Pig Castration

April 7, 2009


I’m doing some research on pig castration and came across this impressively honest entry from a pig farmer in Georgia:

This week, I castrated my first pig.  It was one of the two survivors from Dottie’s first litter, which Liz has been nursing along for the past four weeks, as she discussed in this post.  His name is Brutus.

Pig castration is a topic that Liz and I have discussed frequently, and we’re torn on the issue.  Some farmers have been successful in essentially developing lines that are free of boar taint.  However, most people believe that you must castrate males if you plan to sell them, and certainly this would be required for the retail/restaurant sector.  Our struggle has more to do with how do we best emulate nature and maintain a natural environment.   The two Berkshire pigs we processed earlier this year were castrated, and both were outstanding.  The two Ossabaw pigs we processed last month were not castrated.  They too were outstanding, but I could definitely detect some boar taint when cooking. Liz, who is normally more sensitive to such things, could detect nothing after eating two different cuts.

We debate the issue of whether we should or shouldn’t castrate and, if there is any boar taint, adjust our taste to suit what nature, and the animal, gives us. Hunters have long known that does can taste different than bucks, especially during the autumn rut.  Does that make it bad?   And our hunter forefathers certainly could not count on hunting an already castrated bison, caribou or moose.  Castration does not occur naturally.  On the other hand, we’re in the business of producing safe, humanely raised and DELICIOUS food for ourselves and our customers.  So, for now, we’re castrating most males, although we may raise some intact in a control group for comparison.

The process for cattle (steers) is actually much less invasive, if you use banders.  Somehow, that makes it seem better.  For pigs, there are no bands. They’re not built that way. You have to separate them from the sow (be careful), hold them by the hind legs and flip them over between your legs. They’ll squeal like crazy, but this has nothing to do with pain or discomfort.  They just get scared and squeal loudly. That’s why you want them AWAY from mom…a tough trick when you’re raising them naturally without barns or barricades.  Once you flip them over, you have to work quickly, moving the testicles into the scrotum and making a slit over the scrotum with a sharp razor.  Push the testicle through the slit and pull the blood vessel out until it snaps off.   Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it.

As with most things, it’s one thing to describe it academically. It’s another to do it. Castrating cows was easy. But castrating a little, squealing piglet just for your eating pleasure, well, it gives you pause.  I do have to say that the piglet exhibited no signs of pain or discomfort, and was running around quickly afterwards.  There was actually more squealing before I made the first incision.  So it’s not the pain or discomfort that I’m questioning.  In any event, I suppose we’ll continue to castrate so that we can produce a predictable meat quality, but perhaps we’ll all learn to just appreciate what nature gives us, as is.

Perchlorate Panic

April 5, 2009


Here’s this from the Environmental Working Group:  

We don’t think babies should be gulping down a rocket fuel ingredient – do you? But in some areas of your state, when you mix infant formula contaminated with perchlorate – a rocket fuel ingredient than can interfere with infant brain development – with water that’s also contaminated with perchlorate, you put rocket fuel on baby’s menu. Twice.

We have long said that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which regulates the nation’s water quality, should set a permanent and stringent limit on perchlorate pollution in drinking water.

Although it’s not mentioned in the missive, perchlorate is more than “a rocket fuel” ingredient. It’s also a natural chemical found in Chilean nitrate, an approved organic fertilizer. Check out this from the Perchlorate Information Bureau:

Q: Is perchlorate also found naturally in fertilizer?

A: Yes, since the early 20th century Chilean nitrate fertilizer containing naturally-occurring perchlorate has been widely used in American agriculture. Current amounts of Chilean nitrate fertilizer products being shipped and used in the United States are substantial. According to the Foreign Trade Division, U.S. Census Bureau, the amounts of sodium nitrate imported from Chile into U.S. ports in 2001 was 88,150 metric tons. Specific to California, Chilean nitrate fertilizer containing perchlorate has been widely used since 1923 and between 1923-1998, the reported usage of sodium nitrate in California was 477,061 metric tons. Though the quantities used today are smaller than the amounts applied earlier in the century, the use of Chilean nitrate fertilizer in California remains substantial. Most recent data (2000 U.S. Department of Census) indicates more than 6,600 tons of Chilean nitrate fertilizer were imported to California that year.

I’m pleased with the EWG’s vigilance, but I hope the investigation extends to all areas of the agricultural economy, including the organic industry.

Pass the Veggies

April 4, 2009

Sue Coe, 1991


A common assumption among foodies and environmentalists is that it’s healthier for the planet to eat local. There are a number of ways to poke holes in this premise, but one recently grabbed my attention. A recent study in Environmental Science and Technology showed that it’s not where our food comes from that matters environmentally so much as what the food is in the first place. What we should seek is not a shift to local foods, the authors suggest, but a “dietary shift” away from meat to more fruits and vegetables.  No news flash here, but the numbers really place things in perspective. The energy demanded to put meat in our mouths (even the grass fed and free range options) far exceed that to bring plants to our plates.  Taking meat out of the average American diet one day a week would reduce a family’s carbon foot print the same as if that family bought all food locally. Cutting out meat altogether would be six times more effective than buying all food locally. The lesson here is hard to deny: saving the planet through our diet requires the sacrifice of eating much less meat.

Source:  Weber and Matthews, “Food Miles and Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States,” Environmental Science and Technology 42 (November 10, 2008), 3508-3513.