Vegetarians International Voice for Animals

The Farrowing Crate

The farrowing crate is a small metal cage in which pregnant sows are imprisoned for weeks on end, usually from a week before giving birth until their piglets are weaned three to four weeks later. The metal frame of the crate is just centimetres bigger than the sow’s body and severely restricts her movements. She is completely unable to turn around, can scarcely take a step forward or backward and frequently rubs against the bars when standing up and lying down. Beside her cage is a “creep” area - usually around 50-100cm x 2m in size – for her piglets. The flooring is hard concrete and some form of heating, either mats or more commonly heatlamps, is used as a substitute for the warmth of their mother’s body. The piglets are free to reach the sow’s teats to suckle but she is prevented from moving close to them and cleaning them by the bars of the cage.

When not in the crate, sows used for breeding are kept separate from those used for meat, most commonly in concrete pens. Sows have a pregnancy lasting around four months and are usually reimpregnated within a week of their piglets being weaned, approximately a month after they were born. This means they are forced into the farrowing crate for 28-35 days every five months until, usually at around five years old, they are no longer commercially productive and are sent for slaughter. The crate is used for around 80% of the 512,000 breeding sows in Britain (DEFRA, 2004a).

UNNATURAL BEHAVIOUR

The constraint of the farrowing crate prevents the sow from fulfilling any of her natural maternal instincts. Studies of wild or semi-wild pigs show that sows actually become more active before giving birth, often walking many kilometres to find a suitable nest site (Cronin et al, 1995; Biensen et al, 1996). They would naturally seek out a site in a covered area which is isolated from the rest of the herd (Jarvis et al,1997). They then prepare a nest of twigs or leaves before giving birth. The standard practice of confining sows in the farrowing crate a week before they give birth not only restrains them at a time of increased restlessness but also denies them the privacy they desire by forcing them into close proximity with other sows. Building a nest has been described as “the single, strongest instinct for a sow” (Per Jensen, quoted on Bowman website) and research indicates a very strong desire for sows to obtain nesting materials (Arey, 1992). Even when they have nothing but a hard floor, sows still attempt to build a nest, pawing at the floor, nuzzling the bars and attempting to turn around. Although new legislation will compel farmers to provide some straw for sows in the crate, for a confined sow in a metal cage on hard flooring inside a building, the nesting instinct will still be completely frustrated.

While confined in the crate, the sow is unable to move toward her piglets when she wants to but is also prevented from moving away from them when she wants to. This can lead to aggression towards piglets, with 1 in 8 piglets fatally mauled by their mothers (New Scientist, 2000). This is a very rare event in the wild.

The farrowing crate itself can cause the sow painful sores and also pain and fatigue due to immobility. Studies of hormone levels indicate raised levels of stress in confined sows (Cronin, 1996; Jarvis et al, 1997; Lawrence et al, 1994; Lynch et al, website). Confined sows are also more aggressive than sows who have not been confined when returned to pens with other pigs (DEFRA, 2002).

CRUSHING MYTHS

The crate is supposedly used to prevent sows from accidentally crushing their piglets. In fact, the danger of crushing is a direct consequence of factory farming techniques. In the wild, nests protect piglets from crushing because they are pliable, providing some cushioning for piglets if lain on; because piglets may simply fall through or out of nests; and because the sow roots around before lying down giving the piglets warning that she is about to do so. The crate offers none of these forms of protection. Factory farming also depends on minimising staff costs and that means that most births are unsupervised. Brazil had half the pre-weaning mortality of the USA in the early 1990s because of higher staff ratios (Holyoake et al, 1995) and other South American countries have achieved mortality rates as low as 3% (Guise & Mayland, 1998).

Alternative farrowing systems - such as Solari, Volkenroder and Werribbee pens - have achieved broadly comparable weaning rates to conventional crates in experimental conditions (ibid; Arnott, 2001; Cronin et al, 1999; Far Eastern Agriculture) while outdoor herds have lower mortality rates than indoor, according to MLC research (Far Eastern Agriculture, 1996). Selection of sows – both by breed and as individuals – for “good” mothering is also effective in reducing piglet mortality from crushing and other causes in organic and conventional farming (Brown, personal communication; DEFRA, 2004b).

Piglet mortality increases with larger litter sizes (Jarvis, 2002) and pigs today have been bred to produce litters of up to fifteen piglets, where naturally around 8 would be normal. Large litter sizes increase competition and lead to malnourishment for weaker piglets. Weaker piglets are at greater risk of being crushed (Arey et al, 1992). Recent evidence suggests that dietary changes alone may have a significant impact on crushing death rates for piglets (Allison, 2003). Farmers are also likely to blame crushing for deaths which are actually caused by malnourishment (Vallaincourt, quoted in Holyoake et al, 1995). In fact, piglets in farrowing crates appear more likely to die as a result of savaging by the sow, starvation/chilling and splay leg (Cronin et al, 1996).

