Better Beginnings for Pigs in New Type of Pen

DENMARK - Floor heating in the farrowing area reduces piglet mortality, according to studies of a new farrowing pen prototype. In their design of the pen, scientists have taken natural sow and piglet behaviour into consideration.
calendar icon 22 May 2008
clock icon 7 minute read
Scientists have developed a new pen for sows, which improves animal welfare and reduces piglet mortality considerably.
Photo: Janne Hansen

Scientists have developed a new type of farrowing pen that ensures the sow and her piglets improved conditions. One of the features in the new pen is floor heating in the farrowing area, which has been shown to reduce piglet mortality with an average of one piglet per litter. What the scientists have done in their design of the pen is to take natural sow and piglet behaviour into consideration.

There are many challenges at the onset of your life if you are a newborn piglet. Your first task is to find a good spot at the milk bar on your mother’s udder in hefty competition from 10-15 littermates that all have the same idea. A newborn piglet is programmed to seek the sow’s udder to tap a drink of colostrum as one of the very first events in its life in the pigpen.

Another prime challenge for the piglet is to stay warm while it lies by the udder sucking fortifying drops of milky nourishment. Even though the ambient temperature in the farrowing house is about 20°C, it can feel rather chilly for a new pig that has no furry coat or layer of fat to speak of.

The new piglet is very small compared to its enormous mother – and herein lies yet another challenge. The piglet needs to ensure that it is not in the wrong place at the wrong time. If a piglet weighing one kilogram is squashed under its 250 kg heavy mother when the mother lies down, then that can be the end of the piglet.

New pen with built-in security

Warm and safe surroundings are necessary to ensure as low a piglet mortality as possible. That is the whole idea behind the prototype for the new farrowing pen that has been developed in close collaboration between scientists from the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences at the University of Aarhus, KU-Life and Danish Pig Production.

In most modern sow houses the sow is placed in a traditional farrowing pen with a rail that limits her freedom of movement in the pen. Fixating the sow is done because of a belief that it reduces the number of piglets that are squashed by the sow.

However, there is no clear scientific proof that fixating sows reduces piglet mortality. In addition, there are welfare problems related to fixating the sow.

  • Our goal is to develop a type of pen for loose sows and their piglets. Our focus has been to reduce piglet mortality, which on a national average is 23 percent including stillborn pigs, but we would also like to include the welfare of the sow and her requirements, says senior scientist Lene Juul Pedersen from the Department of Animal Health, Welfare and Nutrition at the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences, University of Aarhus.
  • The sow has a strong behavioural requirement for nest building and parental care. She prefers maintaining contact and observing her offspring at all times. She gathers them, herds them to a side and knows where they are before she lies down – if she has the possibility for doing so, says Lene Juul Pedersen.
  • She can be given that possibility with more room and no fixation. In order to motivate the sow and the piglets to stay in the “right“ places at the right times, the scientists are taking advantage of the knowledge of the animals’ behaviour.

Safe conditions for the sow and her offspring

The sow likes to support herself against something when she lies down. The new pen has sloping walls that do not go all the way down to the floor. The lower part of the sloping wall is just far enough away from the pen wall and just high enough off the ground so that the piglets can escape to safety under the wall. With the sloping walls the sow can glide down and the piglets have time to run out of the way. It also creates a room in which the piglets can go to catch a peaceful nap.

Behind one of the sloping walls there is enough room for all the piglets to lie stretched out – even when they reach the age of four weeks. This is in contrast to the covered creep areas that are commonly used in which conditions get rather crowded once the pigs are about one week old.

The sow’s udder exerts an unresistable attraction to piglets on the lookout for colostrum. The little pigs will therefore be driven to the udder area even if the area is cold and the creep area is warm (as is the case in traditional farrowing pens). In the new pen, the lactating sow lies on a solid, heated floor. On the basis of the project’s studies on the importance of floor heating for piglet mortality, this arrangement has been proven to save the life of on average one pig per litter.
  • Pigs that are chilled shortly after birth are predisposed to disease, hunger and being lain on by the sow. The first few days are critical, says Lene Juul Pedersen as an explanation of the life-saving effect.

Privacy ensured

For the sake of hygiene in the pen and an easier workload for the farmer, it is important to ensure that the sow does not defecate in the wrong end of the pen. The scientists also use their knowledge about sow behaviour in this area in the design of the pen. When the sow builds a nest and when she has piglets, she prefers to be on her own.

Therefore, there is a solid wall separating the sow and her neighbours in the area where she and her piglets spend their time. However, in the dunging area there are bars instead of a solid wall, so that she can see her neighbours. That is usually enough to put her off hanging around in that area for more time than required to do her business.

The new pen prototype is more expensive overall because fewer pens can fit into the same number of square metres in the farrowing house and because of the cost of heating the whole pen floor. However, the individual pen is cheaper to build because there are not as many fittings in it. It is also easier to clean.

The project, which has run for five years, is co-financed by the Innovation Law and the participating partners.

Facts about farrowing pens:

Farrowing pen* Creep area
Recommendations from Danish Pig Production 4.9 m2
Pens common in Danish pig houses 4.1 m2 0.3-0.6 m2
Prototype 6.5-7.2 m2 1.3 m2
*In order to have enough room for all pigs in a litter to lie beside each other and suckle simultaneously (which is what they normally do) and all sizes of sows, then the requirement is 5.3 m2.

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