There is a lot of pressure on the use of gestation-sow stalls today. But before abandoning the system, you must determine what real alternatives exist.

“Some producers have had success with group housing, but no one has really shown improvement in sow well-being,” says Janeen Salak-Johnson, University of Illinois animal scientist. “However, some genetic lines are more adaptable and people have been successful with them, but no one has shown an improvement in welfare.”

Data shows that group-housed sows in early gestation have significantly increased stress levels than those in stalls. “There is a lot of fighting among group-housed sows, so you often see higher cortisol concentrations — a classical stress hormone — and a higher estrus return,” she notes.

A lot of social tension occurs among sows as they establish a hierarchy, and this results in more injuries.   “Our study showed that early when the group was formed, lesion scores increased astronomically, then plateaued and increased again as animals reached late-gestation,” Salak-Johnson says. “The fights among group-housed sows can be brutal.”

Of course, all housing systems have pluses and minuses, and they are not consistent throughout the gestation phase. Group housing favors sow welfare at certain points in the cycle, while gestation stalls offer benefits at other times. Salak-Johnson advises developing gilts in groups prior to housing gestating sows in groups to reduce aggression. 

While she admits the industry has to improve the individual-crate system, simply phasing it out is not the solution. “We have to try to save the gestation stall if the data tell us that we need it for the first four or five weeks after breeding,” she says. “However, I don’t think we can keep the current stall.”

In 2006, Salak-Johnson visited producers in Denmark and Germany, where she saw many alternative housing systems, including free-access stalls. There, the sow can choose to remain in seclusion or move into the group area. She notes that sows tended to spend up to 90 percent of the time in ithe stalls versus the group area.

Salak-Johnson believes one solution is to develop a modified-stall system. But the exact form will require more study. Issues, including group size, flooring type and space, feeding systems, husbandry abilities and more, need to be investigated.

“Learn from others’ experiences and from science-based findings and recommendations,” Salak-Johnson advises.

Housing systems are complex. Management, training and skilled husbandry lead to success and animal well-being, regardless of the housing types.