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Farmers, veterinarians know what's best in animal care

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Guest column by Caleb Ragland

Nine generations of my family have farmed the land in LaRue County and it’s no secret to anyone in our community how seriously we take the health and well-being of our animals. That’s why after reading the Humane Society of the United States April 29 column, “Ag-gag Legislation Keeps Truth Away from Consumers” I felt readers of The News-Enterprise should hear from veterinarians and an actual local pork producer.

Our neighbors know why we’re out late and up early year-round checking on our pigs. Even family gatherings and holidays get put on hold to tend to new moms and their piglets. Prioritizing animal welfare keeps food on my family’s table and on your family’s table.

But I worry that most Kentuckians never get this first-hand experience. I worry that when family farmers are maligned by out-of-state activist groups, not enough farmers and rural folks are still around to explain what really happens on the farm.

While the organization I serve as president, the Kentucky Livestock Coalition, does not advocate for or against legislation, I can tell you that what’s portrayed in animal activist videos is far removed from reality.

Hundreds of hours of footage is selectively spliced together into a short clip — replete with scary music and dramatic editing — to mislead consumers.

In this HSUS video, a Kentucky farmer was using a widely accepted and veterinary-recommended management practice to inoculate the farm’s hogs from Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus. PEDv is deadly to swine and the lack of a vaccination requires farmers to use a long-approved and successful controlled exposure technique.

Veterinarians direct farmers to stem further herd losses during a PEDv emergency by using this temporary technique.

Dr. Richard Coffey, director of the University of Kentucky Research and Education Center and state swine extension professor said the PEDv inoculation treatment used by this farm is necessary to stop the virus from spreading. This has been around since the 1940s or ‘50s for certain diseases that we don’t have an effective treatment for, Coffey explained to media following the HSUS video release.

This virus can happen anywhere and farmers have basically two choices: Let the virus run its course which tends to lengthen the time it takes for animals to develop immunity or try and inoculate animals as quickly as possible by exposing them to the virus so they can develop immunity more rapidly that can be passed along to their newborn piglets.          

HSUS even made the accusation of illegal activity when veterinary-approved practices were used for building immunity against PEDv on pig farms. However, this technique is not illegal under any law. The Kentucky State Veterinarian Office concluded that the statute restricting certain types of animal feeding is not applicable here.

HSUS wants you to believe that it knows better than veterinarians and farmers do about how to raise healthy and happy pigs. They contend that the individual pens and climate-controlled barns today’s hog farmers prefer to use are inhumane and that farmers with large herds are creating conditions for disease.

Experts disagree. A panel of farm animal care specialists, including Purdue University applied animal behavior expert Dr. Candace Croney, University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine swine professor Dr. John Deen, Kansas swine veterinary specialist Dr. Lisa Tokach, and Dr. Tom Burkgren, executive director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, examined the video and found HSUS’ assertions were off base.

“The assertion is that intensive agriculture leads to more disease and the development of new pathogens,” Deen said. “That contradicts current research and the current understanding of disease emergence. For instance, the claim that biosecurity is better for animals housed outdoors is just wrong.”

“Somebody watching this video might conclude that PEDv only happens on this type of farm. It just isn’t true,” Tokach added. “Regarding sows in stalls she also added, It is clearly stated that the rate of injury is high and that inactivity leads to lameness. We have research showing the opposite is true — the injury rate is actually lower in intensive housing systems.”

It is important for the public to know that individual stalls are critical for keeping sows safe and comfortable. Pigs like their own spaces. When pigs have a choice between group pens or individual stall, we see pigs choosing to go to an individual stall.

Every farmer likes to do things a little differently, but we are all dependent on keeping our animals healthy.

The Center for Food Integrity created the independent Animal Care Review Panel to bring recognized animal care specialists together to examine animal welfare video. I encourage you to go online and read the experts findings for yourself at www.foodintegrity.org/media-room/press and to take a tour of my family’s hog farm by searching Caleb Ragland on YouTube.

Our objections to HSUS approach aside, making our farms better for the future is important and entirely legitimate. We remain willing to engage in constructive dialogue about alternative housing approaches, as our Livestock Coalition did last year by hosting HSUS leadership at a food roundtable in Louisville.

But we won’t stand for defaming a farmer trying to save his herd during a crisis as HSUS has done to the farm in Owensboro.

Caleb Ragland of Magnolia is president of the Kentucky Livestock Coalition, a group formed in 2009 by 12 agriculture, veterinary and farm business groups to connect consumers with farmers. Learn more at kentuckyfarmers.org.