise adorable baby animals and — because of the nature of pigs — blood curdling screams that get the viewer’s heart racing. What the videos don’t tell viewers however, is the reason behind the castration — and the little known fact that baby pigs (and big pigs, for that matter) squeal any time they’re restrained, whether it’s in a cradling embrace or a utilitarian hold for a necessary procedure. This isn’t to say that the procedure causes no pain whatsoever — it is, after all, a matter of surgically removing their testes — just that the squealing in and of itself isn’t indicative of the pain and is often included only as an appeal to the viewer’s emotions.

With that in mind, we thought we’d share with you some of the reasons hog farms — including ours — often routinely castrate young, male pigs as part of their farm management.

Meat Quality
There is some statistical evidence that boar taint — an unpleasant, off-flavoring sometimes imparted to the meat and fat of a mature, intact male pig — is far less common than previously thought. There’s also evidence that environment, genetics, feed and even how recently the boar was with a mature female pig can all play a role in whether or not boar taint can be detected in his meat. That said, there’s also evidence that boar taint can “pop up” in pigs even when numerous others were raised in the same way, from the same lines, on the same farm, and we’re not entirely sure why that happens.

What we do know for sure: when a boar has boar taint, his meat is useless and there’s no way to know for sure until he’s already butchered. When a consumer is paying hard-earned money for a pork chop, they don’t want to throw it on the grill only to find out it’s tainted and inedible. Likewise, when farmers have thousands wrapped up into raising hogs for the meat market, they don’t want to go bankrupt over a rash of tainted meat. Though, contrary to the name, boar taint is not entirely limited to boars, castrating ensures it is all but eradicated.

Logistics & Infrastructure
Intact male pigs cannot be housed with intact female pigs. And to some extent there is risk in housing them together. On many farms, especially small alternative farms like ours, housing males and females separately is not feasible. Not only does housing intact male pigs with female pigs increase the presence of the same hormones that cause boar taint, sexual tension within a herd causes stress to both the male and female pigs within it. There is even evidence that female pigs housed with intact males come into their first estrus earlier than those housed with other females and castrated males exclusively, increasing not only the stress on the herd and individual pigs, but increasing the likelihood of accidental breeding prior to processing age. This is especially so on farms who utilize heritage breed pigs, such as the breeds we raise, since processing age is often past even the normal onset of puberty. Castrating allows males and females to be housed together.

Animal & Human Safety
Intact male pigs are more likely than both castrated males and females (at least those who are not currently suckling a litter) to be aggressive with both other animals and their human handlers. If you’ve never tangled with a three hundred pound pig, allow me to assure you: you don’t want to. The stories you’ve heard from your grand pappy aren’t all folk lore and “walking up hill both ways”. While not all pigs are human eating monsters, they can be aggressive and because of their body composition (almost all muscle) and low center of gravity they are a serious force to be reckoned with if they are. We breed for docility in our herd, but we never forget that a boar is a boar (or that a mama sow is a mama sow) and regard them with an appropriate amount of respect and understanding. This is actually rather easy, when you’re talking about just a few pigs, but when every pig in a herd is a potential danger, it become an almost impossible task.

And the honest to goodness truth is that other pigs don’t want to tangle with one another either. Fighting among a herd causes stress, which lowers feed efficiency (that’s the rate at which the pigs convert feed to meat), and compromises the immune system which can lead to increased need for pharmaceuticals. It also, just like boar taint, can compromise the quality of the meat the pigs in the herd produce. When two pigs in a pen fight, all the pigs are effected. Often, an innocent bystander will get caught up in the tussle and is just as stressed by the events as those who are actively fighting. Calm pigs are happy pigs and happy pigs produce good, healthy, quality meat.

Castration remains one of our least favorite — albeit most necessary — farm chores and we are always watching new technologies to assess when an alternative may be available (and reasonable). In the meantime however, we continue to utilize surgical castration because it is the safest and most effective way for us to 1) reduce herd stress and potential for animal to animal and animal to human injuries and 2) protect the investment both from our side here on the farm, and for our customers.

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