Loose Housing for Farrowing and Lactating Sows

Danish pig production could be moving towards loose housing in the farrowing unit, writes ThePigSite senior editor, Chris Harris.
calendar icon 19 November 2009
clock icon 5 minute read

Research is being carried out under the supervision of the Danish Agriculture and Food Council into improved welfare systems for sows.

The research into loose housing is expected to help increase milk uptake for the piglets producing even more piglets weaned.

The concept of loose housing also helps to improve motivation for the staff and also carried a better image for the industry to the public.

The pen design for lactating sows is based on having a solid floor with a slatted dunging area for both the sows and the piglets with a pen size of 1.7 metres by 2.7 metres, with a crate size 2.1 metres long with a trough.

From a welfare point of view, the alternative to a loose pen system would be to have outdoor sows but according to Vivi Moustsen from the Danish Pig Research Centre, who is leading the research, there is now a very small number of outdoor and organic sows and pig farms in Denmark.

"We used to have a larger outdoor production. It used to be 800 herds with 3,000 to 4,000 outdoor sows and 400 organic herds with 2,000 to 3,000 sows," she said.

"There have been environmental legislative reasons for the drop in the number of outdoor units.

"Because it has been more difficult to develop an outdoor system, the indoor systems have become more competitive."

She said that the future aims for the industry are to improve welfare conditions in production as well as increasing levels of production and efficiency to meet the competition on the global market.

The industry also has to aim towards larger herds of 1,000 sows or more and increasing the numbers employed in the industry and ensuring that they are well trained to ensure better welfare and production.

One main way to ensure better welfare so that the sow will take better care of the piglets is to improve the pen design.

Research being carried out at the University of Aarhus-Foulum and the University of Copenhagen together with the Danish Animal Welfare Society and other animal organisations has been investigating ways of improving housing and welfare conditions for sows and piglets.

They have been looking at production in herds by honing in on piglet mortality, hygiene and flooring in the pens and the working environment.

"The piglets, the sows and the staff all have to be taken into consideration," said Dr Moustsen.

One of the major areas that has been under study is the testing of prototype pens for loose housing of farrowing and lactating sows.

The research looked at the optimum size and shape of the pen and the construction with the flooring to allow for urination and defecation.

"It is important that the sow has some support when lying down," said Dr Moustsen.

"We took measurements to ensure that the pen is the right size and also that there was easy access for the piglets.

The research found that there was a better success rate for farrowing sows when the pens was constructed to ensure that there is a solid floor that was heated where the piglets are born.

The study also found that there is more milk for the piglets and there are fewer fights between the piglets over teats in the loose system. The pen also has to have enough room for the piglets.

For the staff, the loose pens mean that there is a higher level of hygiene and greater ease in handling the animals. The system also means greater safety for the staff.

The researchers looked at several types of pen including the use of nesting and rooting material and changing the positioning of the creep area for the piglets. The levels of hygiene and the welfare of the animals was recorded and the ease of access to the pens for the staff was also measured.

They found that a typical pen measuring 1.8 metres by 2.8 metres allowed for the piglets to be weaned to the age of four weeks. The pen had no crate but used bars on the side to support the sow.

One of the major challenges that the researchers are still addressing is the possibility of piglets being crushed in such a loose system.

Dr Moustsen said that they are looking at changes in pen design to address the mortality issue.

They are also investigating sloping floors to stop sows rolling and also different zones in the pen to improve hygiene conditions.

The research is taking into account the sizes of the animals according to breed as well as behaviour such as how they stand, lie down and move in the pens.

This research and increased interest and pressure from authorities such as the European Union means that more and more loose housing systems are being introduced across Denmark.

However the researchers advise farmers going in to loose housing systems for lactating and farrowing sows, to start on a small scale initially.

November 2009

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