Why we use individual gestation pens for our sows

Individual gestation stalls

What is the best way to house sows? Is it individual gestation pens? Is it group housing? For most people, sow housing raises a lot of questions. Let me start with saying,

“There is NO perfect sow housing. None. Nada.”

When housing sows indoors, there are two options: Keep pigs in groups, or put them in individual gestation pens. The vast majority of pigs used for food are kept in groups. But pregnant sows are housed individually in gestation pens. Why? Because they behave differently.

And let me explain how they behave differently. But, first a little background about our farm: 

We have farmed for over 35 years and during those 35 years, our farm has changed significantly. Those changes have either improved our lives as farmers, the lives of our animals or both.

Starting with a 96-sow herd, our sows were housed outside because that’s all we had. As new farmers, we were excited that we were following our farming dreams. Try to visualize four outdoor dirt lots, separated by a fence, with each lot containing a group of 24 sows. They remained outdoors until it was time for them to give birth. A few days prior to birthing, they were moved into a barn, which had 24 farrowing (birthing) stalls. They remained there from giving birth to piglet weaning day.

I will be the first to admit that having sows outside on a sunny, dry 70-degree day with a warm breeze blowing across your face is wonderful.  But, unfortunately, we have 5 days a year like that in Minnesota (okay, maybe a little exaggeration). It seems like either it’s too windy, too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet, too sunny, etc. You get the picture.

In a nutshell, weather varies a lot in Minnesota.

We knew we needed to make changes on our farm if we wanted to raise pigs long-term. Mother Nature wins more times than we do. One particular incident I remember “like it was yesterday” was a perfect example of why we considered a change in how we housed our animals. After a thunderstorm, a sow gave birth to piglets outside. Even with the best planning, sometimes births happened outdoors. Unbeknownst to us, another sow picked up each of those baby pigs, took them outside and drowned each one of them in a mud puddle. Every single one. We were heartsick. Both my husband and I looked at each other in bewilderment as we removed each one of those healthy piglets from the mud puddle. We both agreed that day, there must be a better way to take care of our animals. That day we felt like failures. So was the beginning of our journey to build a gestation barn with individual gestation pens. 

Our decision did not come easy. It took time, lots of farm discussion meetings, multiple trips to the loan officer and numerous discussions with our veterinarian, who was our animal consultant.

And it was just not that particular incident that helped make our decision.

Most people don’t realize that pigs are pack animals — they actually exhibit some of the same behaviors as wolf packs. Because they are pack animals, they need to establish a hierarchy within the group — or a “boss” sow. The way they establish this hierarchy is by attacking/fighting each other. I personally have seen broken backs, broken legs, bitten/torn off ears and tails, and bitten/torn off vulvas. And not only are sows physically attacked — they also bully other sows from eating. In addition, fighting results in terminated pregnancies. Very hard to see and experience. 

In addition to animal well-being issues, consumers’ tastes were also changing. They were demanding a leaner cut of pork. In order to provide leaner pork, our pig genetics had to change. We now raise a cross between a Large White and Landrace pig. The result? A long, lean pig–perfect for lean and nutritious pork. Prior to housing our animals inside, our main focus for pig genetics was survival of Minnesota’s winters.  

In addition to weather problems and the sow’s pecking order, we were also concerned about:

  • sunburn
  • insect bites
  • disease transmission by birds or rodents
  • people being injured by sows
  • wildlife predators

After our gestation barn was built and the day we brought our sows inside, we noticed a difference in our sow’s behavior. Our sows were now content. No longer were they having to fear the “king sow.” They had protection. Research shows that sows housed in stalls have a lower stress hormone than those housed in groups. In addition to animal contentment, we could now eliminate nearly all the weather issues. Temperature and fan controllers were used in the barns to help manage temperatures and bring in clean air. All sows had access to clean water and the proper amount of fresh feed. We now –could ensure they all ate–no more skinny or fat sows. In the summer, we kept them cool with a water sprinkling system, which is so important because pigs do not sweat. And we could give individual medical care, if needed. 

Sow housing is an individual choice. For our farm, individual gestation pens were the right choice. But for others, group housing works for them. Both the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Swine Veterinarians agree that both types of housing are acceptable. The real key to animal care is not the type of housing but, rather, the management of those animals.  

