Posts Tagged ‘pigs’

Posted on April 1, 2011 - by

Epig News: Pig’s Milk Released on the Market

Pignoscenti nationwide, rejoice!

After months of research and testing, Swine and Dine, Inc. has finally announced the availability of pig’s milk for commercial sale.

It is notoriously difficult to extract milk from sows, which have an average of 14 teats, far more than their bovine counterparts. In addition, the duration of milk flow is only 10 to 20 seconds, which means the yield from a pig is often low and unpredictable.

Swine and Dine’s innovative pig milking machine, dubbed the “Super Suckler,” harnesses the full milking potential of pigs through a patented harness system that attaches to pigs and stimulates them to lactate more frequently. The lightweight harness does not impede the pig’s range or otherwise constrict its movements.

Marc Dalaker, a pig farmer from Pennsylvania, responded with excitement to the news: “I’ve been waiting for this for years! I mean, we all know that bacon, sausage and pork belly are some of the greatest gifts to man. Imagine just how great milk from a pig would be!”

Indeed, analysis of pig’s milk reveals that it typically has a fat content of 8.5%, compared to 3.5% for cow’s milk and 5-6% for goats. Initial reactions from a panel of taste testers were positive. “It’s rich but not overly cloying, and it has a pleasant, fresh aroma with a hint of sweet corn and maple syrup,” said Rebecca Demaris. “I think it’d be a great addition to your morning coffee or breakfast cereal.”

The pig milk will be rolled out over the next week at select specialty shops and farmer’s markets in the Northeast corridor. A quart-size container will be sold for $5.95. Additional plans are in the works for a line of pig’s milk products, including porcorino cheese, porchata (a cinnamon and swine-spiced variant on horchata), porkgurt (yogurt), and pig’s milk butter.

In related news, Smithfield Farms, the largest producer of pork products in the world, announced that it would halt the use of prophylactic antibiotics in their factory farms, as there was a verified report of a pig flying.


Posted on March 2, 2011 - by

Cork Forests: Actually, Money Does Grow on Trees

Think about the last bottle of wine you drank. Was it sealed with a natural cork? A synthetic plastic closure? A screw top cap? Where does cork come from, and what’s with all the buzz about cork trees being endangered? To investigate, we ventured off to Alentejo, a rural region in south-central Portugal, and one of the world’s largest sources of cork oaks. All told, Portugal produces about 75% of the world’s cork, and about 75% of this goes into wine bottle stoppers. About 33% of all cork trees grow in Portugal, and 95% of these are in the Alentejo region.

At Herdade da Maroteira, Philip Mollet guided us on a tour of his 540 hectare farm. Much of the land is forested, with approximately 2/3 covered by cork forest, 1/3 covered by stone oaks, and some cleared land for vineyards and livestock. Mollet is a 5th generation farmer, whose family originally hailed from Britain. As the story goes, in the beginning there were two brothers who were on their way to Australia. They stopped in Porto to make repairs on their boat and look for cork stopper resources. The brothers ended up traveling to Alentejo, where they found this particular cork farm. One brother continued on to Australia, while the other stayed in Portugal. Later on, the brothers arranged for a cultural swap, with one brother sending eucalyptus to Portugal and the other brother sending cork acorns to Australia. However, the acorns that were sent were sterilized—nothing like a little sibling rivalry to help foment family feuds!

A cork oak has two layers of bark—the cork, which is the outer layer, and the inner bark. After the cork has grown to sufficient thickness, you can strip it by hand using an ax with a curved blade. To date, no mechanical harvesting method has been developed, and it requires skill and experience to harvest cork without damaging the tree. Workers must be able to gauge the cork sheet’s thickness, and not cut too deeply into the tree, or they will cause irreversible damage. Done properly though, cork is a renewable resource, and a healthy tree will produce cork almost indefinitely, or until its life expectancy of 600 years is up.

Cork can first be harvested at about 25 years of age, but this virgin cork is considered low-quality and is worth about the price of the stripping. Thereafter, cork is usually harvested every 9-10 years. To keep track of the last harvest, each tree is marked with a number to indicate the last year it was stripped. For instance, a “6” means the tree was last stripped in 2006.

