Review of Sow and Piglet Behaviour and Performance in Group Housing Systems for Lactating Sows

Studying multi-suckling and 'get-away' systems, researchers at Wageningen University found that both offered more opportunity for sows to express natural behaviour than individual housing systems, and there were also advantages for the piglets. Selection of suitable sows and the quality of the stockmanship were important for success, they commented.
calendar icon 11 March 2014
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In a paper in the journal, Animal, S.E. van Nieuwamerongen and colleagues at Wageningen University in the Netherlands explain that the commercial use of group housing systems for lactating sows is limited but the recent transition to group housing during gestation in the EU may result in a renewed interest in such systems.

They have reviewed the key factors that may contribute to the success or failure of group housing of lactating sows in comparison with individual housing by describing the variety in group housing systems and discussing animal behaviour and performance compared with individual housing.

Group housing systems can be divided in multi-suckling (MS) systems, in which sows are grouped with their litters, and get-away (GA) systems, which include a separate communal area accessible to sows only.

These systems differ in many aspects regarding management and lay-out but, compared with individual housing, they generally provide more environmental complexity, more freedom of movement for the sows and more freedom to express behaviours related to, for example, maternal care and social interactions.

Group housing poses several risks, such as disrupted nursing and an increased level of crushing during the MS phase and in the GA systems, there is a risk for early cessation of nursing.

On the other hand, pre-weaning mingling of litters clearly benefits piglet social development and may improve adaptation to the post-weaning situation.

In addition, group-housed sows may show lactational ovulation, which provides opportunities for insemination during an extended lactation period, which benefits the piglets.

Gradual transitions in social and physical environment around gestation, farrowing, grouping and weaning seem to be key success factors for group housing systems during lactation, the researchers concluded.

They added that selection of suitable sows and quality of stockmanship seem important.


van Nieuwamerongen S.E., J. E. Bolhuis, C.M.C. van der Peet-Schwering and N.M. Soede. 2014. A review of sow and piglet behaviour and performance in group housing systems for lactating sows. Animal. 8(3):448-460.

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March 2014

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