26 April 1996

Straw yards not so friendly

Housing dry sows in straw yards is a backwards step on management, performance, and welfare grounds, says one Yorkshire producer. Alan Barker reports

HOUSING a large herd of breeding sows in straw yards is less welfare friendly than established stall-and-tether systems.

That is the early experience of the Wilson family, who operate four farms in and around Helmsley, North Yorkshire.

When the family partnership of Ron Wilson and sons, Robert and Stephen, took over Baxton Grange, Helmsley, three years ago, they decided to establish a 500-sow breeding herd on the otherwise all arable unit. But the impending ban ruled out thoughts of creating an intensive stall-or-tether system.

Instead, they decided to use a large shed, previously used for dairy farming activities, to develop a loose housing system. The building, with added lean-to, was split into 18 straw yards each housing 26 sows, a number determined by the need to batch-farrow 24 sows a week.

But bullying, vulva biting, thin sows and difficulties in bringing gilts into the system has led Ron Wilson to conclude that, in terms of animal welfare, the government has got it wrong in deciding to ban stalls and tethers.

He therefore opted to delay conversion of his 500-sow tether unit at Newcliffe House, Sinnington, to the last possible moment to allow teething problems with the Baxton Grange straw yard system to be ironed out.

Currently the sow shed is divided into 18 4.6m x 14m (15ft x 46ft) pens, allowing 2.4sq m (26sq ft) a sow. Each sow yard has a forward dunging area which is scraped clean, and there is a central walk-through inspection passage.

Feed is dispensed by overhead dumpers, four to a pen to spread the feed and give each sow access to the daily allocation. But bullying and vulva biting is preventing each sow getting its fair share. In a bid to overcome this and avoid thin sows, feed is now dispensed twice daily, an hour apart. The idea is that bully sows will get their fill from the first allocation.

Thoughts are also being directed towards housing sows in smaller groups, although such a step will push up costs by at least 25%, says Mr Wilson. But, he adds, something must be done to get thinner sows away from the bigger bullies.

Although feed has been stepped up to 1.38t a sow a year, compared with 1t on a stall-and-tether system, performance is suffering. In the straw yards, 82% of sows are holding to first service, compared with 92% in the tether unit. Mr Wilson puts this down to aggression.

"Ideally, we would like to hold sows in stalls for 35 days until they are settled in pig. But we have been told we can forget this," he says. "It would allow us to adjust feed according to sow condition."

In terms of litter size, performance of the two herds is not dissimilar, with just over 11 piglets born. But mortality is a little higher in the straw-housed herd, due to the number of smaller piglets born to the thinner sows. Litters are weaned at three weeks and transferred to flat decks and then to grower pens until they reach 35kg liveweight. They are then transferred to a finisher unit on another of the Wilsons farms where they are taken through to bacon weight.

"If I could have stalls, I would go back to that system tomorrow," says Mr Wilson, and unit manager Carol Marsden agrees. The stall system allows feed adjustment, according to condition, and allows any sow off her feed to be identified and treated immediately. It also eliminates bullying and vulva biting.

But with stalls out of the question, they believe the answer to current problems must lie in reducing the number of sows to a pen, possibly down as low as five or six, allowing sows entering the pens to be matched by size and condition.

But that will mean added expense on a housing system which has already cost the best part of £200,000 and is considered a backward step on management, performance and welfare grounds. &#42

Thinner sows must be housed away from the bigger bullies. Housing them in smaller groups would help, reckons Mr Wilson, but would push up capital costs by at least 25%.