On Friday I attended the annual Ontario Pork Policy Day conference in Guelph. This conference brings together pig farmers from across the province to share ideas and discuss pertinent industry topics. In the afternoon I attended a breakout session that focused on sow housing. One of the most contentious issues facing pig farmers today is animal welfare, and sow housing, most notably gestation stalls are at the centre of the debate. For my non-farm readers, let me give you a little background. A gestation sow is a female pig that is pregnant and a gestation stall is one form of housing for these sows until they are ready to move into the barn where they will give birth to their piglets.
To the untrained eye, gestation stalls don’t seem like the best way to keep sows. Sows are housed individually, making it hard for the sow to interact socially (pigs are very social animals) and their living space is constricted to ensure that their feeding/watering area stays clean and their manure ends up in the manure pit. That being said there are very good reasons for keeping sows in stalls. They allow the farmer to closely monitor each sow individually to make sure that she is receiving the proper amount of feed and water and they protect sows that would fall on the lower rungs of the social order, (dominant sows can be very mean to ‘weaker’ sows).
On our farm we keep our sows in stalls for approximately 4 weeks following breeding. When we have confirmed that the sow is pregnant we move groups of 25 sows into large group housing pens for the balance of the gestation period, (fun piece of trivia for you; the gestation period is 3 months, 3 weeks, 3 days). We keep them in stalls at the beginning for the exact reasons I listed above. Before we allow the sows to exist in large groups we need to ensure that they are in peak physical condition so that they can handle the stresses of group housing and stalls allow us to individually manage the sows.
Recently there has been some very interesting research done on sow behaviour at the Prairie Swine Centre, a leading research facility in Canada. The study allowed for sows to have free access to both stalls and a group pen and the results were very interesting. At any given point throughout the study, it was found that only 20% of the sows were in the loose area. In fact 40% of sows spent more then 98% of their time in a stall. Conversely, some sows spent over 90% of their time in the loose housing area.
There is no easy answer to the gestation stall debate and I think that the research done at the Prairie Swine Centre proves that this is indeed a very cloudy picture. I will always contend that farmers are the greatest champions of animal welfare and each individual farmer will have their own thoughts on how to provide the best level of care for their animals.