Today’s installment is going to take place in the Farrowing barn, I am going to discuss the farrowing crate and then talk about a few other systems that are coming into use to meet demands for enhanced welfare production systems.
So let’s get started by talking about why we use farrowing crates. The farrowing crate was introduced around the same time as the gestation crate and for pig farmers it was a real game changer. Until the introduction of specialized farrowing crates, pigs farrowed (gave birth) in loose pens bedded with straw. These farrowing pens had some serious deficiencies:
- While it happens rarely and generally only with gilts (a female that has never birthed before) there can be instances of savaging where the sow attacks her own piglets. When a 600lbs sow decides she is angry at her 3lbs piglet the results can be horrific.
- The sow, like most mothers, does not always take kindly to strangers handling their offspring. Pens can make it difficult for the farmer to care for the piglet if the sow gets overly aggressive and at times can be downright dangerous.
- Anyone that has ever watched a sow lie down knows that it is not the most graceful process and often ends by flopping to one side. It all happens quickly and piglets can’t always get out of the way in time. The end result is that more piglets die as a result of crushing in a farrowing pen versus a farrowing crate.
Above are 2 pictures I have taken in my travels of pig farms around the world. The crate system picture is from Harper Adams University in England. As the sow lies down she uses the bars to slow down the process, allowing piglets to get out from under her while the area where the piglets are lying (called a creep area) uses a heat lamp and heated pad to provide supplementary heat so that the piglets don’t need to cluster underneath the sow to keep warm. The 2nd picture comes from an outdoor sow farm in Spain; while there are still crush bars present it doesn’t give the same level of protection for piglet because the sow still has to lie down without the assistance of the horizontal bars in the crate system. Furthermore, outdoor systems like this one cannot provide a specialized creep area for piglets as it requires electricity to run the heat lamp and heat mat.
There are certain producers involved in niche programs here in Ontario that use farrowing pens to meet the enhanced welfare requirements of their end customer. I know a few of these farmers and they tell me that you can expect an aditional 1-2 pigs per litter increase in crushing losses when you take away the farrowing crate. Our farm acutally has a pen that can house upto 4 sows in the event that all of our crates are full and we have found that it is incredibly challenging to get piglets through the first 48 hours alive when we don’t have the use of a farrowing crate, especially in the winter months. (Our pen is in the 2nd floor of our bank barn). Without the aformentioned creep area, the sow is the primary source of heat for the piglets and crushing losses can be terrible as the piglets will huddle under the sow to keep warm and then are not quick enough to get out from under her when she lies down to nurse.
That being said, because the demand for enhanced animal welfare is increasing. Globally, producers and industry partners are investing in research of new farrowing systems that increase the mobility of the sow while attempting to lower the amount of piglets lost to crushing. To close I wanted to show a few pictures of new systems that have been developed.
The image on top is of a 360 Freedom Farrower developed by Midland Pig Producers in the UK. This crate takes a similar amount of space as a conventional farrowing crate while still having specialised creep areas to reduce crushing. The 2nd image is of a Sowjoy Freestall Pen developed by Den Hartog Industries in Iowa, USA. Again, it provides a creep area for the piglets while giving the sow room to turn around and move.
Last but not least I wanted to show a video my sister filmed a little while ago of piglets being born, it shows the farrowing crate system at our farm while letting you see things being born which still fascinates me every time I’m lucky enough to see it