Investigating the effects of free lactation crates on sow and piglet welfare

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Kinane, Orla
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University College Cork
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Farrowing crates, which are widely used in commercial pig farming, present major animal welfare problems. Sows are severely confined, being only able to stand up and lie down and not turn around for a period of five weeks around farrowing. This study compared the welfare of sows and piglets housed in two types of farrowing accommodation, free lactation pens (Free, n = 22) and conventional farrowing crate pens (Control, n = 24). Free lactation pens allowed for temporary confinement of sows at the most critical period for piglet pre-weaning mortality, from the onset of farrowing until day 4 post-farrowing. For the remainder of the time the sows were in the pens, the crate was opened wide enough for them to turn around. Sows were monitored from entry to the farrowing room (approximately day 108 of gestation) until weaning (approximately day 26 of lactation). The study examined 675 piglets, the offspring of these sows, from birth until slaughter. A range of behaviour and physical health measures were utilised to assess animal welfare and performance. Sows in the Free treatment had greater freedom of movement, as demonstrated by their use of the available space to turn around in the crates while they were open. At weaning, Free sows had significantly lower (better) locomotory scores than those which were housed in Control pens, this may be related to their improved ability to move during the 5-week treatment period. These sows also had significantly lower (better) tear stain scores around their left eyes at weaning, indicating reduced stress. Although Free sows had higher salivary cortisol concentrations overall when compared with Control sows, this is a measure that may reflect increased activity rather than higher levels of stress. Overall, piglets from the Free treatment performed better than those from Control pens; pre-weaning Free piglets had a tendency to be heavier than those from the Control treatment, and this difference became significant post-weaning, leading to Free pigs having a mean finishing weight of 114.73kg, compared to 110.82kg for Control pigs. This increase in weight gain did not affect ADFI (average daily feed intake) and resulted in Free pigs having a significantly better FCE (feed conversion efficiency) in the weaner stage. There was a reduction in days to slaughter with free pigs reaching the 105kg target weigh in 147.56 days compared with 149.23 days for Control pigs. This is a very promising result regarding both productivity and welfare, and could result in increased profitability for producers. Prior to weaning Free piglets tended to perform less damaging behaviour than Control piglets, although this result was not significant. Most importantly, overall mortality was unaffected by treatment with total mortality of 15.95% for Free pigs and 14.42% for Control pigs (P = 0.61). Overall, the results from this study suggest that implementing a management strategy where sows have increased freedom of movement during lactation compared to traditional farrowing crates may help to improve sow and piglet welfare. Further research investigating the best length of time to confine the sow, taking litter size into consideration, would be beneficial to developing the most effective management practices for free lactation crates.
Animal welfare , Sow welfare , Piglet welfare , Farrowing crate , Free lactation pen
Kinane, O. 2020. Investigating the effects of free lactation crates on sow and piglet welfare. MRes Thesis, University College Cork.
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