SEGES Danish Pig Research Centre
Honorary Associate Professor in Animal Production (Pigs)
University of Copenhagen
Vivi received her M.Sc. in Animal Science from The Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University in Frederiksberg, Denmark, in 1995, and her PhD in Animal Science from the same University in 2002. Vivi has been focusing on research and development of housing of lactating sows at SEGES Danish Pig Research Centre (SEGES PRC) since 2001. From 2002 onwards the emphasis has mainly been on development of systems for loose housed farrowing and lactating sows. The research includes determination of sow and piglets dimensions, space needed for important behaviours and criteria for pen design. The aim of SEGES PRC is to develop, test and recommend the best technologies for production of pigs in Denmark.
Should the sows be outdoors like many are in the UK or indoors like in most other countries with a larger scale pig production? Outdoors looks great at least when the pasture is green, but from a more holistic or system approach, outdoor has challenges or weaknesses for instance when it comes to risk of leaching of nutrients. In indoor production systems, it is possible at the same time to consider climate, environment and welfare – and production economy or PPPP: Pigs (welfare and health), Price (economy), Planet (environment and climate) and People (managers, workplace, attracting skilled caretakers). And an important side effect is that caring for pig health and bio security is easier indoors too.
When working with animals, it is a motivation itself to see the animals thrive. And often the possibility to perform natural behaviour can lead to better welfare for the animals. However, loose housing of lactating sows includes challenges especially when it comes to neonatal piglet survival which limits voluntary implementation of the free farrowing.
Should we continue to use crates and keep the sows confined for the entire time they are in the farrowing unit like many countries do? Or should we ban crates and confinement completely like other countries do? Or can we choose a solution in between? There is no simple answer – or most likely will the answer depends whether we ask the sows, piglets, caretakers, owners, retailers, consumers or citizens – and their answers are likely to be different depending on land of origin.
Status quo is that the only countries where farrowing crates for the entire lactation period are not in use, are countries where they are banned like Sweden, Norway and Switzerland. In other countries, like Australia, some recommend that future efforts focus on improving welfare for sows and piglets when housed in crates instead of moving towards loose housing.
There is no doubt though, that there is an increasing interest and awareness of the possibilities of housing lactating sows loose – and a keen interest across borders to overcome the challenges. In 2008, a limited group of scientists and stakeholders from just a few Northern European countries met and discussed free farrowing. In 2011, the group met again and this time with interest and engagement from more countries. Next meeting was in 2016 – and similar pattern – increasing interest and genuine perception that is the future. In 2018, the group met and this time included stakeholders and scientists from Australia, USA and Canada too. It was no longer a question of ‘if’ but ‘how’, and there was an acceptance that implementation of loose housing will be increased if there a transition period with an option to confine for the critical period (https://www.freefarrowing.org/info/2/research/45/free_farrowing_workshops).
In Austria, it has been decided that by 2033 confinement of lactating sows will only be allowed until the end of the critical phase of life. In Germany, potential legislation of limiting the period lactating sows are confined is being discussed. In Denmark, in the industry have announced that in the future lactating sows should and will be loose housed – but not at the cost of the competitiveness of the industry and the level of piglet survival must be high.
The Danish pig industry set a goal of 10 % of the lactating sows to be loose housed by 2021. For a number of reasons this will not be accomplished. First, the economic situation has led to very few investments in the industry during the last decade. And farmers that have invested have to some extent chosen crates. Why? Because the investment in crates is lower than investment in pens, the productivity in crates is most likely higher and they are unlikely to receive at premium for having loose lactating sows. However, even though there are reasons why not to invest in loose lactating, many have chosen to do so anyway because farmers are also entrepreneurs, they like to develop their enterprise, they like their pigs, they care for their employees and they care about the society’s perception of their business. And successful implementation is likely to be when the implementation is done with an understanding of pigs’ needs and an interest of the pigs.
There are many challenges when it comes to implementation of loose housing of lactating sows but for the pigs, their caretakers and producers, and citizens, we shouldn’t give up just because we’re all challenged. When we collaborate and exchange ideas and thoughts across borders, we develop at a higher pace, all of us and many more pigs benefit.