When do you harvest cork? As it turns out, the cork layer usually sticks to the tree like glue, but there is a narrow 3-week window each year when you can strip cork. As the weather moves out of cold temperatures into warm ones, the trees “sweat” and it is possible to separate the cork from the inner bark. The timing of this window varies from region to region, and depends on humidity as well.

At Herdade da Maroteira, cork harvesting takes place for about ten days in June, and is done primarily by a team of 12 men with axes. Any more than that, and it becomes difficult to supervise workers and make sure they are doing the job properly, said Mollet. They are supported by a back-up team of employees who drive the tractors, paint numbers on the trees, and stack the cork sheets.

The quality of cork depends on the thickness and density of the cork sheets—the greater the better. Cork is traded in units called arroba, which is equivalent to 11.5 kg in Spain and 15 kg in Portugal. Top-notch cork, with high density and thickness, is sold for €40-50/arroba, while lower quality cork might be sold for as little as €8/arroba. Mollet’s cork is middle of the range, with high density but average thickness, and sells for about €18/arroba.

What about all the rumors of a worldwide cork shortage? According to Mollet, cork production is fully sustainable and there is no truth to these claims. “The problem is the wineries,” he said. “Everyone’s looking at cost.” He explained that natural corks cost 28¢ each, while lower-grade 1+1 conglomerate corks and powdered corks cost 8¢, and a 100% conglomerate cork costs 4-5¢. Meanwhile, plastic corks cost 3-4¢ each. Mollet lamented the rise of synthetic closures and said, “Look, this cork is ecological, biological and natural. If we lived in the US or the UK, we’d be marketing this product heavily. But the Portuguese government has their hands in their pockets. So, winemakers are moving to plastics to cut costs, not watching quality and not knowing what goes into the wine.”

In recent years, the demand for cork and value of the raw product has fallen sharply. At the market’s peak about ten years ago, Mollet was grossing about €120,000 for each cork harvest, but that figure has fallen to €42,000 today. Simultaneously, stripping costs total €30,000. And that does not even account for the year-round costs of maintaining the cork forest and fighting the coraebus undatus beetle that infects cork trees. It is a poor time indeed to be in the cork-growing business.

To verify Mollet’s claims, I did some research on the sustainability of Portugal’s cork forests on my own. The cork oak is indeed listed on the World Wildlife Fund website as a priority species, but not for overharvesting. As stated by the WWF, “Harvesting of cork for use in wine stoppers is entirely sustainable,” but “increased market share for alternative wine stoppers could reduce the value of cork oak areas, leading to their conversion or abandonment.” In other words, not using cork stoppers will hurt the continued preservation of the trees.

Mollet realized long ago that it was risky to be dependent on the vagaries of the cork market, and decided to diversify his farm into other lines of business. Today, the farm also raises pigs, produces wine, olives, olive oil, honey and has two agrotourism guesthouses for visitors. The pigs are actually owned by Spanish livestock farmers, and are sent to Mollet’s farm in the fall to gain weight. These prized Iberian pigs arrive in October weighing approximately 80 kg, and leave in March at 180 kg. Mollet is paid based on the amount gained by each pig, which comes to about €120 per pig. “I make sure that they are happy and comfortable,” he said. “We keep them as calm as possible, in a stress-free environment.” The pigs are rotated from section to section of the forest, as they feast on acorns dropped by the oaks. They will later be processed into prized jamon iberico and other meat products, for a total value of around €3,000 per animal.

Why harvest the cork if it is a money-losing prospect? Mollet paused to reflect on the volatile prices and pests threatening Portugal’s cork oaks. “People used to say, ‘Money doesn’t grow on trees,’ and we would respond, ‘Actually, it does.’ But now I’m making just enough money to keep the tractor running. Fortunately, we diversified into wine, but the whole cork industry is in trouble, and if something doesn’t change, the forest will die.” Without protection, it is likely that the forest will be converted to other uses and the trees logged away.

Did your wine purchase for tonight’s dinner just get a little more complicated?

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Posted on February 24, 2011 - by

The Happiest Pigs in France

We’ve been talking about genetically-modified and factory farmed pigs lately, so let’s take a break to look a decidedly more pleasant sort of pig farm.

Anyone who has even briefly investigated livestock production at industrial farms knows that the process is wholly unnatural, with animals reduced to meat-generating machines, forced to live in dirty, cramped conditions.

