I love pigs. I became fascinated with them when I first saw them as a 12-year-old. My friends the Spronks, the Hoeks, the DeYoungs, and the Mulders love pigs as well. On the other hand, my friends the Boumas, the Boses, and the Folkemas love their dairy cows. I like dairy cows, but I love pigs. I’m not sure how I ended up so excited about them since my grandfather made his living with egg-laying chickens.
I live in the small town of DeMotte, Indiana. First Christian Reformed Church of DeMotte has not less than 40 employees, growers, and owners of large, modern pig farms. The other Christian Reformed and Reformed churches in town also have a large number of members involved in pig and dairy farming. Forty to 50 years ago, many members raised layer chickens and feed-lot cattle as well.
Reformed Christians have a rich history in the production of meat, milk, and eggs. Some of my friends listed above have even suggested that no other denominational group influences livestock production on a pro-rata basis in North America like the Reformed churches.
If you were to think about the pockets of rural locations in our denomination, you might be amazed by the significant numbers produced, the cutting-edge technologies, and the species industry leaders in the meat, milk, and egg production sectors.
From east to west, Ontario, Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, Texas, Alberta, Idaho, Washington, and California are just a few of the significant regions where our churches are located and large numbers of livestock are produced to feed a hungry world. Many Reformed believers have also gone on to study, teach, and research numerous topics and issues regarding livestock.
With this rich background and significant leadership in agriculture, I think it’s time to address, from a farmer’s perspective, the necessity and reality of modern livestock production.
One hundred years ago, 1 in 5 people were directly involved in production agriculture, including crop farming. Today it is less than 1 in 50. Consequently, agriculture has intensified and become concentrated in the hands of fewer people.
The disconnect between food producers and consumers increases every year. Most North Americans and Europeans live in areas either non-cultivatable or too congested for growing food. When you add in the fact that our populations continue to increase (for example, the U.S. just reached 300 million people) and that tillable land is only 1/32 of the earth’s surface, then we must be mindful that we need to do a very good job with the resources God has provided.
Fortunately for the animals, livestock are raised indoors more than ever before; therefore, the care of the animals is not readily visible to the public. Sadly, the gap between producers and the general public continues to widen from uninformed or misinformed media and people of influence who accuse all farmers of sensationalized problems and mistreatment of animals.
While there may be some poor caretakers in the industry (see “. . . Also Many Animals,” April 2008), that is the exception, not the rule. Poor treatment of livestock can occur in any type or size of system and causes poor production and high mortality. How can that benefit a farmer in any way?
As an animal scientist and agribusinessman, one of my passions is to design and build new farms for these amazing animals. When I begin to dream of the perfect facility, I always start with the idea of providing an environment that will eliminate every obstacle that might cause discomfort to our animals. If our buildings control room temperature, humidity, air quality, feed quantity, water, parasites, predators, dust, and other irritations, then our pigs will be able to naturally express their genetic potential and grow incredibly fast and efficiently because they receive excellent care.
Indeed, as we study the animals God created and improve their living conditions, we find that they grow to full size (275 lbs., 124 km.) with a conversion of 2.5 pounds of feed for every 1 pound of growth. We also find that our sows can now wean litters of 12 to 13 baby pigs, twice as many as 50 years ago. This is accomplished without genetic modification or added hormones, a common false claim. It is simply how God made them and how they naturally respond to the resources we have available through modern technology.
Contrary to popular opinion, free-range animals often suffer out in the elements—from harsh weather, parasites and diseases, or predators. In modern, high-tech barns, pigs are free to live quite contentedly.
Moreover, our livestock today consume many grain and food by-products. Soybean meal, wheat middlings, distiller’s grains (think ethanol production), cereal by-products, soy concentrate (off-spec baby formula), potato peelings from potato chips, deep-fat fryer oil, ground-up marshmallows, and innumerable other human food by-products are all fed back to our livestock to add value, rather than fill our landfills.
It routinely impresses me how God made our animals so efficient at converting our safe but unusable products into nutritious, wholesome food. Food safety is a hot topic in the media these days. According to Dr. Lonnie King, division director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, “Healthy animals are the basis for a healthy population.” Preventing animals from illness leads to the prevention of diseases in people everywhere.
Lean meat, pasteurized milk, and fresh eggs supply us with amino acid-balanced protein, fat (yes, fat is an essential nutrient), iron, calcium, phosphorus, and other minerals. You can get all of these nutrients elsewhere, of course, but only with careful planning to ensure meeting minimum daily nutritional requirements.
