Piglets are weaned at an unnaturally early age (usually three to four weeks in the UK but sometimes even earlier), at a time when they would normally nurse frequently and depend on the mother sow for protection. Lack of outlets for normal exploratory nibbling, chewing and foraging behaviour, combined with early weaning practices, leads to the development of abnormal oral behaviour, such as tail biting and belly nosing.
The most critical time in a pig’s life is from birth to weaning. At the young age that piglets are routinely weaned, they have still a strong need to suckle and are deprived of their mother. They nibble the ears and tails of their pen mates. It is accepted that these behaviours are abnormal and reflect poor welfare conditions (55). McKinnon et al. state:
“The greatly increased incidence of chewing and nuzzling appear to be mainly a result of weaning age but they are also affected by the subsequent environment, being more frequent in flat decks than in straw-based housing systems” (56).
In factory farms, piglets are removed from their mothers early so that the sow can be impregnated as soon as possible. This enables farmers to raise more than two litters per sow, per year. The ‘breeding ‘stock’ are treated as machines, with little consideration for the well-being of sows or piglets.
Piglets taken from their mothers at two to four weeks of age, are mixed with other (unfamiliar) piglets and given antibiotic-laced feed. They are then incarcerated in large concrete or slatted pens (or cages, as exposed by Viva! in 2015 on a Red Tractor approved farm that supplied Morrisons (25) which contain nothing to engage the lively, inquisitive minds of the young piglets).
Weaning would naturally occur at between 12 and 15 weeks. However, such a lengthy lactation is undesirable to farmers as the lactating sows seldom come on heat (45). Intensive production means sows must be made pregnant again as soon as possible. By taking her piglets away, a sow comes on heat and can be made pregnant again.
Piglets can be weaned at one day, and this has been practiced, but such animals need clean, warm surroundings and a feed similar to sow’s milk. The costs incurred have deterred producers from taking piglets this young from their mothers, rather than the welfare implications.