Expert opinion

5 commentslast update:Dec 30, 2010

The return of the gestation crates?

Over the last couple of years I have seen many farms in Europe that have switched to group housing for sows. The change, however, is not everywhere going absolutely fluently.

As is well known, from 2013, all pig breeders in the European Union should have phased out gestation crates, due to welfare legislation. Basically, and as described in a 2007 article in Pig Progress, there are two major ways of applying group sow housing, that is using Electronic Sow Feeding and loose access stalls.

In the last option, the gestating sows are kept and fed in crates like in the past as if they had their own bedrooms. They, however, have the opportunity to wander out or lock themselves in if they feel like it.

In the first option, crates have been completely phased out – sows are kept in large spaces and are fed (and can also be monitored) through Electronic Sow Feeding equipment.

Pig farmers however have already come across the reason why, decades ago, the use of gestation crates was introduced in pig breeding in the first place: sows will fight amongst each other to establish hierarchy.

Despite the assurance of various industry representatives that this potential fighting will only last a couple of days, I have seen various producers now that did not take the risk due to the loss of various sows – and just locked the free access stalls to be on the safe side.

Understandably as it is, this sounds like an old-fashioned paradox – welfare legislation potentially leading to sow casualties.

The alternative isn't good either as having spacious sow facilities but using only small parts of it would infer a very ineconomical use of farm premises. How could this be solved?

According to John Gadd, frequent blogger of, the system of free access stalls will not create any problems, provided four conditions have to be met:

• Allow sows to settle down in the first three to four weeks after insemination as they are still somewhat restless after weaning. These weeks they are allowed to be kept in crates anyway. Give them their time.

• Provide ample straw bedding in the pen.

• Allow them plenty of space outside the crates.

• Install a one-way lock so sows can decide for themselves if they want to be in their crates or not.

Dairy farms
In Britain, Gadd adds, pig producers started to occupy empty dairy farms and used this space to house their gestating sows.

New housing systems, have been very expensive, he says – but it is good to see that producers have found creative ways to solve the problems posed by new welfare legislation.

I am curious to hear your opinions as to problems other producers may have come across - or even better: solutions you may have found.


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    John Gadd

    Vincent, you have touched on two big subjects which are quite different inter alia. Both work very well if experience of the many successful protagonists is followed and I propose to expand on your thoughts in my next blog or two. It is when breeders confuse the recommendations which are freely available and apply one or more of them to the other system (sometimes on grounds of cost) that trouble can occur.
    Both systems are welfare-positive, and both systems go a long way towards enabling the sow to do what she prefers to do - but the routes in getting there successfully are very different.

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    Jean-Jacques Simon for BOTAM-fr

    No way to go back to gestation crates. Group pens work really well (more than 10,000 sows experience), it's just acclimatization for the people not for sows. If pen size are respected it shouldn't be much troubles and even easier for people working around... really!
    I'm the first one who had cry a bit when I had to work for the first time with group pen but I was wrong, it's matter of time and herd management.
    We found on new project or renovating one too much money in crates equipment especially as you describe in the article with crates and free space... waste of money!! Experience show how to practice (not from books but from the field) sow group.
    Farm managers around the world need to stand back and visit unit already in group for minimum one year and then they'll understand way to go fluently in changing their habit... pigs will do by themselves, we just have to give them right space! :)
    Sorry for my bad English...
    J-Jacques Simon for BOTAM-fr

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    Harry Neulen

    First I would like to introduce myself:
    My name is Harry Neulen, I am a pig farmer and live in the Netherlands.
    I think group housing is a part of our license to produce. With group housing I mean sows kept in a pen and fed by using electronic sow feeders or ad. lib. feeding. The big advantage of e.s.f. Is that you can control the daily feed intake of each sow
    I would like to share with all of you some critical points that are important to have success with group housing:
    1 Before implementing group housing the farmer must be convinced that group housing is a good system. They can do that by visiting other farmers with group housing.
    2 Use a separate trainingstation for gilts
    3 Do not inseminate gilts before 250 days of age.
    4 When you train gilts it is important that they know each other to avoid hierarchy fights during the first day of training.
    5 only ad sows to the group 2 days after insemination, to avoid returns. When you have stabile groups it is also possible to make a group 4 weeks after insemination ( you have the possibility to scan the sows in the crates).

    My experience with group housing is that when we make a group the first hour we have some hierarchy fights after that we do not have problems anymore.

    At last: For 8 years ago we introduced group housing with electronic sow feeders on our farm. When I had the possibility to build a new farm, group housing with e.s.f. will be installed again.

    Best regards,
    Harry Neulen

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    Why do you need gestation crates, when sows mingle amongst themselves very well. Pecking orders are set quickly, but if all sows are much the same size in height and weight then there is very little problem. Several boars in a pen also help with those that need mating.

    Sows also farrow quite well outside a farrowing crate. Plenty of hay and the sow will form a nest and create a bed for her new borns that is warm and cosy.

    I would imagine most females would do this for their young!

    Most of the problem is stockmanship and not the pigs themselves. If you are a good observant operator you should be able to manage one pig or 100 pigs in a pen with out too much trouble. Observation on your part will tell you whether the pen is functioning fine or not.

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    Are there any figures on the impacts of the following systems on Farrowing Rate, Total Numbers Born, Sow Culling rates and compared to current production systems:

    1) Insemination of sows in groups during the oestrus period (no confinement)
    2) Grouping of Sows 5 days post insemination (inseminate in stalls)then re-group once oestrus finished
    3) Grouping of Sows 28 days post insemination (after preg testing)

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