Sow housing: Where do we stand?

Posted on April 27, 2012 in Swine Performance
By Jessica Boehm and Dr. Dean Koehler

A few weeks ago at our Swine Summit, we focused some time on the controversial topic of sow housing and sow welfare, especially in regard to the use of gestation crates. The majority of producers who attended the sow breakout session at the event said they currently house sows in stalls for the duration of the gestation period.  However, a few producers in attendance use pen gestation methods with success.

The biggest concerns for most producers using only crates centered on the potential costs of facility changes if they’re forced to use crates less, the potential loss of the ability to individually feed sows, and the fears of reduced welfare of group-housed sows due to fighting.

The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) supports the position of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) on sow housing. The AVMA supports the use of sow housing that “minimizes aggression and competition between sows; protects sows from detrimental effects associated with environmental extremes, particularly temperature extremes; reduces exposure to hazards that result in injuries; provides every animal with daily access to appropriate food and water; and facilitates observation by caretakers of individual sow appetites, respiratory rates, urination and defecation and reproductive status.”

The AVMA further notes that “current scientific literature indicates that gestation stalls meet each of the aforementioned criteria, provided the appropriate level of stockmanship is administered.”

However, regardless of what the scientific literature says, societal pressures to reduce the use of gestation crates continue to mount in the form of legislation and by dictates from corporations on the marketing side of the pork industry.  Thus far, legislation in eight different states has set timelines for decreasing or eliminating the use of gestation crates.  Additionally, a number of prominent pork retailers have made statements indicating a desire to discourage the use of gestation crates in the production of the pork they sell.

The continuing pressure on the use of gestation crates has spurred new research into alternative sow housing systems that use group sow housing.

One such study, recently presented at Midwest Animal Science meetings, evaluated how parity one (P1) sows fared when group-housed with mature sows or with gilts (Li et al, JAS 90(Suppl 2):19 (Abstract 48)).  Treatments consisted of pens in which four P1s were mixed with 11 mature (P2+) sows, or pens in which four P1s were mixed with 11 gilts.  The study concluded that P1s penned with gilts fought more often and for longer periods of time, but they also won more fights, had lower injury scores, gained more weight during gestation, and had significantly higher farrowing rates (94 percent versus 67 percent) when compared to the P1s penned with mature sows.

This is a topic we’ll continue to look at as more research emerges.  We know it’s your top priority to provide the ideal environment for your animals so they, in turn, can perform to their maximum potential.  Talk to your Vita Plus consultants to find out what they’re learning at industry meetings and if new research is available.

About the authors:  Jessica Boehm previously worked as the Vita Plus swine technical information specialist.  She attended the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and earned a bachelor’s degree with a major in biology and minor in chemistry and psychology in 2006.  She earned her master’s degree in swine nutrition at UW-Madison in 2009.  She was raised in southern Wisconsin and spent her time on the family farm, raising veal, sheep, steers, pigs and tobacco.  Boehm is active in her community and on the family farm, and enjoys outdoor activities and spending time with her husband, Justin. Dr. Dean Koehler has served as swine technical services manager since joining Vita Plus in 2001.  He was raised in southwest Minnesota and was active in 4-H and FFA.  His youth livestock projects included raising and showing swine and sheep.  Koehler earned his bachelor’s degree in animal science and his master’s degree and Ph.D. in swine nutrition from the University of Minnesota.  His master’s research investigated the digestibility of raw soybean varieties naturally low in anti-nutritional factors when fed to growing pigs.  His doctorate research utilized a stable isotope of the amino acid lysine to measure how efficiently sows transfer dietary lysine into their milk.  Koehler is interested in all facets of swine nutrition.  His role at Vita Plus is to provide technical service to the field and supervise the development of support tools, such as technical bulletins and spreadsheets.  Additionally, he is the author the Vita Plus online grow-finish feed budgeting software, mentor.

Category: Facility design
Swine Performance