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Review of Housing Options for Gestating Sows

10 September 2013

Iowa State University Extension

There is no one method that must or should be followed when housing sows, according to a recent Iowa State University review.

Housing options for gestating sows is an important topic affecting livestock producers, consumers, and policy-makers, reported Dustin J. Schau and colleagues of Iowa State University.

Speaking at the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) annual meeting Kansas City in July 2013, they continued that producers seek to provide high quality products at affordable prices while meeting increasing public demands for animal well-being.

Several studies have been conducted over the years to compare group and individual housing options for gestating sows.

The object of their paper was to review these studies and to look specifically at the areas of animal well-being and economic impact of housing type. Several types of housing and feed management plans were examined from previous studies and the impact of housing type was explored.

Overall, studies show that group housing can maintain animal well-being while still remaining economically feasible. Legislation has already been passed by the European Union to ban individual stalls starting in 2013. The future of gestation housing in the US pork industry is uncertain but it appears that changes are coming quickly.

In their conclusions, Schau and colleagues stated that animal management is changing, and the status quo will no longer suffice. Between consumer concern, government regulation and pressure from large companies, it appears that the phasing out of individual gestation stalls for sows will be a matter of when, not if. The transition has already begun in Europe, and several states and companies within the US are beginning to follow suit. 

Surveys among American consumers show there is a willingness to pay more for pork that is raised in a group environment but there is a limit to how far consumers are willing to go. An increase of more than $230 per year will start to impact their purchasing decisions.

"A producer looking to expand/begin operations would do well to have the foresight to anticipate the changes to come."

Individual housing and feeding offers particular advantages over group housing, the Iowa researchers found. Monitoring of health and feed intake is much easier when individually housed. Vaccinations, artificial insemination, aggression reduction and other general observations are much easier to perform in an individual management system rather than group system.

It appears that a combination of methods may be required in order to maximise efficiency and well-being. For example, studies on hoop barns as a potential management option show that group housing is possible in conjunction with individual feeding stalls. During feeding, sows are placed in individual stalls where their health and feed intake can be monitored. At all other times, the animals are free to interact and move around in a larger group setting. Cost analysis has shown that these structures can be cost competitive and offer advantages over individual housing units.

There is no one method that must or should be followed when managing sows, according to Schau and colleagues. This allows freedom for producers to either construct new housing units or utilise existing facilities to maximise productivity and well-being. Pre-existing units can also be retrofitted to minimise capital investment while promoting well-being. A well thought-out design will pay dividends in the long run. A producer looking to expand/begin operations would do well to have the foresight to anticipate the changes to come. Producers must consider the fact that several years down the road, major renovations may be required. It would be beneficial to consider a system that would be both profitable and adaptable for future change.

Animal housing is a complex issue, which involves engineering, economics, ethics and politics. The future is uncertain but it appears that changes are on the horizon and coming quickly. Those who are not  only able to adapt but also anticipate these changes will do well. It is no longer sufficient to find the least expensive option only when making decisions. Integration of social, political and ethical concerns make decision processes much more complicated. It is for this reason that a broad knowledge is required, as well as the ability to make decisions based upon interdisciplinary studies.

Challenges will no doubt appear in the future, concluded Schau and colleagues, but as the agriculture industry has shown before, these challenges provide the opportunity for innovation.

Further Reading

You can view the full paper by clicking here.

September 2013

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