According to East Yorkshire pig producers David and Sue Morgan, who installed 72 freedom farrowing pens 12 months ago, it is still too early to say if there is any improvement in performance or potential to increase profitability.
While sows have demonstrated more natural behaviour patterns, the Morgans say that, compared with conventional crate systems, this welfare-driven approach to sow and litter management does pose new challenges in terms of stock husbandry.
And while piglet mortality in the first year of the freedom pens at Pockthorpe Farm has marginally increased from 10% to about 14% – something that Mr Morgan believes could be effectively tackled as more experience is gained – he says there has been a notable improvement in the performance and overall health of young pigs after weaning.
The Morgans, with daughters Vicky and Kate, run 1,700 breeding sows on straw, with a liquid feed offered through an electronic sow-feeding system. Piglets are weaned at 28 days, before being finished off the farm on a bed-and-breakfast arrangement and then sold to Sainsbury’s through food supplier Cranswick. Pockthorpe Farm is a Sainsbury’s “Concept Farm”, established to trial new ideas.
“We noticed immediately animals that had farrowed in conventional crates, say five or six times previously, started to build a nest when provided with straw and given the space of the freedom pen system,” comments Mr Morgan. “So their natural instincts are still there.
“Inevitably mortality levels are higher through piglets being laid on. This is a totally new approach to managing farrowing sows and it has been a steep learning curve for us all.
“There have been some disappointments in terms of mortality, but you learn as you progress with new ideas. I should think the current mortality rate using the freedom pen is around 14%,” he adds.
But Mr Morgan recognises that, as an industry, pig producers can’t afford to accept higher mortality in a new system, so the challenge is going to be about breeding animals that have better maternal instincts to cope with this environment, which will hopefully lead to fewer losses.
“Over time when sows were tethered, we saw them change and become more suited to stall management.
“We’ve already seen sows change again because those now on straw yard systems aren’t aggressive towards one another. Similar changes will occur as animals start to emerge from the breeding companies that are more suited to high-welfare farrowing,” he says.
Output from sows kept in freedom crates has been lower because of the rise in mortality and while the Morgans don’t believe that more time spent with sows in this new system would avoid the higher loss rate, they recognise a different standard of management is needed – in terms of skilled staff – compared with a conventional farrowing system.
“I think there will be a need for staff that are more “stock aware” and in tune with what these sows require. Good husbandry is essential. You certainly have to operate in the building in a more quiet way, but we haven’t encountered any signs of aggression towards staff from sows with litters,” says Mr Morgan.
In terms of the theoretical improvements a freedom crate system is expected to deliver – better performance from the sow and her improved condition after weaning – none have yet been apparent at Pockthorpe Farm.
“The research would say those benefits are there to be had but we haven’t captured them yet. It has taken us a year to get the feeding right. Sows are moving about more and their feed requirements are greater than if they were in a conventional crate.
“It’s not so much a different feed regime it’s just there has to be closer monitoring of what’s going in and sows must be fed accordingly. We have slightly changed our diet specification in the four daily feeds our sows receive.”
But Mr Morgan believes that by the selection and breeding, that’s in the hands of the geneticists and the breeding companies, it’s inevitable that gilts will start to filter through into the system that will be more suited to the higher welfare type of farrowing system.
“The sows we turned into loose yards that had been in tethers were much more aggressive animals than the ones we have today. Sows have changed and I think the same thing will happen to the sows we eventually end up with in systems that allow more freedom at farrowing.”
The condition of sows coming out of the freedom pens has been very good but higher weaning weights have so far eluded the Morgans.
“But once the young pigs are weaned and moved on we are seeing faster growth rates compared with young pigs from a conventional system, as well as reduced mortality. So there has been a benefit there.”
Longevity of sows at Pockthorpe Farm is being monitored and it’s likely that the future will see the same sows always put through the freedom pens to monitor them specifically.
Gilts coming into the freedom pens have actually performed more successfully than sows that had previously been managed in conventional crates.
“That could suggest we should stick with gilts so that they are trained and used to that system from the start. It’s something we’re looking at.
“This is a system for those who really want to do it. It is an expensive way of farrowing sows so I’m not sure if it’s something we will see rapidly taken up by the whole industry. It really depends on what the consumer wants and what they are prepared to pay for,” says Mr Morgan.
Sandra Edwards of Newcastle University says the official research project has now finished, following a one-year commercial comparison against the standard farrowing crate systems at the university’s two sites.
“The headline results show the system in use at our sites has allowed better sow welfare – because of reduced confinement – without compromising piglet survival.
“We believe the success of the system is dependent on attention to detail, both in the building design and the day-to-day management.
“We have produced a leaflet for farmers about the key design issues and welcome visits from anyone thinking of installing such a system to discuss management with our staff who have been running it.
“While pig performance hasn’t been compromised, there would still be a cost in adopting this system because of its higher initial capital requirement.
“Some contribution towards this might be available through the DEFRA RDP scheme, but this will cover only part of the differential,” says Prof Edwards.
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