FAIR OAKS, Ind. - Pigs cluster around a food stall like Black Friday shoppers waiting for the store to open. One pushes impatiently against the locked door with her snout, waiting for the sow inside to finish eating so she can take her turn.
After about 10 minutes, the sated sow sidles out the front gate and rejoins about 80 other pregnant pigs in a large pen surrounding the food stall. The hungry pig enters the stall through the now-open back door, and food flows in from a computer-controlled dispenser.
The big pens and electronic feeding systems at Fair Oaks Farms in Indiana could be the future of the pork industry as consumers pressure farmers to move pregnant pigs out of individual stalls too narrow for the animals to turn around. The switch from gestation stalls is not as simple as many consumers believe, however. It's expensive, there are debates over pen designs and it takes time to train pigs to use feeders and other equipment. In short, farmers are spending millions of dollars with no certainty yet that the changes are best for the animals.
In this Monday photo two sows push up against another entering an electronic feeding stall, center, at Fair Oaks Farms in Fair Oaks, Ind. The electronic feeding system is aimed at preventing bigger sows from hogging all the food and lets each sow eat in peace. It is one of the tools farmers are using as they move pregnant pigs out of small, individual gestation stalls and into group pens.
Most bacon, ham and chops come from hogs that never spend time in the narrow breeding stalls, though the hogs' mothers almost certainly did - if only a few days for insemination.
More than four out of five sows in the U.S. remain in the stalls after they become pregnant, according to a 2012 study done for the National Pork Producers Council.
But a growing number are being moved into group pens as industry giants like Smithfield Foods and Cargill try to protect their brands from criticism by animal rights activists. Other major pork processors who have not required farms to convert are seeing some do so because image-conscious buyers, such as McDonald's, Oscar Mayer and Safeway, have called for an end to gestation crates.
Americans pig out on pork, eating an average of 45 pounds per person each year. Sales were worth more than $97 billion in 2011, according to industry groups.
Most of the hogs bought by Indiana Packers Corp., a major meatpacker, come from open-pen gestation and have for several years, President Gary Jacobson said. The switch has been hastened by laws in Michigan and Ohio requiring farmers to phase out gestation stalls by certain dates, but Jacobson said it also makes business sense.
"Given the controversy with the gestation crates, we would encourage people to look at the alternatives for that," he said.
The alternatives aren't cheap. Malcolm DeKryger, a partner in Fair Oaks' hog farm, said a 2,400-pig barn with gestation stalls typically costs about $1.8 million. The feeding system, other equipment and extra space required for group pens can push the cost to $2.5 million. He and his partner spent even more because their farm, about 1.5 hours south of Chicago, has observation areas for tourists.