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Farrowing crates – freedom farrowing – are we getting there?

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?



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    John Kongsgaard

    Just want to inform that we ( see a lot of interest in freedom farrowing here in Scandinavia. And we are getting good results too. Have in ex.supplied a farmer in UK with 72 pens lately. But have farmers with more than 500 pens here in Denmark.

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    marie-josee turgeon

    Good morning to all!
    We would like to visit some farms in Europe over 2000 sows with group housing in gestation and/or lactation. Any contact information would be appreciated

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    Pedro Goenaga

    Here in Argentina we have a very large experience in outdoor farrowing in arc type huts. The results are clearly superior compared with crates in nurseries. Mortality (weaned/born alive: 14%); no MMA; no diarrhea; little labor;cheap; better welfare; piglets are 1 extra kg at weaning. It work very well; it provides an superior enviroment for farrowing and lactation.

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    I'm sure we are getting there. As far as general public opinion is concerning to animal welfare, we have to be ready to change our mind in terms of pig production because the banning of farrowing crates is not so far.

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    Greg Swain

    Very good performance experienced in multiple units in the USA using a "combi-pen" design. Contact Ikadan System USA for details.

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    Soren Jensen

    This morning i have taken care of our loose farrowing sows. Now, 3 days after farrowing there are 12,6 piglets alive in average per sow. We have taken out 1,2 piglets per sow to fostersows. Of course there will die some piglets in the following days but I think we are very close to be there. Check out the farrowing rings at

    Soren Jensen

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    Alice Clarke

    This system will mean greater labour costs at a time when the industry is struggling through a crises. Are those encouraging this system change prepared to pay extra, or will it take the same route as the stall and teehter free incentive did? The premium quickly dying a death once farmers changed, gains for processors auditors & supermarkets only. Based on past experience we producers should say NO unless long term legally binding contracts are on offer.

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    John Gadd

    Interesting blog, David and subsequent comments.
    Our industry has only itself to blame for using the word 'crate'. Crates in the pubic's mind are wooden boxes for packaging cars, freezers, machinery, etc. - not surprising that it encourages the public to wonder what we are up to inside those buildings of ours.
    I've been using 'maternity bed' for years (to some raised eyebrows from my peers!) We maybe need to think more carefully about terminology, bringing in words like 'comfort', 'care', 'nourish' 'pig-friendly', 'protect' etc. whenever the public is likely to be around.
    Semantics? I don`t think so. Prudence and commonsense, more like.

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    Wim Houwers

    But not for all sows and not for all farmers.

    With freedom farrowing good results can be achieved, (management) systems without demanding much extra labour can (have been) be designed in Aberdeen, in Switzerland, Germany, Wageningen and Scandinavia.
    Besides the pen design to my opinion are major factors to succes 1, the attitute of the stockperson, the behaviour or breed of the sow, 3. constitution of the sow, the legs should be strong enough to allow a proper lying down movement, and 4: one should be willing to compromize on the lame, too heavy or nervous sows, to confine them during the critical period.

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    Douglas Riley

    While I agree with the majority of the comments made, I am a little concerned about the areas of Asia that are still developing. Some of the areas I am currently working with have a lived weaned litter size of 2-3 pigs and in these areas labor and management are not easy to achcieve, let alone trying to adjust to "developed" country status. While I do feel that a more natural method to farrow will be more general population fiendly, it cannot apply to the global commons and may not be the best for the pigs or the producers.

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