According to Smithfield Foods, who has already made the decision to move their sows into group housing, observed that, given a choice, 90% of the sows prefer to spend 90% of their time in individual stalls. And research backs this observation. 

Farmers do care for their animals by working as team with veterinarians and animal nutritionists. Animal mistreatment on farms makes as much sense as a car dealer keying his inventory. And none of us are “keying cars.”  

I have included a few great videos of sow housing which gives you a better visualization of sow housing:

This post was written by Wanda Patsche and originally published on Minnesota Farm Living. Follow Wanda on Twitter: @MinnFarmer.

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Pat Berg on 02/11/2015 - 10:01 am.

    Pack behaviors

    One should not try to equate pig behaviors which result in “broken backs, broken legs, bitten/torn off ears and tails, and bitten/torn off vulvas” as being equivalent to healthy pack behaviors in wolves. Not only is it inaccurate, it doesn’t even make sense.

    Healthy pack behavior is an evolved survival trait. Notice the word “healthy”. Pack behaviors have evolved so as to maximize the survival of the *group*. Behaviors that run counter to this do not enhance survival and so are not seen in healthy pack behavior in the wild.

    It would not be healthy pack behavior if – within a wolf pack – interactions between pack members resulted in “broken backs, broken legs, bitten/torn off ears and tails, and bitten/torn off vulvas”. Since you need ALL the pack members to be healthy and capable of pulling their share of the work of hunting, guarding, raising young, etc. a pack whose members routinely injured one another in these ways would be a pack that simply did not last long.

    Do wolves EVER exhibit these behaviors to other wolves? Sure – if a member of a DIFFERENT pack tries to invade territory or steal a pack’s food. Or if an individual who is overfaced in a hierarchy dispute refuses to back down and accept the subordinate position. Or if population pressures are growing in a given territorial area – i.e. if crowding exists.

    Consider these things the next time you try to equate behaviors observed in confined populations of domestic animals to those behaviors observed in free roaming populations of wildlife.

    • Submitted by Joe Smithers on 02/11/2015 - 02:48 pm.

      pack behavior

      She did not state the behaviors in her article were healthy nor did she say swine packs act the same as wolf packs. She only stated that they do exhibit some pack behaviors such as a social hierarchy like wolves. You’re reading a little too much into it.

      • Submitted by Pat Berg on 02/11/2015 - 04:53 pm.

        No, I’m not.

        She said “they actually exhibit some of the same behaviors as wolf packs”. This wording implies these are normal wolf pack behaviors.

        There is nothing normal about a wolf in a pack exhibiting a behavior towards another wolf in the same pack that results in “broken backs, broken legs, bitten/torn off ears and tails, and bitten/torn off vulvas”.

        I’m not “reading a little too much into it”, nor will I stand silently by while the behaviors of wild wolves are mischaracterized in this way. I’m sure you will not budge on this point, but I’m confident that thoughtful readers will understand the point I am making here.

        • Submitted by Wanda Patsche on 02/11/2015 - 04:16 pm.

          I must not have made myself clear. When I talked about behaviors similar to a wolf pack, I was talking more specifically about the pecking order behaviors. I don’t know specifically the behaviors that exist to determine the pecking order in wolf packs, but I do know in pigs that it does result in injuries and/or death. I hope I have made myself more clear.

          • Submitted by Pat Berg on 02/12/2015 - 07:10 am.

            And what I know . . . .

            And what I know is that there is nothing normal, healthy or adaptive about pecking order behaviors that routinely result in injuries and/or death to fellow pack-mates no matter WHAT species is under discussion.

            No wonder those poor sows prefer the protection of a small metal cage to the unnatural behaviors they are subjected to when confined with 23 other sows on a small dirt lot.

            • Submitted by Joe Smithers on 02/12/2015 - 01:29 pm.

              unnatural behaviors

              “No wonder those poor sows prefer the protection of a small metal cage to the unnatural behaviors they are subjected to when confined with 23 other sows on a small dirt lot.”

