BPEXFrom an animal welfare perspective, there’s no conclusive evidence that sows are more content or more comfortable in loose-housing systems, but it is a regulatory requirement in Great Britain. Producers are trying to sell products as “value-added” but for the most part, retailers haven’t put their money where their mouth is. On January 1, 1999, British pork producers entered the scenario that’s currently keeping many American producers up at night — a ban on gestation crates. Producers in the United Kingdom (UK) had to make huge investments — equivalent to $4,086 per sow space for indoor housing or about $410 per sow space outdoors — that their competitors in the rest of the European Union could put off for well over a decade. Scrutinized by the public, pressured by regulations and squeezed by a series of crippling economic disasters, nearly 40 percent of the nation’s operations left the pig business within two years of the ban.
Fifteen years later, the British pork industry soldiers on. Word from the front lines is that the gestation crate ban has been tough, but not as bad as feared. As stated, the UK has a total ban on gestation crates. The European Union’s (EU) partial ban on gestation crates took force in January 2013: It allows the use of crates for four weeks after insemination. Lessons learned from the British experience (and the EU’s partial ban) may help U.S. producers weather impending bans stateside.
There’s little question that loose housing, the group pens that accommodate Britain’s crate-free gestating sows, lowered productivity in the UK.
Ian Smith, managing director of Bedfordia Farms in East Anglia, England’s leading hog-producing region, houses gestating sows in groups of 25 on deep bedded straw. He says the farrowing rate of his operation’s 1,100 sows averages 80 to 85 percent, down from above 90 percent in confinement systems.
“We probably lost 10 percent of the farrowing rate,” Smith figures. Given the opportunity to re-design the UK’s system, Smith says he’d prefer to use the model being adopted by the rest of the European Union, which allows the use of gestation crates for the first four weeks.
“Once she’s in-pig, that animal is much more robust to mix in with other sows,” he notes. Protecting that vital first few weeks of pregnancy can significantly improve farrowing rates, Smith says.
The data appears to bear out Smith’s suspicions. According to InterPIG data collected from the UK, United States, Brazil and many European countries, the UK average number of piglets weaned per sow per year in 2012 was 24.0 for indoor loose-housing operations. The average was 21.6 among outdoor producers, who represent about 40 percent of the country’s breeding operations. Sweden, which has a total ban of gestation crates like the UK, weaned an average of 23.8 pigs per sow in 2012. The U.S. overall average that year was 24.9, although the top 10 percent of U.S. herds achieved 29.6 in 2012.