Ending factory farming. Ending animal cruelty.
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News Icon 5/2/2024

by Kourtney Houk

The children’s book story of a farm with animals sharing a pasture, running over hills, and eating lush, green grass, is unfortunately not the reality on most American farms. As farming has been industrialized over the past century, many of America’s small, family farms have retired with generations or have been bought by large agriculture companies. This shift in the farming model has led to a change in the way animals are kept, how they interact, and what they eat.

In particular, the classic story of pigs with curly tails running around, eating scraps, and playing with others, is almost lost in the current industrial model of pig farming. Instead, pigs undergo tail docking, are confined to individual crates, and have a limited, often restricted, diet.

A row of pigs in separate stalls, with one pig resting its snout against the bars confining them.
Pigs on an industrial farm kept in stalls.

So, what exactly do pigs eat?

There’s a simple answer and a more nuanced answer depending on which pig farming model you consider. In an industrial farming model, pigs are fed corn and soy. Corn provides energy and soy provides protein. Additionally, wheat and sorghum may be included in a conventional diet. Other supplements such as fish meal or bone meal may also be added.

Two large industrial agricultural silos stand high with a blue sky peppered with clouds.
An industrial agricultural silo at a feed mill factory.

In a higher welfare model where pigs have a greater ability to live naturally and express natural behaviors, they are also more likely to have a natural diet. While this may still include corn, soybean, wheat, and other grains, these pigs will also likely have access to a pasture or grassland to balance their diet. In a natural model, pigs eat food that cannot be consumed by humans:

  • pasture and grasses
  • crop residues
  • byproducts (grains, pulp, and meal)
  • food waste (unwanted bakery items, fruits and vegetables)

Animal diets impact humans

There are clear differences in what pigs eat in a conventional farming model versus in nature. In an intensive, industrial model, pigs eat foods that can be consumed by humans. Corn and soybeans could be used for human food rather than animal feed.

However, in a natural model, animals are more efficient because they consume materials humans cannot. By feeding pigs food humans cannot eat, food waste is reduced, and animals can also benefit from a more diverse diet.

A pink pig eats a smashed pumpkin outside in the dirt of a higher welfare farm.
A pig on a higher-welfare farm enjoys a pumpkin for a meal.

A better diet for better animals

The food we eat connects to the way we feel. The same can be true for animals. A diet on scraps alone is like a diet of junk food, but a balanced diet on grains, grasses, and other unavoidable food waste can be healthier for pigs than a diet limited to corn and soy. Although the difference in diet is often focused on the difference between a conventional and natural model, breed can also play a role.

Breeds adapted to fit a conventional system will often show poorer welfare outcomes while breeds designed to thrive on a more natural diet will benefit from a balance of pasture and grassland.

Advocating for higher welfare for pigs will allow them a healthier diet, lifestyle and a happier life. Curious to know more about pig welfare and how you can support raising the baseline?

Learn how you can help by visiting our How Can I Help? resource.

Kourtney Houk smiling at the camera wearing a black Compassion in World Farming t-shirt

Kourtney serves as a Food Business Manager with the U.S. team, working closely with major food businesses to adopt and build upon commitments for animal welfare. She is passionate about transforming food systems and is excited to partner with companies to drive systemic change toward regenerative agriculture and more sustainable farming practices. Kourtney holds a Master’s in Higher Education Administration and a Bachelor’s in Hospitality Business from Central Michigan University. She lives in Michigan and enjoys spending time on her growing homestead gardening, baking, and raising chickens.


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