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Key findings from an informative freedom farrowing workshop

16th Aug 2021 / By Rebecca Veale

NPA Senior Policy Adviser, Becca Veale, highlights the key points from a virtual workshop on freedom farrowing and lactation with representatives from across the globe.

Rebecca Veale 1The workshop was held over two days and packed in 33 presentations, which was pretty impressive and meant I have a lot of notes!

It was a great opportunity to hear about the different systems and work that has been undertaken - a few of the presentations were made by producers who have implemented new systems, which was even better. As with all research, there were far more questions than answers, but we’ve got plenty of examples, and gaps, to refer to which may help our policy work in this area.

There were so many presentations, but I've picked out a few that I found most interesting:

Seges confinement project: The Danish agricultural knowledge and innovation centre, Seges, funded a project to look at the confinement of sows for two or four days around farrowing.

They found that there is no difference in the positional changes the sow takes throughout their time whether confined or loose in a free farrowing pen, but there was a higher level of crushed piglets in loose housing, which supports the need for temporary crating.

The shape of the crate in this study was oblong which may have affected the position the sows predominantly chose, but other discussions on pen shape during the conference highlighted how challenging it can be to fit all the elements needed in the pen into a square footprint.

Cortisol indicator: The Irish research, advisory and education state agency, Teagasc, has looked at cortisol levels in sows in free farrowing pens.

When they are temporary crated, interestingly the space causes more stress and the cortisol levels were higher when the sows were completely free. They also shared that they’ve found confining the sows a few days after going into the crate but closing the crate at night helps them get used to it.

Policy balance: Christian Fink Hansen, from Denmark, reiterated the importance of balance between the social, environmental, business and animal welfare policies, which collectively work to make production sustainable.

He rightly said that free farrowing is only one piece of the puzzle. Despite a target of 10% loose housing by 2011 in Denmark, only 3.5% of pens today are loose housing – not surprising when 90-95% of their produce is exported. Christian’s point about balance and context is something we need to continue to urge others to be mindful of when big policies are being discussed.

Country round-up: There was also a country roundup where a representative shared their current situation with regard to legislation, uptake of any free farrowing systems and the wider context.

This made it very apparent that every country is in a different position, from the likes of Sweden that moved to loose farrowing years ago, to Japan with 90% of sows in gestation crates still. There is already a huge mix in what is accepted and isn’t, even down to the size of the crate.

The discussions on farrowing continue in this country, and the work shared at this conference will be very useful at informing the debate and maintaining the balance which Christian referred to.