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The housing of pigs, particularly sows (mother pigs), has been a controversial topic. The Australian pork industry has taken a world-leading position by voluntarily committing to phasing out sow stalls, meaning that sows will not be confined in stalls from five days after they are last mated until one week before farrowing, when they are moved into farrowing accommodation. Read on to learn more about this initiative and the different terms used in the pork industry to describe the different types of housing.
A sow stall (also known as a gestation stall) is a highly confining type of housing that pregnant pigs on some farms are kept in. A sow stall is roughly the length and width of a fully grown sow (a female breeding pig), and does not allow the sow to turn around or leave. The sow is traditionally housed in a stall for some or all of her pregnancy, which lasts for approximately 115 days.
Why were sow stalls used in the first place?
Up until recently, sow stalls were in wide use in the Australian pork industry, and had been for many years. During pregnancy (especially the earlier part of pregnancy), sows can be highly aggressive to each other. Sow stalls were used to protect individual pregnant sows from fighting, which can cause both injuries and abortions. They also allow sows to be protected while they are individually fed, so they will not be pushed away from their feed by a “bully” sow.
What is the Australian pork industry doing about this?
The Australian pork industry has committed to voluntarily phasing out sow stalls by 2017. This came after many years of research into alternative housing methods. Specifically, the industry is aiming to ensure that sows are kept in loose housing from five days after mating, until one week before they are ready to give birth. This period would typically take around 105 days.
What is “loose housing”?
Loose housing is a broad term which encompasses a range of alternatives to sow stalls. Critically, any loose housing must provide a sow with freedom of movement – she must be able to turn around and extend her limbs. Most loose housing systems involve keeping the sows in groups, although individual pens are permitted, as long as they allow freedom of movement.
In committing to phasing out sow stalls, Australian pig farmers are moving to house their sows in loose housing for that period where they would otherwise be housed in sow stalls.
When farmers house their sows in groups, they must manage aggression. Millions of dollars have been invested in technologies, systems and strategies which reduce aggression and improve sow welfare and productivity in group environments. Critical success factors include:
- Employing early mixing strategies so that group members are familiar with one another
- Pen design which allows escape areas, and places to hide
- Providing material such as straw to permit rooting and foraging behaviour
- Managing aggression at feeding by using modern feeding systems and/or high satiety diets
- Isolating aggressive sows.
A farrowing crate is an enclosure in which a sow “farrows” (gives birth) and then remains with her litter, typically for around four weeks. A farrowing crate is designed to protect piglets from being crushed by their mother, which can, unfortunately, be a common occurrence in all types of pig farming. Farrowing crates are routinely used in the Australian pork industry (and internationally) to prevent piglet deaths, and farms which are “sow stall free” may use farrowing crates to protect piglets.
While the industry has invested a significant amount of money in research looking at alternatives to the farrowing crate over many years, this research has not revealed anything that maintains comparable piglet survival (by protecting piglets from death by being crushed by their mother) as the farrowing crate.
What is a “mating stall”?
A mating stall is an enclosure in which a sow is kept for the purposes of mating. After weaning, sows will typically come back onto heat within a few days. A sow which is “on heat” can be successfully mated.
A mating stall differs from a sow stall in several ways. Firstly, mating stalls are located in a different part of the farm, near to a Detection Mating Area, or DMA. A DMA is where stock people can determine if a sow is ready to be mated, and, if necessary, perform artificial insemination. Also, mating stalls often allow boar access, so that sows are able to see and smell the boar.
It is important that sows are able to be kept in the mating stall for up to five days after they are mated for two very good reasons. Firstly, keeping the sow isolated (and therefore safe from other sows) protects her during the early stages of fertilisation and embryo development, greatly increasing the chances of a successful pregnancy. Secondly, it allows the sows to be mixed back into their groups all at the same time, when the entire cohort (group) has come off heat. This “early mixing” strategy is a key success factor for group housing. Using mating stalls ensures that sows are protected from other sows on heat during this early critical period. Therefore, Australian farms which have stopped using sow stalls for the bulk of gestation may use mating stalls for a short period of time in order to ensure pregnancy is established.
Does imported pork come from farms that use sow stalls?
The short answer is that we can’t be sure. Moves to phase out sow stalls have commenced in various parts of the world, but these moves appear to be weaker than the Australian industry’s commitment. For instance, the EU has regulated a partial ban, but still permits sow stall use for up to four weeks at the start of pregnancy.
A number of US companies have signalled their intention to only buy “gestation stall free” pork at some point in the next 5 to 10 years, but in most cases it is unclear exactly what this means. Sow stalls have been banned altogether in some US states, but we estimate that pork production in these states is very low.
How can I help?
The Australian PorkMark Program helps you more clearly identify home-grown, fresh Australian pork. By looking for the distinctive pink Australian PorkMark on Aussie fresh and processed products, you can be sure that the product is Australian grown.
In buying Australian pork you can help communicate the importance of this initiative, and support local producers who have already, or are soon to phase out the use of sow stalls.
To learn more about the PorkMark Program, visit www.pork.com.au