The crate also confines piglets. In the wild, three week-old piglets would usually be found 20-30m from the sow (Pasille & Robert, 1989). In the crate they are also unable to mix with other litters and this makes them more prone to fighting when they are weaned (DEFRA 2002). Piglets reared in open systems demonstrate improved weight-gain after weaning and exhibit fewer skin lesions, another sign of fighting (Malkin et al, website; DEFRA, 2002) .

WEANING

Natural weaning age for pigs is between 12 and 15 weeks and the process occurs gradually over the weeks before final weaning. Abrupt weaning, whether at 21 or 28 days, is more than piglets’ immature digestive systems can cope with (Van Heugten, website), often leading to scours - diarrhoea - and failure to thrive. As a result, piglets require medication and, in intensive conditions, end up on a daily regime of drugs. Weaning in this abrupt manner is also, clearly, a psychological trauma to both mother and piglets.

The problem the farrowing crate is designed to address - piglet crushing - is a direct result of factory farming techniques. While pigs are reared intensively that problem will persist. Even the introduction of non-crate systems in indoor farming is resisted for commercial reasons. In the words of one expert on pig welfare:

“. . . Producers are wary of change because of the costs involved in providing efficient and humane farrowing accommodation” (IJ Lean, in Ewbank et al, Management and Welfare of Farm Animals, 4th Ed, 1999)

The farrowing crate is designed to increase productivity of piglets. It is not used to preserve their welfare but to preserve the meat they will produce. Farmers - and the Government - accept its severe adverse consequencesfor both sow and piglet welfare because it is, at present, the most cost-effective system overall. From a welfare point of view, it is indefensible.

REFERENCES

Abbott TA, Hunter EJ, Guise HJ, Penny RHC (1996) Survey of farrowing management of outdoor pig production systems Proceedings of the 14th Congress, Bologna

Allison, Richard (2003) Fish oil improves piglets born alive Farmers Weekly 17/1/03 p44

Arey DS (1991) Tail biting in pigs Farm Building Progress 105 20-23

Arey DS (1992) Straw and food as reinforcers in prepartal sows Applied Animal Behaviour Science 33 217-226

Arey DS, Petchey AM, Fowler VR (1992) Farrowing accommodation and piglet mortality Farm Building Progress 107 5-7

Arnott E (2001) The effect of housing on sow and piglet welfare www.library.usyd.edu.au/VEIN/links/Essays

Biensen NJ, von Borrell EH, Ford SP (1996) Effects of space allocation and temperature on preparturient maternal behaviours, steroid concentrations and piglet growth rates Journal of Animal Science 74 2641-2648

Blackshaw JK, Blackshaw AW, Thomas FJ Newman FW (1994) Comparison of behaviour patterns of sows and litters in a farrowing crate and a farrowing pen Applied Animal Behaviour Science 39 281-295

Bowman G Fitting the farm to the hog www.awionline.org/farm/bowman

Brown, Helen (organic pig farmer), personal communication with Viva!

Cole JA, Wiseman J, Varley MA (ed) (1994) Principles of pig science Nottingham University Press, Nottingham

Cronin GM & Smith JA (1992) Suckling behaviour of sows in farrowing crates and straw-bedded pens Applied Animal Behaviour Science 33 175-89

Cronin GM, Lefebure B, McClintock S (1999) An on-farm comparison of the Werribee farrowing pen and conventional farrowing crates Manipulating pig production 7

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [DEFRA] (2004a) Agriculture in the United Kingdom 2004.

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [DEFRA] (2004b) News release Defra and SEERAD announce £550k collaborative research project with industry on genetics of pre-weaning piglet mortality 190/04

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(Uncredited) (1996) The future of the farrowing crate Far Eastern Agriculture Nov/Dec 44-45

Guise J & Mayland A (1998) Freedom in the farrowing house: is there a viable substitute to crates? Pig farming Sep 28-29

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Jarvis S (2002), quoted in Farmers Weekly 19/4/2 p51

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Lawrence AB, Petherick JC, McLean KA, Deans LA, Chirnside J, Vaughn A, Clutton E, Terlouw EMC (1994) The effects of environment on behaviour, plasma cortisol and prolactin in parturient sows Applied Animal Behaviour Science 39 313-30

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Masson J (2002) The secret life of the pig: the emotional world of farm animals, Random House

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Van Heughten E Feeding the early weaned pig, N Carolina Healthy Hogs Seminar, www.asci.ncsu