The swine industry has been under attack by animal activist groups, particularly in regard to forcing a change in sow housing from gestation stalls to pens. This isn’t a new agenda: sow gestation housing in stalls has been a target for years. The strategy has been to misinform and pressure the restaurant industry, which in turn pressures the meat processors and then the producers. The unfortunate part is that science has shown that no housing system yet developed can meet all the sow’s needs without compromise. Producers are being forced to invest in a type of sow housing that does not improve welfare beyond the current standard, and thus the requirement to invest capital to make the changes processors request has been met with resistance, creating a deep resentment in many pork producers and veterinarians.
The research and practices surrounding sow housing have been reviewed by scientists and veterinarians in the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and a policy regarding sow housing was adopted in 2011.1 The policy lists six key things that a housing system should provide and makes the point that “Gestation stall systems may minimize aggression and injury, reduce competition, and allow individual feeding and nutritional management, assisting in control of body condition. Stall systems restrict normal behavioral expression. Group housing systems are less restrictive but allow aggressive and competitive behaviors that could be detrimental to individual sows.”1
Design and research on alternative housing systems have been a focus for the industry. Pork producers have invested in finding new ways to improve sow housing, and several farms have already implemented changes in gestation housing. Along with others in the industry, my experience has been that we have not yet found a solution. The most challenging issue with pen housing continues to be the aggressive behavior of some sows, resulting in injury of others. Genetics, nutrition, and facility design are facets currently being explored to pave the way for understanding and implementing new sow-housing systems. Until this is accomplished, forced change before we are able to improve the current housing methods is moving in the wrong direction for sow welfare – and that is a tough situation for producers and veterinarians.
Selecting a feeding system is one of the biggest decisions as you move away from individual stalls where sows are protected from others. The risk of injury is greatest when feed is delivered to the sows. Several types of feeding systems have already been implemented, each with its own advantages and disadvantages.
Recently, a really good conversation regarding feeding strategy in gestation took place on the AASV-L e-mail list. An astute student asked the swine veterinary community about a feeding system that involved a group gestation-housing system that fed sows on a schedule of ad libitum feeding for one day out of every three. The responses were anywhere from “do not do this; this is a welfare concern” to “we did this long ago and it worked pretty good back then.” The comments came from at least five different countries, with many other details provided. I found it fascinating and yet frustrating that we are on the road to going back 30 years in history without clear solutions to a “timeless problem.”
Our industry is in crisis, and in a crisis we need a plan. Our primary plan must involve continuing to do research that will convince processors, industry stakeholders, legislators, and consumers that the decision being made to adopt group housing is not one that improves sow welfare. Until we understand how to manage sows in pens, improve the longevity of the sow genetically, and minimize aggression through facility design, nutrition, and enrichment tools, we will experience a loss of production and higher injury and death rates in our herds. Swine veterinarians need to be involved, and, as always, science must help us understand how to approach this issue. We need our industry welfare experts to continue to work with us as a team and devise a solution that results in better welfare for the sow.
1. AVMA Issues. AVMA policy. Pregnant sow housing. Available at:. http://www.avma.org/issues/policy/animal_welfare/pregnant_sow_housing.asp. Accessed 22 May 2012.
--Tara Donovan, DVM