The main role of the breeding sow is to produce piglets. In the wild, sows build nests from twigs and leaves and can walk many kilometres to find a suitable site. Yet these nesting and rooting instincts are denied on factory farms. Every aspect of a sow’s life is managed.
Breeding sows are usually housed in small, barren, concrete pens with no bedding. There is a slatted area for dung to fall through, and what is supposed to be a dry lying area. It usually isn’t dry however, and there is nothing for the sows to lie on but filthy wet concrete. The most common system throughout the world is to house pigs on fully or partly slatted flooring so that the faeces falls through the floor into a collection pit below. There is no escape from this.
The sows remain here, in these pens, until they reach 16 weeks of their pregnancy. Just before their due date the animals are moved to the farrowing shed. The main objective for the farrowing and lactation period is to rear as many piglets as possible, to achieve an adequate weaning weight, and leave the sow in good enough condition to commence the next breeding cycle.
The farrowing crate is used for around 60 per cent of all 350,000 (8) to 400,000 (16) British sows. Rows of metal barred crates incarcerate sows who are barely able to move. The metal frame of the crate is just centimetres larger 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. The sow can remain like this for five weeks, until her piglets are artificially weaned, and will be subjected to this roughly twice a year.
Mother and her piglets incacerated in a UK farrowing crate in 2015
The misery experienced by mother pigs on modern-day farms is almost unimaginable. Research has shown however that the frustrations they feel is great, and this manifests into abnormal and stereotypic behaviours.
The female gives birth to a litter typically between eight and 16 piglets who suckle before being artificially weaned and removed from their mother for growing/finishing. The sow will be ‘served’ within five days of weaning, either via mating with a boar, or through artificial insemination (AI). For this a ‘rape rack’ is often used - a crude restraining device that traps the sow so that she can be forcibly impregnated. She is out of the crate for 16 weeks, and she is then returned to it for the cycle to begin again.
Juliet Gellatley, director of Viva!, investigating a pig farm in Norfolk in 2015. These sows are locked in so-called ‘rape racks’ where they can barely move © Viva!
Female pigs are routinely forced into pregnancy, or ‘served’ as the industry calls it, so the cruel cycle can begin again © Viva!
The farrowing crate is sometimes confused with the sow stall or gestation crate (a similar contraption where a sow is confined during pregnancy). The sow stall has been banned in Britain since 1999, but the farrowing crate is still very much in use. Despite the British pig industry frequently suggesting that British welfare standards are the best in the world, other comparable countries have already banned or limited the use of farrowing crates. According the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC): “Norway, Sweden and Switzerland have banned farrowing crates. Free farrowing systems are also being developed and marketed in other European countries, particularly Denmark and the Netherlands, and there is interest in Australia and discussions on this issue in the USA” (16).
This highly unnatural environment can lead to the sow performing abnormal and stereotypic behaviours such as bar biting, which can indicate prolonged stress, reduced welfare, and even madness.
A breeding sow housed in a farrowing crate – alone and in misery © Viva!
The industry defends the crate by saying that it protects piglets from being crushed (which is a rare occurrence in the wild). However, overall piglet mortality is roughly the same on outdoor units in Britain (23).
A sow’s life will be cut short at a relatively young age, around three to four years old. On average, between 40-50 per cent of sows are replaced each year (28) after producing around six litters. They are sent to the slaughterhouse for low grade meat products. Boars used for breeding are normally killed after three to four years because of their large size and because of the industry’s constant pursuit of ‘genetic improvement’ (48).