At Ferme des Levées, owners Anne and Jacques Volatier firmly believe in treating their pigs with respect and raising them with traditional, organic farming methods. Jacques began raising pigs in 2000, and prior to purchasing this farm, he had no farming experience and worked as a civil engineer in town planning. “I don’t know how exactly to describe it, but I had an intuitive sense that I wanted to find a way to help grow the planet and start a project that would benefit the local economy. The intuition has now become certainty and a way of life in the countryside.” He attended an agricultural training program for a year, acquired the necessary capital and decided to launch a pig breeding operation because it was a product that could be raised and transformed entirely on the farm.

Fermes des Levées is now fully organic and consists of 40 hectares of fields, some which grow cereals that will be used for pig feed. The pigs also eat the natural vegetation of whatever field they live in, and over the course of a year, they are capable of mowing down a field to its roots. Between the fields, Jacques has planted 400 elderflower plants to provide shade. The resulting fruit is used to make elderflower preserves and a syrup perfectly suited for flavoring water.

The Volatiers hold about 150 pigs, and it is impossible not to smile as Jacques waves at his drift of pigs and says enthusiastically, “I know this sounds funny in English, but I call them ‘Mes ti-tis!'” (This is a shortened version of “petits,” or “little ones” in French.) The pigs will grunt, root and frolic here for one year before being taken to slaughter; compare this to an average lifespan of four months for an industrially raised pig.

Each week, 3-4 pigs are chosen to bring to the slaughterhouse, 18 km away in Beaune. “We are lucky that there is a slaughterhouse so close by, because more and more often these days the small slaughterhouses are closing down,” explained Jacques. Even so, being in a new, noisy environment can visibly stress the pigs, and Jacques has lost several to the red ravages of porcine stress syndrome. He now tries to minimize the time the pigs spend at the slaughterhouse and spends time calming them beforehand. Unfortunately, due to legal restrictions, you cannot slaughter a pig on site in France.

Some of the meat is sold fresh, but much of it is cooked, cured and transformed into charcuterie products. We sat down to a buffet of crusty baguette, salads, and a platter of fresh pork products: ham with mustard seed, a specialty of the farm; pâté en croûte, marinaded meat wrapped in pastry crust; jambon persillé, jellied ham with a strong dose of parsley; farm-smoked ham; country pâté; rillettes. “All done without e-numbers!” said Jacques.

Some charcuterie products are sold directly to people who travel to the farm or randomly stroll past, but 80% of the goods are sold through the Dijon market at Les Halles. You can find the Volatiers there twice a week on Friday and Saturday mornings.

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Posted on February 18, 2011 - by

Enviropigs, Coming to a Plate Near You?

Photo: National Geographic

Deep in a lab in Ontario, Canada, scientists are hard at work finding greener solutions for the waste streams generated by large-scale factory farms. No, we’re not talking about toilet-trained pigs. These Enviropigs have been engineered from conception to be less polluting.

The Enviropig is a project from the University of Guelph, and is line of genetically-modified pigs designed to produce manure that contains less phosphorus. Phosphorus is a nutrient necessary for plant growth, but if it is spread too intensively on fields and not absorbed, the phosphorus becomes a pollutant. When there is a deluge of phosphorus runoff, the resultant algae blooms can deplete the water of oxygen, resulting in dead zones and fish kills in local rivers and streams.

In the US and Canada, pigs are mostly fed corn and grains, which contain a form of phosphorus that is indigestible by pigs. To combat this, pigs are usually given a phytase supplement, an enzyme that helps pigs break down this type of phosphorus. However, the phytase does not break down everything, and a significant amount of phosphorus is still excreted by the pig.

The Enviropig has been modified to secrete its own phytase, which works more efficiently than a dietary supplement. Thus, 30 to 70.7% less phosphorus is excreted, reducing phosphorus pollution and manure treatment costs, and decreasing the amount of phytase supplement that is needed (Univ. of Guelph). To accomplish this, researchers isolated a gene in e. coli bacteria that breaks down phosphorus and incorporated it into the pig genome. Not only was the implantation successful, but the offspring of the pigs also inherited the modification (National Geographic).

So, the phytase supplement has been used in large hog operations for over a decade, and now we can have pigs that produce it naturally in their salivary glands. Woohoo, this is an innovative milestone in greener farming, right?

