Can We Manage Pigs Without Tail Docking?

GLOBAL - Good animal welfare means that pigs should not experience pain however there are procedures that are done with pigs’ overall welfare in mind but that do cause pain.
calendar icon 3 November 2016
clock icon 4 minute read

Tail biting is a problem for both the farmer and the pig. Tails are docked to prevent biting from occurring and therefore prevent pain and infection for the pig. For the farmer, a tail biting outbreak would reduce in economic losses. However, behavioural studies have shown that docking does cause pain. So does the benefit of doing it justify the pain?

According to Professor Sandra Edwards, University of Newcastle, speaking at the Herning Congress in Denmark, last week, routine tail docking should not be carried out until other mitigation measures have been explored first.

Many farms are also successfully operating with undocked pigs - so how are they doing it?

Firstly, we need to understand that there are 100’s of possible things that cause tail biting, said Professor Edwards. This includes genetics, nutrition, climate, health, social competition and lack of enrichment. Too reduce the risk factors, an individual farm approach is needed.

Each farm will need to make a checklist of their risk factors, highlight the most likely factors on that farm to cause biting and then deliver farm specific advice.

Not all tail biting is the same or follows the same pattern which also makes it hard to deal with, continued Professor Edwards.

Some tail biting builds up gradually through pigs exploring before the outbreak occurs.

This two stage biting is thought to be due to a lack of enrichment - adding straw has been seen to prevent the problem. Similarly, three times more tail biting has been seen in slatted floor pens in comparison to solid floors with straw.

Nutrition is also thought to be a factor meaning that pigs that are lacking something in their diet often want to explore more.

Another form of tail biting outbreaks are those which come out of the blue and one day there is suddenly lots of damage. This sudden forceful biting is linked to overcrowding or no comfortable place to lie.

The third sort of outbreak can be down to the actions of an individual pig which displays frantic and obsessive biting. These rogue individuals can do lots of damage, explained Professor Edwards.

Health or metabolic problems could be the cause here. A study showed that these pigs often have a growth check before or after weaning even though birth weights were originally the same.

Is it that these pigs become frustrated as the are smaller and therefore struggle for access to feed? Or is it that they do not want to eat or are unable to utilise food properly due to an underlying health issue.

Managing Un-Docked Pigs

There are some countries, such as Finland, where farmers are successfully managing their herds without tail docking.

Genetics - selecting for reduced biting - has been tried as one measure, however this has shown unfavourable correlation with lean tissue growth rate.

Developing an early warning system has proved to be an effective method. This system would alert farmers to early signs of biting such as tail posture – tucked between legs, restlessness and increased tail manipulation.

Video recording pens is also helpful as farmers can watch via their mobile.

If tail biting does occur, firstly farmers should take out the biters and the injured pigs from the pen, said Professor Edwards.

If biting has not yet occurred but the signs are there then provide enrichment.

Change may be hard but after a few batches improvement is seen.

Finland can be used as a successful model for managing un-docked pigs. Finnish farmers have found that providing lots of space, solid flooring with a portion slatted and providing enough space for pigs to feed in their own time has helped. Around 30cm of space is needed for each pig to be able to feed, said a member of the Finnish farmers union.

Overall, not docking pigs would also have wider health and welfare benefits as its reduces the need for antibiotic use.

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