Free farrowing under commercial conditions

22-09-2014 | | |
Sow suckling her piglets in the free farrowing facility at Larsen farm. The piglets are weaned at 32 days.
Sow suckling her piglets in the free farrowing facility at Larsen farm. The piglets are weaned at 32 days.

Søren Larsen, a Danish piglet producer, has both traditional ?farrowing pens as well as farrowing pens with loose sows. The latter are the type that he prefers – and these can always be viewed by members of the public.

By Anja Pernille Jacobsen, 
freelance journalist, Denmark

It was October 2009, when Søren Larsen, a piglet producer in Dronninglund, northern Denmark, began to use a new farrowing section with 14 individual pens for loose sows. The new pens were built with funding from an innovation project, so scientists and other experts could use the pens to draw experience from the field. The ultimate goal is to develop a 
farrowing pen for loose sows without sacrificing the efficiency of the production or the safety of the employees.

The farrowing pens, manufactured by Jyden Bur, are 2.10 x 3 m each. Larsen says, “It is my experience that it is a 
little too small for the older and larger sows, so I only put the smaller sows (first to third-parity sows) into the new farrowing pens. If I expand the production, I will make two thirds of the pens in the size 2.30-2.40 x 3 m for the larger sows, and the rest 1.90 x 3 m for the younger and smaller sows. This will give a better use of the area in the farrowing unit when I can dispose of various sizes of the pens.”

Larsen is pleased with the way the pens have been functioning – and would definitely build more loose nursing facilities if he gets the chance to expand. He summarises: “Parturition time is shorter when the sow is loose. She eats more feed and produces more milk. Altogether loose sows nurse their piglets better, so I do not have to interfere so much.”

Not afraid of the higher costs

The farrowing pen for loose nursing sows is more expensive to build than traditional farrowing pens, as the loose sow pens have to be around 30% bigger per pen. With the chosen functions and materials, costs were around €800 higher – however, the price includes the cost of a more expensive pit ventilation system. The higher costs have not put Larsen off – he says: “The piglets weigh about 1kg more at weaning in the new pens. In addition, the sows are in a better constitution at weaning. This ensures better reproduction and durability traits.”

He continues, “Also, the drug use is reduced to a third in the new farrowing pens compared to the consumption in my traditional farrowing pens.”

Over the last year Larsen weaned almost 29 piglets per sow – which is the farm average. He explains, “I only wean half a piglet less in the pens for the loose nursing sows. The sows give birth to one piglet more per litter, but the number of dead piglets before weaning is higher in the pens for loose sows.”

There may well be room for improving the litter results in the new pen systems. Larsen says, “This may be possible if we can get more heat in the creep area in the first days after farrowing. We can also improve the results, if we can get the individual sow to nurse more piglets. For example by selecting after the sows maternal instincts and how many teats they have.”

Less crushing of piglets

Practice showed that the sows preferred to lie with their heads on the slatted floor during parturition – quite the opposite as to what had been expected. This way, the sows placed their rear ends against the entrance, leading to piglets being crushed during parturition.

A solution was found by installing a bigger protection bracket behind the sow when lying in this direction, so the sow could not crush the sows behind her by pushing her body up against this side of the pen during parturition. This saved the life of 1.5 to 2.5 piglets, Larsen says. From the start there was a sloping wall in the resting area outside the creep. Helping the sow to lie down and avoiding the piglets being crushed.

Sows lying in the ‘wrong’ direction proved to offer advantages. Larsen says: “It is very easy for us to provide birth help and collect the newborn piglets if they need help and put them to the udder or into the creep area. Most of the time, we do not need to go in to the pens, we can reach the piglets and the creep area from the aisle.”

Staying outside, sow aggression is not a major problem for Larsen. He adds, “Of course one has to keep an eye on the sows when walking in there. They can be dangerous.”

Good function of the pen

Daily management does not differ from keeping farrowing sows the traditional way. Larsen says, “We walk through the pens checking if the sows have eaten their feed, whether the piglets are doing well, we remove manure from the concrete area and push it to the slatted area.”

The sows usually defecate on the same place on the slats, Larsen says. The sows are fed straw, thus the manure is consistent and will disappear quickly through the slats. He continues, “They quickly learn to place the manure on the slats, and apart from the first days, we do not have problems with fouling the concrete floor in the rest of the period in the farrowing house.”

The pen’s side walls are 1 m tall. Farm staff cannot walk over the sides from one pen to another, as is common in traditional farrowing pens. Larsen explains, “We have to walk out to the aisle before entering the next pen, but that is no problem. It is not as hard as to lift your leg over the sides of the pen.”

Larsen says, “The creep area is located on the pen side facing the aisle, so we can easily get to the piglets. So we do not have to go into the pen as often as in the traditional farrowing pens.”

Room for improvement|

A few improvements Larsen can suggest as the creep area is relatively large – making the covered area difficult to get properly heated, despite floor heating and lamp. He says, “It would help if I could reduce the size of the piglets creep area in the beginning of parturition, so it would be a smaller volume that need to be heated.”

In addition, Larsen thinks that the waste of straw from the current straw hedge is too high right now. “Too much straw falls on to the floor and gets spoiled, and then the sows don’t want to eat it. But maybe we can alter the hedge, so that less straw will fall on the floor.”

Apart from these comments, Larsen is very positive about the system, saying, “Pens for the loose nursing sows can always be shown to the public. There are no problems with shoulder wounds, elongated births with many dead piglets as a result, sows dying suddenly of e.g. stomach ulcers or constipation – problems usually seen in traditional farrowing pens.

Since we took the new farrowing section in use in 2009 only one sow has died there.”

“In addition, I do not want to be overtaken by legislation again. Shortly after I built my gestation unit with boxes in 1991, legislation was changed, so the sows had to go loose in the gestation unit after a transition time.”



Søren Larsen, pig breeder, Denmark: “Parturition time is shorter when the sow is loose.”


Aagaard farm

Size: 480 sows

Loose sow farrowing pens: 14

Conventional farrowing pens: 90

Piglets weaned/sow/year (2012 – all sows): almost 29

Liveborn piglets per litter: 14.5

Stillborn piglets per litter: 1.3-1.4

Pre-weaning mortality: 13-14%

Weaning weight (28-32 days): 8.6 kg


A pen for loose nursing sows

JLF10, produced by Danish housing & equipment company Jyden Bur, is an individual farrowing pen for loose sows. The pen was developed in collaboration with researchers and pig producers in an attempt to create the most effective farrowing facility for loose sows. The design provides sows with freedom of movement and will also accommodate a more natural behaviour. It is possible to choose different materials and functionalities of the pen according to the producer’s needs and wishes.

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Pernille Jacobsen