How a Spanish enrichment system reduces tail biting in pigs

A rotating system of chains which moves hanging pig enrichment material from one pen to another is helping keep tail biting at bay on a Spanish pig farm.

At Rosa Centellas-Vilaseca’s pig finishing unit in Catalonia, there is less than 1% incidence of tail biting with most pigs arriving on the farm at 8-10 weeks old having already been tail docked.

This year, Ms Centellas-Vilaseca is expecting to receive most of her pigs with intact tails, as a response to EU pressure to move away from routine tail-docking.

See also: 4 early signs of tail biting to watch for on pig farms

Spanish farmer Rosa Centellas-Vilaseca in her pig shed

Rosa Centellas-Vilaseca adds straw to a pen

The concrete slatted finishing shed, which houses 616 pigs in pens of 12, has a chain-driven system attached to the roof. Enrichment materials include pieces of wood, balls, straw containers, plastic rings and hemp rope.

Pen with a plastic ball and a ring hanging from the ceiling

One of two “play room” pens

Four extra pens have also been introduced which pigs access once a week.

These include two “playroom pens” which contain a combination of pig enrichment, and two “deep straw” pens allowing the pigs to root. The straw in the deep straw pens is changed every week.

Coloured plastic objects including a cross, a ball and rings

Some of the objects used in the rotating system

The chain driven system rotates the different enrichment materials into each pen on a daily basis. The materials are cleaned between batches and, if necessary, within a batch. 

It is a system Ms Centellas-Vilaseca devised herself in order to promote the sense of novelty for her fattening pigs.

Although she has no data to compare production before and after the system was installed, she believes it has improved the feed conversion ratio (FCR) by reducing stress in the pigs.

The farm belongs to an assurance quality scheme in the Avinyó region called Porc Ral d’Avinyó and of all the farms supplying the scheme Ms Centellas-Vilaseca has the best FCR – with diets and genetics the same on the other farms.

Mortality is also down at 1% compared with an average of 2.2% across the other farms.

System costs

Setting up the system cost about €6,000 (£5,250), with the ongoing cost for materials about €600 a year and maintenance at €50. The farm produces its own straw which helps keep costs manageable.

Motor mounted on a wall with chain running over a pulley

An electric motor drives the chain which changes objects in each pen daily

The labour requirement for moving pigs into the play pens and deep straw pens, as well as cleaning any materials, equates to an extra 1.5-2 hours a day.

Researcher Emma Fàbrega, at the Institute of Agri-food Research and Technology (IRTA) in Barcelona, says the system works well as it offers a sense of novelty to the pigs. 

She says: “It is not just the type of enrichment that matters, but also the sense of novelty that matters to pigs. There are attributes such as novelty and cleanlinness which can trigger the interest of pigs to use the enrichment materials and, therefore, this increases the efficacy of the material to prevent tail biting.

“Obviously, proper enrichment should be combined with a good health status, environmental conditions and correct stocking densities.”

Top tips on selecting enrichment

  1. Novelty It’s the novelty factor that really engages pigs. If you supply enrichment in the form of objects then you may need to use more than one type and change it regularly, or present it in a different way.
  2. Level of engagement If less than 50% of pigs are engaging with the enrichment, such as straw or an object, then it needs changing.
  3. Keep it simple Simple objects such as ropes and balls can often work well when combined with other enrichments and varied regularly.
  4. Keep it clean Objects that gets soiled or dirty will be less interesting to pigs. It’s important to observe engagement levels.
  5. Easy upkeep Make sure materials can be easily cleaned and easily changed.
  6. Take care Be careful in selecting various forms of enrichment. For example, mushroom compost can carry bacteria and other micro-organisms, while old tyres contain wire.
  7. Bedding As well as object-based enrichment, it may also be possible to provide straw or shredded paper in some slatted systems.
  8. Alternatives In housing where bedding materials cannot be provided as a source of enrichment, other enrichment materials and objects should be provided.
  9. Variety Use two or more enrichments at any one time and vary the enrichment regularly.