In Australia and around the world, the housing of pigs, particularly sows (mother pigs), can be controversial.
The Australian pork industry has taken a world-leading position by voluntarily committing to phasing out sow stalls. This means sows will not be confined in stalls from five days after they are last mated until one week before farrowing when they are then moved into farrowing accommodation.
Here you can learn more about this initiative and the different terms used in the pork industry to describe the different types of housing.
A sow stall is also known as a gestation stall. Sow stalls:
- Are a highly confining type of housing that pregnant pigs on some farms are kept in
- Are about the length and width of a fully grown sow (a female breeding pig)
- Do not allow the sow to turn around or leave
- Traditionally house a sow 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 widely used in the Australian pork industry, and had been for many years. During pregnancy (especially the earlier part of pregnancy), sows can be highly aggressive towards each other.
Sow stalls were used to protect individual pregnant sows from fighting, which can cause both injuries and abortions. Sow stalls 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?
The Australian pork industry committed to voluntarily phasing out sow stalls by 2017. This came after many years of research into alternative housing methods.
Today, we aim to ensure sows are kept in loose housing from five days after mating, until one week before they are ready to give birth. This period is about 105 days.
Loose housing encompasses a range of alternatives to sow stalls. In general:
- 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
- Individual pens are permitted if they allow freedom of movement.
As an industry committed to phasing out sow stalls, Australian pig farmers are moving to house their sows in loose housing for the appropriate period.
Reducing aggression among sows
When farmers house their sows in groups, they must manage aggression.
We’ve invested in technologies, systems and strategies to reduce aggression and improve sow welfare and productivity in group environments.
Critical success factors in reducing aggression 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
A farrowing crate is:
- An enclosure in which a sow farrows (gives birth) and then remains with her litter, typically for around 4 weeks
- Routinely used in the Australian pork industry (and internationally)
- The crate protects piglets from being crushed to death during the piglets' most vulnerable period
- Allows a sow to stand up, lie down, and stretch out, while keeping her piglets safe in a separate section
- The crate still allows the sow to nurse her piglets
- Farrowing crates also help protect any stockperson caring for the sow and piglets
Over many years, we’ve invested in research looking at alternatives to the farrowing crate. However, 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.
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.
Using mating stalls ensures that sows are protected from other sows on heat during this early critical period.
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.
A mating stall differs from a sow stall in several ways:
- 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
- Mating stalls often allow boar access, so that sows are able to see and smell the boar
It is important that sows can be kept in the mating stall for up to five days after they are mated for two reasons:
- 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
- It lets 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.
Does imported pork come from farms that use sow stalls?
The short answer is, we can’t be sure. Phasing out sow stalls has commenced in various parts of the world. However, progress appears to be slower than the Australian industry’s commitment. For example, the EU has regulated a partial ban, but still permits sow stall use for up to four weeks at the start of pregnancy.
Some US companies have signalled their intention to only buy “gestation stall free” pork at some point in the next five to ten years. In most cases, it is unclear exactly what this means.
Sow stalls have been banned altogether in some US states. However, we estimate that pork production in these states is very low.
What can I do?
While all the fresh pork you buy (roasts, chops, steaks, fillets etc) is Australian grown, the majority of ham and bacon in the supermarkets is made using imported pork.
It’s important when choosing your ham, bacon, smallgoods or even some ‘ready meals’ to check the label to make sure the pork is Australian.
By choosing ham and bacon made using Australian pork, you’re supporting our farmers. You’re also buying products made from pork raised under some of the highest welfare, safety and environmental standards in the world.
Australia’s labelling laws have changed to make it easier to identify if food is imported. This is called country of origin labelling and is overseen by our government. You can learn more about how to choose Australian pork products here.