New Research Looks at Farrowing Crate Alternatives

UK - The practical stage of a major new research project looking at welfare-friendly alternatives to the farrowing crate has just got under way with the building and evaluation of prototype designs.
calendar icon 10 July 2009
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Dr Emma Baxter, research scientist in a PigSAFE (Piglet and Sow Alternative Farrowing Environment) pen on the SAC's pig unit at Penicuik, near Edinburgh. The pen is designed to optimise animal welfare and economics. While allowing the sow freedom to perform natural behaviour, it incorporates piglet protection (sloped walls, heated creep) pen hygiene (separate slatted dunging area) as well as features for farmer safety (lock-in feeder).

Funded by Defra, and costing a total of £690,000 over three years, it will be carried out by staff at Newcastle University and SAC Edinburgh under the guidance of Professors Sandra Edwards and Alistair Lawrence, respectively.

The study will involve one basic prototype layout with four different combinations of design and management and will entail 200 farrowings in the first development phase. A further 300 farrowings will be monitored in the second phase, when the prototype will be compared with standard crate systems on both research farms.

Suffolk equipment manufacturer G E Baker Ltd (Quality Equipment) gave advice on the practicalities of construction and materials and built the prototypes.

The basic design involves a free access ‘nest’ area, a dunging area and a lockable feeding stall (as pictured). The nest incorporates particular features such as sloping walls, to help control sow lying behaviour, and a heated creep area, and has been built new at SAC Edinburgh, but as a conversion of an existing crate room at Newcastle.

"Confinement of the sow is of continuing welfare concern to the general public. While the farrowing crate offers many benefits in management and welfare to the newborn piglet, it does cause welfare problems for the sow around the time of farrowing," commented Professor Sandra Edwards. "It is increasingly apparent that consumers want a less restrictive alternative and some major retailers are already specifying this in purchasing contracts."

She points out that the EU has discussed future legislation on this issue. Such laws have already been passed in Switzerland and some Scandinavian countries.

"Our aim is to provide a commercially-viable alternative for indoor producers which will be acceptable in terms of piglet survival, capital cost and ease of management. If we can achieve this ‘cost-neutral’ option producers could then meet market demand without incurring production penalties."

It is planned to scale-up the best system and test this on commercial farms against conventional farrowing crates.

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