Alternatives to Sow Crates

What more animal-friendly methods of farrowing are there for pigs?


The industry justifies the crating of pigs with the fear of piglet losses: when the sow lies down it can crush the piglets. But this danger only arises from the breeding of sows, which have become bigger and heavier – as well as from the extreme lack of space: the sow cannot slowly lay down in the crate but must let herself fall. Often sows also have feet problems and lameness, both leading to higher instability. Furthermore, they are socially isolated from other sows, can never rest comfortably or escape the piglets, which strains them psychologically. In natural conditions, they would only nurse the piglets for a few minutes an hour and spend the rest of their time foraging for food and socialising with other animals. This is not possible in a farrowing crate.

On the other hand, in good housing conditions in alternative systems, with more space and litter, the mother sow can slowly lay down. There are also protective devices, called 'piglet deflectors', which are attached to the wall and provide a shelter for the piglets. As scientific studies have shown 1, 2, 3, the piglet losses in these systems are not higher than in the crate housing. Studies, that compared alternative farrowing systems to crates, also came to the conclusion that more piglets are stillborn in crates and the survivors develop worse than in the alternative farrowing systems.

Animal-appropriate and functional farrowing system

There are two alternative farrowing systems that are practical and more animal-friendly than the farrowing crates: the so-called group farrowing and the temporary  individual free farrowing.

In group farrowing, the sows remain in the group during birth. For the retreat, littered pens with piglet nests are available for the animals. The sows can leave and enter these pens at any time. In order to enable an undisturbed imprint on the mother animal, the piglets can only leave the nest after ten to 14 days. This ensures that the piglets will find their mother in the group afterwards. Disputes between piglets from different nests regarding suckling are also prevented.

In the case of temporary individual farrowing, the sow is only separated from the group for a short time. The birth takes place in a free farrowing pen in which sow and piglets can exercise natural behaviours. The sow uses her voice (grunting for grouping together the piglets) to indicate to her young that she wants to lie down. The piglets have enough space to escape. In addition, protective devices are used to prevent the piglets from being crushed. After ten days, the animals can go back to the group.

Both options are animal friendly, and do not cause higher piglet mortality. FOUR PAWS actively calls for the abolishment of farrowing crates, and the situation is slowly moving towards the right direction, with consumers demanding more animal welfare friendly production of their products.

FOUR PAWS calls for...

The end of cruel practices:

Inducing fear, pain, and distress, thus diminishing the immune system, altering brain function and the natural behaviour of animals

  • General ban on keeping sows in crates, across all countries. There are many animal-friendly alternatives to this, and the system should be adapted to the animal and not vice versa!
  • Free farrowing systems (with protection against piglet crushing) in which the sow can build a nest, move, and turn around, as well as socialise with her piglets and conspecifics.
  • Limitation of an individual fixation to an absolute minimum (by the hour), e.g. for treatment purposes and veterinary interventions only.
  • Highly intensive concentrate feeding must be avoided
  • Fully slatted flooring should not be allowed.
  • Ban on breeding for extreme performance (e.g. for more teats per sow) - the well-being of the animal must be prioritised and the average number of piglets per litter must not exceed the number of teats.

…fulfilment of basic needs:

if neglected it leads to poor welfare states and therefore to suffering, acute pain, distress, fear, and long-term negative welfare states. Basic needs of pigs are:

  • Pigs are a social species and must be kept in stable and appropriate groups – group keeping of sows and group farrowing should be a standard procedure. If group farrowing is not possible due to management reasons: temporary individual farrowing in movement bays (max. 10 days) with protective devices (piglet deflectors) to prevent the piglet being crushed. After that, group reunification should occur, as it can be otherwise highly detrimental to their health.
  • Long straw should be always available as nesting material in the farrowing area in the days before birth.
  • Pigs have a strong motivation for foraging, that’s ideally taking up most of their time budget in a day. Rooting is one of the most prominent and important part of foraging behaviour and not being able to fulfil it, results in many different health issues (e.g. stereotypies).
  • A diet, appropriate for pigs (with high fibre and forage content), is not only essential for maintaining their physical health (prevents the nowadays frequent stomach ulcers), but also gives them the possibility to express their natural foraging behaviour.
  • Sufficient lying space with dry and soft bedding is crucial – hard surfaces cause shoulder sores for the sows (due to their weight causing pressure on the shoulders and spine), and open wounds on joints in piglets (due to them constantly kneeling down to suckle).
  • Appropriate soft flooring – pigs' claws are adapted to soft and swampy floor - hard floor surfaces cause feet problems, lameness, and bursitis.
  • Access to the outdoor area should be readily available, where the animals can experience the outside world and enrich their life – the animals are less bored and in control of their daily life, when they can experience different environments.
  • The shelter should give protection from extreme weather conditions and have good air quality, with readily available water and food.
  • Animals should be kept in good health and receive veterinary care if needed.
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