Gestation crates have and will continue to generate animal well-being attention, and some of that attention likely will spill over to farrowing crates. Indeed, the pork industry will find itself discussing both sectors in the future.

While farrowing crates are a common and valued sow-housing method, there are other alternatives, says John McGlone, Texas Tech University. Here, he offers some perspective on those alternatives.

  • Turn-around Crate/Pen. One turn-around farrowing system is triangular-shaped, with outside dimensions of 5 feet x 8.5 feet. It is considered a modified crate because the side walls flare outward, but remain fixed in place on each side of the feeder. McGlone points to records that show the stillbirth rate is slightly lower and the pre-weaning mortality is significantly lower for sows placed in turn-around crates versus standard crates.
  • Family Pen. This concept includes an area where the sow can mingle with her piglets, as well as a space where she can escape her piglets. The family pen attempts to accommodate the piglets’ and sow’s changing motivations. The sow can be isolated in its own pen during farrowing, then socialize with other sows after a few days. Some reports show poor production with this system, but further refinements lead to good sow and litter performances, notes McGlone.
  • Sloped Pen. This was found on commercial pork units decades ago. The logic behind this indoor farrowing pen comes from the idea that sows farrowing on rolling land often had no problem nursing piglets on a slope. While the pen’s sloped floor improved pre-weaning litter survival, it reduced survival if the slope was applied to the crate. Sloping the floor of a farrowing pen causes the sow to stand and lie more carefully. It also encourages piglets to rest at the bottom of the slope.
  • Werribee Farrowing Pen. This involves a sow and piglet area, as well as nesting and dunging areas. The pen occupies about twice the floor space as a standard farrowing crate. Attempts to reduce floor space have caused sharp increases in piglet mortality. With its standard format — 147 percent more floor space than a standard farrowing crate — it has statistically similar stillbirth and pre-weaning mortality rates as the standard farrowing crate.
  • Ellipsoid Farrowing Crate. This crate was developed to let lactating sows turn around while still protecting piglets. The side walls are concave with the top and bottom rails positioned close to the sow. The ellipsoid crate requires 9 percent more floor space than a conventional farrowing crate. Research shows that sows turned 360 degrees, on average 40 times a day in these crates. Data also shows that the crates significantly reduced stillbirths compared to the standard farrowing crate. Pre-weaning mortality was similar in both crates, as was the number of pigs weaned per sow.
  • Outdoor, English-style Arc Farrowing Hut. Among outdoor systems, there have been significant differences reported in pre-weaning mortality among farrowing huts. The Quonset-style farrowing hut had 19.7 percent pre-weaning mortality while the English-style arc farrowing hut had 11.2 percent pre-weaning mortality. Diverse environments cause significant behavioral differences, but research shows that the outdoor English-style arc hut and the indoor farrowing crate produced similar sow and piglet performance.

Farrowing alternatives to traditional crates may or may not be right for you, but they’re worth considering.