              What exactly do you know? Apparently you do not know that those behaviors also take place other places than on small dirt lots. You know nothing of the behaviors at all and continue to dispute all evidence with nothing to back it up than your conjecture.

              • Submitted by Pat Berg on 02/12/2015 - 04:58 pm.

                Other places?

                And those “other places” are? Other confined places? (And if there are fences or walls curtailing the free movement of the animals within, then – by definition – that is “confined”.

  2. Submitted by Shar Fortunak on 02/11/2015 - 12:54 pm.

    Individual gestation pens for sows

    Another ‘bee sting’ in the quest for healthy,wholesome food.
    Article, page D6, February 11 Minneapolis Star Tribune:
    Meat origin labeling lawsuit is dropped.

    Big ag does not have to label where slaughtered animals are from.

    Go veg!

    • Submitted by Joe Smithers on 02/11/2015 - 02:59 pm.

      meat origins

      Shar once again you are hijacking the comments with something that isn’t related to the article but I for one would like to see this myself. Other countries are labeling meat and force U.S. producers to have labels but for some reason we will not force producers from other countries to label meat products for sale in our country.

  3. Submitted by Emily F on 02/11/2015 - 01:17 pm.

    Dear Wanda Patsche,After

    Dear Wanda Patsche,
    After taking a look at several of your articles, I notice a theme of defensiveness. I would like to suggest that you take some time to contemplate the reasons you feel so compelled to argue your defensive stance. I think that upon honest reflection, you will discover that you are trying to persuade yourself and other people of the validity of “solutions” to problems that need not exist.
    Meat production is the biggest cause of climate change, more than the entire transportation sector combined. By continuing to produce pork, you perpetuate this system of pollution. Our planet cannot afford it.
    No matter how much you try to convince yourself otherwise, keeping pigs in the confined, isolated, and depressing conditions that you do is cruel. Human affinity for pork does not entitle anyone to rob these animals of their happiness and life. Trying to give reasons for why one form of cruelty is preferable to another is moral fraud, and it is present in many of your posts.
    The United States is the second-largest meat consumer per capita in the world. When faced with an obesity epidemic and the fact that heart disease is the most deadly disease in our country, it is imperative that we consider whether pork production is still worth the damage to our environment and the suffering of thousands of animals who do not have voices with which to defend themselves.
    I urge you to consider the kind of world you want your five grandchildren, and the rest of the world’s children, to inherit. Are your actions consistent with creating it?

    • Submitted by Joe Smithers on 02/11/2015 - 02:56 pm.

      defensiveness

      If the pork industry says nothing then it is vilified for continuing to be terrible(according to you) in every way possible but if someone such as Wanda puts together a well thought out explanation of the industry then she is vilified as well. That makes perfect sense. Sounds to me that you are the one being defensive when the industry tries to educate the public. Oh no the public might not see the meat industry as evil so lets just call them a bunch of names and hope they go away.

      “Meat production is the biggest cause of climate change, more than the entire transportation sector combined. By continuing to produce pork, you perpetuate this system of pollution. Our planet cannot afford it.” It is not and it isn’t even close. You are fabricating information and passing it off as fact. The truth is human caused sources of greenhouse gasses make up only a fraction of all of them.

      “No matter how much you try to convince yourself otherwise, keeping pigs in the confined, isolated, and depressing conditions that you do is cruel. Human affinity for pork does not entitle anyone to rob these animals of their happiness and life. Trying to give reasons for why one form of cruelty is preferable to another is moral fraud, and it is present in many of your posts.” I can’t even begin to understand how anyone can possibly think things like this and am shocked that people would choose to remain uneducated.

    • Submitted by Wanda Patsche on 02/11/2015 - 04:13 pm.

      Evidently I didn’t make myself clear. My whole point of writing this blog post is to explain what we do on the farm and why we do it. Many people do not understand farming and have no connection to farming. And when you talk about conditions as being cruel for our animals, I will just say they are not treated with cruelty. Common sense says that if an animal is treated with cruelty, it will be under a significant amount of stress and that stress will result in unhealthy animals. And that is not what we see. And, Emily, I am not against your choice of eating less or no meat. But please do not vilify farmers for working hard providing healthy and safe food for others. And I am proud to be a farmer.

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