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Home > News > NPA report sets out pros and cons of adaptive farrowing systems in commercial pig production

NPA report sets out pros and cons of adaptive farrowing systems in commercial pig production

15th May 2024 / By Alistair Driver

A report commissioned by the NPA has delivered some telling insights into the pros and cons of adaptive farrowing systems.

ARM adaptive farrowing pen

ARM Buildings' Nijenkamp flexible farrowing pen has a footprint of 6.24m2 

The report by retired vet and consultant John Mackinnon, was launched at the British Pig & Poultry Fair in Birmingham on Wednesday, took a detailed look at adaptive farrowing systems currently in place across the UK, coming up with findings that will inform both industry and policymakers.

Adaptive farrowing systems provide more space than conventional farrowing crates but allow for sows to be confined in the days around farrowing to protect the new-born piglets at their most vulnerable.

Among the report’s key findings, it recommends that, in order to achieve the ideal balance between sow, piglet and stockperson welfare, the total floor area of adaptive farrowing pens should be between 5.5 and 6.5m2.

It found that the key benefits of adaptive farrowing systems include high levels of contentment for sows and improved milk yield and piglet weaning weight. But it found management disadvantages, too, including piglets being crushed and higher risk of injury to sows and stockpersons.

The review

The NPA commissioned Mr Mackinnon to carry out the review to provide an independent opinion on adaptive farrowing systems being used commercially in indoor pig production in the UK, as politicians in the main parties consider options for long-anticipated regulation in this area.  

The purpose was to identify where basic design and management features might be adopted with confidence by producers who are considering installing adaptive farrowing systems in the future, whilst also complying with any legislative changes.

The report is split into two parts, the first summarising descriptive observations and stockpersons’ experiences of adaptive farrowing systems and the second providing an analysis of production data, primarily focusing on pre-weaning mortality of piglets.

Advantages and disadvantages

Five UK commercial indoor pig farms were visited during November and December 2023 – all early adopters of adaptive farrowing systems, which had been in use for between two and eight years.

Herds ranged in size from 280 to 3,000 productive sows, totalling 5,910, representing about 3.5% of the indoor national herd. They contained 1,116 adaptive farrowing pens, about 27% of the total thought to be installed in the UK.

Interviews were carried out with farm staff and a standard questionnaire was used to record aspects of physical design, environmental conditions, husbandry and animal management.

Stockpersons were asked to give their opinions on the advantages and disadvantages of temporary crating (TC) compared with permanent crating (PC).

The advantages of temporary crating systems included:

  • An opportunity for sows to lie comfortably in postures of choice once released from temporary crates;
  • They show high levels of contentment;
  • Socialisation with adjacent neighbours is possible in some systems;
  • Sows are calm, quiet and accepting of human presence;
  • Feed and water intake is higher;
  • Teat exposure for piglets is optimised;
  • Milk yield is increased;
  • Piglet weaning weights are increased;
  • Handling procedures at entry and weaning are facilitated, and
  • Sow body condition at weaning is better.

Disadvantages included:

  • Gilts need greater attention;
  • Gilts and sows sometimes try to get out of TC and may injure themselves and damage structures in the process;
  • There is perceived risk of injury to stockpersons when sows are released from TC, requiring greater awareness;
  • It can be more difficult to assist farrowing with some cubicle orientations;
  • There can be an increase in the number of piglets overlain or crushed, this last point being the major concern.

Pen dimensions and timings

The main areas of contention in relation to adaptive farrowing accommodation include pen dimensions and the duration of confinement of sows, with sow behaviour, piglet welfare and stockperson safety the key considerations, alongside, of course, possible future legislative requirements.

With all of these elements considered, the report suggests that the total floor area of the farrowing pen should be between 5.5 and 6.5 m2, with any one side of the free sow space measuring 1.4-1.5m.

It concludes that more research is needed in a truly commercial setting to determine the pen layout in terms of the ratio of the sow space to the safe space for piglets. All the farms visited in this study have successful farrowing operations with pen dimensions of 6.0 – 6.2m2.

The timing of sow confinement within the pens tends to depend on the turnaround time of farrowing pen occupancy. Where it is short, with farrowing occurring a day or two after entry, sows are generally confined immediately. Where it is longer, typically up to a week, some consider that sows can remain loose housed until the first in the group farrows, at which point all are confined.

Experience indicates that release from the crates is successful at around four days after farrowing, although gilts should perhaps be released earlier. This means that the total period of confinement varies from around five days to around 12 days, depending on management and this appears to work well on commercial farms.

The report was clear, however, that due to the risk of piglet injury in totally free systems, the option for temporary crating is essential.  

The report concludes: “Temporary crating offers a real and viable alternative to permanent crating with benefits for sows, piglets and stockpersons, and it also allows for complete sow freedom should this be a management choice. A balance of sow welfare with piglet welfare is necessary.”

However, the report also stresses that it will be costly to install new temporary crating systems because of the increased space required.

“A change from existing permanent crating to temporary crating facilities is most likely to require expansion of existing buildings or the erection of new ones if herd size is to be maintained, but it is clear from the farm visits that investors consider the process worthwhile,” the report concluded.

  • A detailed summary of both parts, including litter production data, is available in the Members Area.
  • The full report is available to members on request.  

NPA comment

NPA chief executive Lizzie Wilson said: “We are delighted with this report and I would like to thank John and his team for all their hard work.

“The purpose of this report was to establish a foundation for the industry, based on extensive commercial use of adaptive farrowing in the UK so far, showing what works and what doesn’t and the pros of cons of these systems, and to suggest recommendations, where possible, on pen footprint, confinement timing and other management aspects.

“The review will help to form a wider body of evidence comprising a number of sources of information that we will continue to gather and consider whilst we develop our policy position, and gov progresses any future legislation.”

“This work reaffirms that any transition will be extremely costly for producers, meaning it is essential that they are provided with sufficient financial support from Government and the supply chain and are given sufficient time to adapt.”