I have personally been sceptical about the banning of farrowing crates to allow the sow her natural nesting behaviour – but progress is being made.
Following the ban of sow stalls in the UK, the compulsory ban on anything without scientific assessments and the proven development of suitable alternatives has always made me concerned. In the UK, outdoor sows kept in arcs produce 0.88 pigs reared/litter less than indoor reared litters (BPEX, 2011) which are mainly reared in farrowing crates.
I have always thought farrowing crates offer the piglets better care and they can be more carefully monitored and piglet crushing reduced. The farrowing crate also offers protection to workers and visiting vets from potentially disturbed sows and their litters, also not an inconsiderable health and safety issue.
In a recent talk by Sandra Edwards of Newcastle University (2011), she demonstrated that their new ‘Pig Safe System’ was able to achieve similar production results, regarding numbers weaned/litter, which were comparable with BPEX’s top third herds of about 10.5 pigs reared/ litter. On a visit to the unit, we were able to see for ourselves what had permitted the breakthrough.
In the main pen, there was a safe, well-lit and heated creep area for the piglets to go into (see top picture). To stop crushing they had introduced a solid panel on the opposite wall that jutted out about 15 cm so that the sow could slide down the panel when she lay down and the piglets could escape under and behind it without being laid on.
Chopped straw was introduced for the first week or so to provide bedding and nesting material with a retainer board to stop it going into the slatted dunging channel. There was a crate for the sow to go into also for feeding and if she needed attention (see bottom picture).
From a stockman’s point of view, he felt he had to build up a relationship and trust with the sow, especially with a litter but generally that was relatively straightforward and they settled in well and quickly.
The system was quite labour-intensive. The pens were in a converted barn, which had previously had farrowing crates, so was quite compact but the litters did look very well.
What are your experiences with ‘freedom farrowing’ can we make a commercial success of them?