Monday’s announcement by McDonald’s Corporation that it would ask its suppliers to outline their plans for phasing out the use of sow gestation stalls was all the buzz in the agricultural media this week. The move by the nation’s largest quick-serve restaurant operator is certainly the most dramatic move against a pork industry production practice – and perhaps any on-farm livestock production practice – to date. But many questions remain regarding the decision’s impact.

Gestation stalls are individual enclosures usually measuring 2 ft. by 7 ft., in which sows are housed during the breeding and gestation (pregnancy) phases of their reproductive cycles. The stalls allow a limited amount of mobility from front to back but do not allow the animal to turn around or to have direct contact with animals except the ones to either side. Automated feed systems drop specified amounts of feed to the animals at prescribed times. Each stall has access to fresh water from either a trough at the front or a nipple-type waterer, which the animal bites to release water into its mouth. Sows spend 15 of a roughly 18-week reproductive cycle in gestation stalls.

The other three weeks of the reproductive cycle are spent in a farrowing stall, an individual enclosure about the same size as the gestation stall but designed to allow piglets to move under the stall’s sides to get away from the sow when she lays down, preventing crushing. Each farrowing stall has an area for piglets that is about 1 ft. by 7 ft. on each side of the sow. The area has supplemental heat to keep pigs warm since newborn pigs cannot regulate their body temperatures well at all.

The McDonald’s announcement deals only with gestation stalls. There is little opposition to farrowing stalls of which we are aware. While confining a sow for three weeks may not be ideal in some people’s minds, the welfare of a 3-lb. baby pig that is suffocated by a 500-lb. sow isn’t particularly high, making this piece of equipment far more acceptable, we think, even to animal welfarists.

The use of gestation stalls began in earnest in the 1980s. They were one of three sow confinement practices that really began in Europe and then spread to the U.S. The first two – girth tethers and neck tethers – were less expensive than stalls but were almost completely abandoned in the U.S. in the ’90s due to both practicality (sows sometimes slipped out of their tether harnesses, some harnesses caused skin lesions, etc.) and welfare concerns.