A UK animal-welfare group urges producers to consider the welfare of both sows and piglets with free-farrowing systems, stressing that what benefits one may not always benefit the other.
A new document from the UK identifies the different welfare issues faced by sows and their piglets in farrowing crates and in free-farrowing systems.
The report, from the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) recommends, among other things, that when considering which farrowing system to adopt or support, farmers, the pig industry as a whole and other stakeholders such as retailers should consider the welfare of both sows and piglets. It also advises caution as they may not necessarily benefit from the same things.
FAWC advises the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) of England and the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales on the welfare of farmed animals based on the scientific evidence. This report explores free farrowing – also called “loose farrowing” — or the housing of sows without confinement in a conventional farrowing crate for the period from shortly before giving birth to the end of the suckling period. It covers the options in a historical context and outlines the different free-farrowing systems that have been developed, and then explores the welfare considerations for the dam and her litter.
Among the factors that FAWC considers important for the sow are comfort, freedom to express nest-building behavior and avoidance of injuries, particularly from the floor. Piglets also need to be protected from injury or death and offered an environment in which they can thrive. For both sows and piglets, hygiene and disease prevention are also important and positive interaction between dam and litter should be promoted. Farrowing house designs should also enable contact between neighboring sows and litters, without high, solid walls.
Overall, the FAWC recommends continued development of commercial free-farrowing systems with the aim of replacing farrowing crates, with robust information from these systems available to interested stakeholders.
It suggests that adoption of free-farrowing systems should be reviewed in five years, and compared to similar systems in other countries. If judged necessary for full adoption, the possibility of legislation to phase out farrowing crates should then be considered, possibly with action at the level of the European Union.
On areas for future research, FAWC identifies a need to optimize the welfare and performance of free-farrowing systems in commercial settings, including the collation of data to inform decisions on the optimal farrowing accommodation for piglet survival and performance. It also recognizes the role of the stockperson in sow and piglet welfare. Sow performance in commercial free farrowing accommodation may be affected by genetics. There may also be benefits from shortening the confinement of sows.
Irrespective of the design of the farrowing system, farmers should increase supervision of farrowing and the post-farrowing period to reduce piglet deaths, FAWC recommends, adding that more training should be offered to pig farm managers and stockpeople operating all farrowing systems, including in maintenance of hygiene and opportunity for normal behavior of sows and piglets.
FAWC’s final recommendation is that, while confinement of sows throughout lactation is practiced, the pig industry and breeding companies should work to ensure that a typical litter of piglets does not exceed the number a sow is capable of rearing.