Not so fast. While the Enviropig may reduce phosphorus emissions, it does nothing to address the destructive issues underlying factory farming. Manure and phosphorus are assets in agriculture, and only become liabilities when animals are intensively farmed in a single location. Reducing the amount of phosphorus excreted does not resolve the myriad other issues that factory farming raises, like the spread of disease, animal welfare, nitrogen pollution, the loss of biodiversity, etc. Worse, the availability of the Enviropig may lead farmers, policy makers and consumers to believe that this is a panacea for factory farming, and that the practice is environmentally sound.

Besides, there are alternative ways to reduce phosphorus without resorting to genetic modification. By including fewer grains in the pigs’ diets and using phytase supplements, phosphorus excretions can be reduced up to 50% (CBAN). In addition, the cost of phytase supplements has dropped dramatically in recent years, to less than $5 per kilo, and one metric ton of feed only requires 250 g of phytase supplement, which works out to a cost of less than 25 cents per pig (Sean McGivern).

Commercializing the Enviropig will make it nearly impossible to control the spread and proliferation of this gene, as the pigs intermingle with conventional pigs. Farmers who may not want to raise genetically-modified pigs will be hard-pressed to avoid genetic contamination of their livestock. Finally, consumers are wary of genetically-modified meat, and may not even accept or purchase the product. So why bother genetically modifying animals when there are other solutions at hand?

The answer, as is often the case, is money. The University of Guelph holds patents and is looking to license the Enviropig for use, charging royalties on a product for which there are currently none. This will be an added cost to hog farmers, and require some kind of enforcement mechanism, much like genetically-modified seeds which are sterile. At any rate, in some way or form, someone will have to pay.

By the way, the Enviropig has been submitted for review by the FDA and Canadian regulators, so expect to hear about the Enviropig’s potential commercialization in the near future.

In a debate with the lead researchers from the Univ. of Guelph, Sean McGivern, hog farmer and regional coordinator of the National Farmers Union Ontario, concluded with the following declaration: “We need our universities to work on issues that empower farmers, and not depower farmers, such as the Environpig. The reason universities do not spend their time researching things that empower farmers is simple—most of those things do not return profits to multinational corporations and family farms simply do not have the money to pay for research to help keep the doors open at universities like Guelph. The university researchers are bought and sold, like the Environpig they were hired to create.”

Do the benefits of the Enviropig outweigh the costs? Give that Americans already eat many products with genetically-modified corn and other plants, would you eat genetically-modified meat? What can we do to better align the interests of researchers and scientists with small-scale farmers?

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Posted on February 11, 2011 - by

This Little Piggy Went to the Loo

Factory farms are notorious for cramming thousands of animals into confined spaces, generating a toxic concentration of animal waste and other polluting byproducts. In Taiwan, the country’s 610 million pigs account for 26% of waterway pollution (Epoch Times).

Now, one Taiwanese farming operation has come across a solution that may save millions of liters of wastewater each day: toilet-trained pigs.

The make-shift “toilet” consists of iron bars installed above the floor of the pig pen. The pigs are trained to do their business in one spot, making it easier to remove, and dramatically cutting the amount of water needed to clean the sty.

Chang Chung-Tou, manager of the pig farm Long Kow Foods Enterprise, commented on the innovative toilet-training approach. “Because we don’t need to flush the whole cage with water, the pigs are also less likely to catch colds. That helped us to raise the survival rate of our pigs from 70 to 90 percent,” Chang said (MSNBC).

After examining the experimental results, Taiwan’s government is now offering financial incentives for farms to convert to the greener manure collection method. The resultant manure is less diluted, can be sold for higher prices, and will reduce waste effluents in Taiwan’s rivers. Chang commented, “Farmers are fighting to purchase the concentrated pig manure, because when used to fertilize bamboo shoots, the bamboo shoots are particularly fragrant, sweet and delicious” (Epoch Times).

In other words, this is a major step in making sure that waste is not wasted, and nutrients will be returned back to the soil in a sustainable fashion.

On the other hand, if the pigs were not being raised in a factory farm operation, there would be no need to manage large amounts of waste in this manner. A diversified farm with free-range pigs would be able to incorporate the manure back into the fields without a problem. Arguably, toilet-trained pigs do not solve the root of the problem—our planet’s skyrocketing meat consumption.

No word yet on whether these sophisticated swine can help train your two-year-old to lose the diapers.

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