Researchers are testing a new auto-mated feeding system that eliminates the need to crate sows during gestation. The joint project involves USDA's Agricultural Research Service, Texas Tech University in Lub-bock, and Automated Production Systems of Huntingdon Valley, Pa.

The feeding system, called "trickle feeding," allows sows to be kept in penned groups. The system was developed and tested in Europe, but this project will be the first complete evaluation in North America.

ARS farm-animal behaviorist Julie Morrow-Tesch will work with Texas Tech animal scientist John McGlone on the project.

Europe is phasing out the use of gestation crates and there is increasing pressure surfacing in the United States from animal-rights groups and food retailers. The crates do, however, protect sows from competing for food, ensring that all get equal rations.

The goal with the trickle-feeding system is to do the same, but without isolating animals. It uses a string of feed hoppers and dispen-sers to distribute feed to individual sows at the speed of the slowest eater. Faster eaters learn there is no advantage to leaving their dispensers.

The scientists are testing the system with social groups of five sows each. The sows are kept in a pen with free access to the feeding area.