In the affluent societies of North America and Europe, there are those who promote vegetarianism. Yet much of the rest of the world wants a balanced diet that includes meat protein, since they already eat a largely starch-based diet. Economics dictate their foodstuffs—the first thing newly middle-class people purchase is meat on a regular basis. Continued on p. 55
Many countries purchase meat and other food products from North America because there is a shortage in their own lands. Consider the recent food riots in countries such as Haiti and Egypt. As blessed citizens and children of God’s kingdom, we have the privilege of producing extra food for export to those who want and need it. As we strive to love our neighbors, Christian farmers sense a pastoral responsibility to help those who don’t have enough food or can’t raise it in their own countries.
Let me take it one step further. If you, the reader, don’t regularly produce your own meat, milk, eggs, leather, and wool, where will you obtain these necessities to share with others?
Properly caring for, feeding, and housing livestock will help feed and clothe a needy world. It is necessary and proper for people to produce sufficient quantities of consumable livestock products for you to buy, to use for your family, and to share with the world.
We have a mandate to fully manage and make use of what God has given us. And what a gift it is! We harvest meat, milk, eggs, leather, wool, heart valves, skin replacements, insulin, and reconstructive organ tissue from livestock. Speaking from my own experience in the pork industry, it is often said that we use everything on a pig except for the squeal and the curl in the tail. As Christian farmers, we find it our responsibility to make full use of all the products supplied by our livestock. Anything less would be wasteful and immoral.
Livestock producers have chosen to be part of the supply chain because it is an honorable and traditional business. We believe God gave us the gifts and abilities to care for and understand livestock. No one does it perfectly, but those of us in the industry strive to learn how to improve every day. We live and work daily knowing “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Ps. 24:1, 1 Cor. 10:26).
I believe God is praised when we care for and produce enough pigs, cattle, sheep, and chickens to feed and clothe our needy world.
What Does the Bible Say?
The references in the Bible to raising livestock and consuming their products begin in Genesis and continue through Romans and 1 Corinthians. In Genesis 1:26 and 2:20, God separately mentions livestock from other wild animals. God specifically sets them apart for our use. And the apostle Paul tells the people of Corinth to “eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (1 Cor. 10:25-26).
Then and Now
Our Northwest Iowa farm employs myself, my wife and sons, my brother, brother-in-law, and cousins. Yes, we are a family farm in every sense of the term. Yes, we have big confinement-type buildings.
In the 1970s and ’80s we raised the hogs in open buildings with lush straw. But those buildings were not friendly in cold Iowa winds or on hot summer days, with temperature fluctuations from -20 F to more than 100 degrees (-29 to 38 Celsius). The air would get especially bad in the winter since we had to keep the doors closed to retain what heat we could.
Today, thanks to technology, we can keep the buildings at a constant 65 F (19 C). Fans draw in fresh air year-round. In the winter each room has a propane heater; in the summer drip cooling systems come on if the air grows too warm. Animal death loss is now considerably less in these buildings because there is no piling in the winter to stay warm and no fighting by the water source when it is hot.
These innovations allow us to keep the hogs comfortable no matter what season it is. Every building has an alarm system that alerts my cell phone if the temperature is not maintained or if there is a problem with the electricity. I can also call the system to check on the temperature and conditions in the building. Proverbs 27:23 states, “Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds.”
We feed our pigs a balanced diet of corn, soybean meal, and minerals. These diets are more balanced than what my children eat.
When I was a young boy we used to farrow sows in pens. Many pigs were lost a few hours after birth when the mother accidentally smothered them by lying on them. Today we use farrowing crates so the mother cannot flop on them. She must lie down then roll on one side. And when piglets are born they nurse and live off the mother’s milk for 17 to 24 days. I know of no production system where pigs are taken away from their mothers and put in separate pens during this time.
My life’s work is pork production; I have been a pork producer for more than 30 years. I believe it is what God has called me to do. I agree with Rev. Leonard Vander Zee (“. . . Also Many Animals,” April 2008) that we need to be good to God’s creatures. After all, the better you treat pigs, the better they will treat you—by growing and producing food. Our world is hungry for food and concerned about how we raise that food. Our world is watching, and more important, God is watching.
—Ken Dragstra is a member of Lebanon CRC,
Sioux Center, Iowa.
- What do you know about the food you buy from the supermarket? What’s important to you regarding your purchase?
- DeKryger states that livestock are fortunate to be raised indoors. From his description of their indoor existence and how this aids production, as well as your own sense of stewardship for animals, do you agree? Discuss.
- What, in your opinion, are the key issues of integrity and responsibility in Christian farming and food production?
- What verses from Scripture speak to these issues?
- What is your prayer for those who produce food for a hungry world?