Expert opinion

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Loose house farrowing systems – where do we start?

From an animal welfare standpoint, much focus has been placed on assessing how the sow’s environment during farrowing can negatively or positively impact welfare for the sow.

This has been primarily focused on improving the ability for the sow to perform nest building (a complex set of behaviours driven by hormonal regulation and environmental feedback). To do this, the design of the farrowing crate has changed with greater freedom of movement provided by larger pens and substrate such as straw given to the sow prior to parturition.

Disadvantages for piglets and producers

But this solution for the sow comes with some disadvantages to the piglet and the producer.

A free farrowing crate by ACO Funki, at Siljebjerggaard Farm, Denmark. Photo: Danish Pig Research Centre
A free farrowing crate by ACO Funki, at Siljebjerggaard Farm, Denmark. Photo: Danish Pig Research Centre

From the piglet standpoint, the greatest challenge with implementing loose house or modified crate farrowing systems deals with piglet mortality.

From the producer standpoint, loose housing systems are difficult to implement in already established barn infrastructure and dramatically change the available space needed for the same number of sows.

Implementing other solutions to improve pig welfare

So what other options can we implement to improve welfare in farrowing? From the sow perspective, much work is being conducted to provide a larger pen that is feasible for the sow and the producer.

The Danish Swine Research Centre (SEGES) has recently announced the opening of their Farrowing Showroom. The research centre welcomes visitors to the showroom to observe and discuss 10 different farrowing pens currently being tested by the group.

Click here to read a feature on this Danish farm

These farrowing pens provide a variety of options to allow the producer to maintain some flexibility during farrowing including: ability to confine sow, protected creep area for the piglet, ability to provide nesting material in solid floor system and safe working area for employees.

Seeing loose farrowing systems in practice

This showroom provides producers and those in the swine industry the option to see these loose systems in action and talk directly with experts on how to best implement these pens into a commercial system. Although the US has not yet set the stage for introducing loose farrowing systems into commercial swine units, we are likely not far behind.

The Danish swine research centre will be a critical resource utilised by swine producers internationally to make the adjustments to loose house to improve sow welfare while not compromising piglet welfare.

17 comments

  • Julie Rosenwinkel

    All pigs should be in a natural environment with at least 10 by 12 foot area with straw and dirt floor to farrowing. Pigs don't lay on their piglets in dirt and straw environments. Dirt is also good for their immunity so they don't have to be pumped with antibiotics. They are creating super bugs in those environments.

  • S Molloy

    Julie, can you explain why your natural environment results in significantly higher piglet mortality? environmentally how the dirt floor mitgates high levels of leaching? and how living in deep litter enhances the health of the environment?
    maybe people should start living in caves again. methinks your head is in the clouds!

  • Mike VARLEY

    The answer to the title question is - Don't start at all ! There have over the last 20 years been repeated efforts at developing a workable freedom farrowing. All, in my view , have failed for one reason or another. Usually it is evident that piglet neonatal mortality is far to high. Costs are also an issue and stockperson access leads much to be desired. I can understand the motivation for these systems but they just don't work and s well designed and constructed conventional crate can minimise mortalities and provide a comfortable environment for the sow for 3-4 days post natal. More complex designs like the Nooyen crate from the Netherlands can , according to some UK experience, reduce preweaning mortalty down to 4%.

  • SJJ Jensen

    Dear Mike Varley. I will suggest that you go and visit the Showroom at Siljebjerggård. Have a good look arround, talk to the staff and get a feeling of whats going on. But beware, you might be surpriced!!

  • Georgios Vatzias

    An interesting and well documented article by Dr. Pairis-Garcia, but once more the issue here is how the housing farrowing systems affect sow's welfare in general or which housing farrowing system will lead to lower piglet mortality rate? Definitely, a spacious farrowing crate/pen with or without straw may create a perfect environment for a sow (farrowing to weaning ) improving the welfare status but still newborn piglets' mortality rate may remain high. To my opinion, regardless the farrowing crate's design, set up and the provided space, as long as the average litter size remains very large (>16) with an average birth weight less than 1.2 Kg/newborn piglet, the mortality rate (especially due to crushing) will be high. Therefore, the overall welfare status of any farm will be evaluated negatively. From my own experience, back in the mid 70s, in my father's swine farm (650 sow unit), where straw was used in the cement type with metal barriers farrowing pens, newborn piglet's mortality did not exceed 12%. Based on the farm's records, the range of the average litter size was 10 - 13, newborn piglets birth weight was close to 2Kg and the sows' body weight was easily exceeding the 250 Kgs. There were "crushed" piglets but they were very few. I don't think that those sows were "better mothers", or the farrowing pens were "comfortable" and spacious, but I believe that the newborn piglets were strong and agile enough to avoid a possible crush and definitely not that many.

  • DUNCAN HODGKINSON

    Some systems will work others will not similar to farrowing crates nowadays with designs good and bad
    Surely genetics and sow temperament is the most important along side mothering ability
    Cost of installation needs to be less than farrowing crates that we know now
    Size of sows and management is key

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  • Catharina Berge

    Why not look to Sweden, where we have decades of experience with loose farrowing. With group housing off dry sows the piglet mortality decrease with stronger sows.

  • Having worked on free farrowing systems at the old ADAS Terrington back in the late 90s and also touring about 20 different systems across Europe at that time, it's clear that this has been a very tough nut to crack, and as our litter size continues to increase, it doesn't get any easier. The difficulty is designing a system that meets the needs of the sow (which vary across time), the piglets (which vary across time) and the farmer/stockperson. Often these needs conflict and any system will have to be a compromise. As some have said above, there are some examples that work in some situations - e.g. some Swedish systems with lots of straw, less prolific (and perhaps more maternal) sows, relatively small farm size with owner-operators, and 20-30 years of experience managing the system! Others show promise, like the PigSAFE and the SWAP. I do agree with Duncan above that one of the most-neglected parts of the equation has been the sow and her behavioral qualities. I don't think it's an insurmountable problem, but, as with gestation housing, it will not be a one-system-fits-all type of solution and the management element will be a critical factor in system success.

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