The above photo shows sows in a group housing situation.
Legislators talk about it. Farmers talk about it. Activists talk about it. Moms in the city talk about it. Moms in the country talk about it. Dads everywhere talk about it. There is so much to wade through – how do you know what to hear?
There I go, talking about it and not even naming it. You see, I am talking about sow housing systems.
In Oklahoma a significant number of sows live their days in group housing. Another option is individual housing. Both of these housing options are healthy, safe and humane options where sows can live. The next post will cover individual housing options and why farmers sometimes choose to raise sows in stalls.
The number of pigs living in group housing in Oklahoma change with time due to renovations of older facilities and improvements in feeding systems. Group housing is also known in the industry as group gestation or pen gestation, which refers to the time when the sows, or mother pigs, are pregnant. During this time the sows will be living in large pens with other pregnant sows.
These groups of sows usually get to know each other. After having babies, being bred and becoming pregnant again the same group will come back together to spend their gestation period.
Pen gestation is very different from farm to farm and one main difference among them are the feeding arrangements. In Oklahoma there are electronic sow feeders and free access stalls. Both allow for the pig to eat in privacy away from the other pigs. This helps even the least aggressive pig to get plenty to eat.
If a farm has an electronic sow feeder, each sow must each have an electronic chip in their ear. When the sow walks up to the feeder the chip is read, and if the sow hasn’t eaten yet the gate will open. The correct amount of food is dropped into a pan inside the feeder once the sow has entered. When the food is all gone the pig exits through a gate on the other end of the feeder from where it entered.
The information is recorded about which sows have eaten, how much they ate and when they ate into a computer database. Each day a farmer checks the database to make sure each pig has eaten. If one of the sows doesn’t eat all the day’s food, the farmer goes out to the pen to see why. If the problem is simply a sleeping pig, the pig is woken up and the farmer will steer the pig to the feeder. If one of the sows is sick or hurt, the farmer will then remove the sow from the pen into the “hospital” where individual pens will help with individual treatment.
in the above photo, a farmer is checking the electronic tag in the pig’s ear against his list of pigs who haven’t eaten. This helps to ensure each sow gets plenty to eat each day.
You will often find a pigs sleeping in a pile when they live in group housing. Farmers jokingly call the pile of animals a pig pile.
Sows in a pig pile. You can also see a water nipple in the foreground where the sows have access to as much water as needed any time of day or night.
Free access stalls are another system to care for sows in groups. In this style there is a large group area lined by individual pens. Any time the sow wishes to be alone and not share space with the other females, they are able to open the individual pens themselves. The sow can simply push open the back panel of the stall and enter and as she does so the stall will close behind. The moment the sow wishes to leave the stall the sow simply backs up and the back panel will open.
When it is feeding time, each pen in a group is delivered the same amount of food and the sows will pick an individual pen to let themselves into to eat.
With both styles of pen housing you can see the positives. There is a social aspect to the housing and room to move around at will. Each sow is still fed individually and has access to plenty of food and water to help keep both her and her growing babies healthy.
There are a few negatives as well to the group sow housing. Pregnant pigs are often mean to each other. They can be very territorial and violent. It is something which must be closely monitored. In addition, each animal must be trained to use the feeding system in place before they can be expected to become part of a group.
It is the farmer who is in the barn every day. It is the farmer who knows which pigs get along and which are bossy. It is the farmer who knows which sows are picky eaters and which ones are the first in line to the feeders. This is why we believe farmers should have the right to choose how they raise their animals.
What questions do you have about group sow housing? Of which parts would you like to see more photos? What other topics would you like to read about.
Let me know! This is meant to be a discussion – but I need to hear your voice!