Housing options for farrowing: Considerations for animal welfare and economics

By John J. McGlone, Texas Tech University - Housing systems for farrowing sows have changed very little in the past 30 years.
calendar icon 27 November 2006
clock icon 3 minute read


At the mid 20th century, two farrowing environments were common – the outdoor hut in a pasture or lot, and an indoor farrowing pen. The farrowing pens were in low-cost buildings and thus the cost per square foot of building space was relatively low compared to today’s buildings. Farrowing sows indoors has proved to be beneficial for both the producer and the sow and her piglets. However, recent criticism of the traditional farrowing crate has led to increased efforts to find suitable alternatives that still provide maximum production efficiency.


  • Discuss Critical Control Points (CCPs) for evaluating farrowing options
  • Evaluate the features of the modern farrowing crate
  • Propose alternatives to the farrowing crate


Sows were brought indoors for three primary reasons. First, the indoor environment was more comfortable for both people and pigs. Second, the indoor environment allowed for the elimination of parasites in that the floors could be disinfected and the parasite life cycle broken. Third, the indoor system provided uniform, year-round production through-put. The farm could develop a steady cash flow with farrowings at first twice per year and later on a weekly schedule.

One can conclude that the reasons sows moved indoors included to improve the welfare of the sow and piglets and to improve the farm economics. Thirty years ago, this is a case where economics and welfare were associated in a meaningful way. Clearly, sow and piglet welfare was improved by the move from outdoor lots to indoor pens.

Clearly, the farm produced more pigs per year that helped pay the mortgage on the farm. When sows moved indoors, the move was associated, almost simultaneously, with a move from pens to farrowing crates. Farrowing crates saved baby pigs from being crushed. Pork producers were willing to restrict the movements of the sow to save baby pigs from being crushed, as the piglets’ welfare was deemed more important that the sow’s temporary inconvenience.

Because the move indoors was closely timed with the move from pens to crates, the industry did not consider how the pens might be designed to reduce piglet crushing. But this work has taken place and some alternatives to the standard farrowing crate are available. Humane activist and advocate groups have demanded an alternative to the farrowing crate. For example in the USA, both the Niman Ranch (http://www.nimanranch.com/index.htm) and Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC, http://www.certifiedhumane.com/) discourage or prohibit the use of farrowing crates.

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November 2006

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