Effective campaigns by animal welfare organisations have kept the farrowing crate issue in the public eye. As a consequence, a number of smaller national retailers are already sourcing pigmeat only from non-crate systems, and the major supermarket chains are also looking to move in this direction.
However, maintaining acceptable piglet survival levels in non-crate systems, against a background of increasing sow prolificacy, poses a considerable challenge. Piglet mortality in Sweden, where indoor non-crate systems are used exclusively, is about 3.6% higher than the EU average.
But according to Sandra Edwards of Newcastle University, good survival levels can be achieved in non-crate systems. She, along with researchers at the Scottish Agricultural College, has been working on the PigSAFE project (Piglet and Sow Alternative Farrowing Environment) since 2008, with the aim of increasing sow welfare.
“The UK national average for piglet survival in outdoor herds has often equalled or exceeded the figure for indoor herds. But this success has yet to be replicated in commercial indoor situations, despite a number of variants being tried on a small scale.”
PigSAFE pen design
So far, researchers at Newcastle and SAC have come up with a prototype design, called the PigSAFE Pen. One of the main aims in the design was to permit the sow to exhibit nest building behaviour, while minimising the risk of piglets being crushed.
A nest area was included in the pen design, with solid flooring to allow for the provision of nesting material (straw most commonly used). Sloping walls were added to the pen, to encourage the sow to slide slowly to ground level for suckling, in an attempt to minimise piglet mortality.
A heated creep area is positioned close to the nest, next to the passageway, to allow for easy access to the piglets. There is also a separate, slatted dunging area, bounded by walls with barred sections to discourage the sow from farrowing outside the designated area.
A feeding crate is included on one side of the pen, so that sows can be temporarily locked in for safety while their piglets are being handled.
One lesson Prof Edwards says they have learnt from trialling non-crate indoor systems is that providing too large a nest area will lead to increased piglet mortality, as the sow more often changes posture in an unsupported and uncontrolled way, and piglets can stray away from sources of warmth.
But early results are showing promise, she adds. Data from the first 152 litters weaned showed a live born mortality of 14.9%, with an average of 10.9 piglets weaned a litter, under conditions where cross-fostering was limited by research constraints. And commercial evaluations are showing performance comparable with conventional systems.
However, while the economic implications are still under review, the cost is expected to be 50% greater, compared with a standard farrowing crate system, although running expenses and labour requirements are likely to be similar
Pockthorpe Hall near Driffield, East Yorkshire
An adapted design of the PigSAFE pen, based on similar principles, is currently being tested on a farm in East Yorkshire. David and Sue Morgan run the business with their daughters, Vicky and Kate.
They have 1,500 breeding sows on straw, with a liquid feed offered through an Electronic Sow Feeding system. Piglets are weaned at 28 days, before being taken to third party farmers for finishing. All the progeny are sold to Sainsbury’s via food supplier, Cranswick.
Pockthorpe is a Sainsbury’s “Concept Farm”, established to trial new ideas combining business sustainability with improved pig welfare. The Morgans were very keen to try crate-free farrowing accommodation, as their conventional crates meant they could not be accredited under the RSPCA’s Freedom Food standard.
The new Freedom Pens were installed in a purpose-built shed with 72 sow places at the beginning of August with two of the new pens fitting into a space which would have held three conventional crate places.
No conclusive results are available yet, but according to the Morgans, performance to date has been encouraging. They say sows’ milk let-down period has increased from 8sec to 10sec, possibly as a result of an increased hormonal response. This could be due to the extra space allowed for the piglets to massage the udder, plus the more natural environment. It is hoped that these piglets will be stronger and healthier at weaning.
Sows have also eaten 10% more food than average during lactation, a result attributed to the fact that their appetites have been enhanced, through having the freedom to move around. The Morgans are hoping this will leave them in better condition at weaning.
The sows were introduced to the pens three days before farrowing. As nesting behaviour was a key factor, the Morgans added about 2kg of straw a pen initially, topping up where necessary.
“The sows enjoyed the straw and we added sawdust, which worked quite well,” says daughter Vicky. “With the next batch, we will add a smaller quantity, increasing to 2kg when she starts nesting. This should make the bedding easier to handle.
“It has been interesting to observe the sows’ nesting behaviour. They have been quieter and more placid, and we can pick up health problems earlier, because of the increased freedom. The piglets also have better access to the teats without the crate.”
Three days after farrowing, the fold-round gate is opened, to provide more space. The wall linking the adjacent pens is partially barred, to create “chat holes” for socialising.
This helps to keep them calm and is particularly useful for gilts, which will go on to group housing. The bars also provide the sow with a view beyond her own pen, giving her the chance to look out for a potential threat.
Most of the equipment for the Freedom Pens was sourced in Denmark. The floor has been partially covered with industrial-grade resin, a material more commonly used in buildings such as warehouses. This has been chosen as a more comfortable and safer surface for the sow, compared with a standard concrete base. The makers claim it is hard wearing, with good slip-resistant qualities, although it is too early to say whether it has been a success.
“If we were expanding our unit, we would definitely consider using this pen design again; it is just a matter of gaining more experience and finding ways around any difficulties that might crop up,” says Vicky.
• Do you see the freedom farrowing pen becoming the norm in UK indoor pig production? What are your thoughts on the design? Why not join in the debate online on the Farmers Weekly website forum or send us a letter to Farmers Weekly, Quadrant House, The Quadrant, Sutton, Surrey, SM2 5AS