March 2015 – A Sign that common sense will always win in the end

This month marks the beginning of my third year as editor at Pig World, and I’m able to report that it’s started with some refreshing news out of Sweden.

That country’s ministry of agriculture has just agreed to fund a new pilot project that aims to find out if holding sows in farrowing crates would allow more piglets to survive by immobilising the sow during lactation.

In other words, after forcing producers into freedom farrowing systems, they’ve come to the conclusion that maybe it’s not such a good idea after all.

Under current animal welfare laws, pig farmers in Sweden have to ensure sows that have just given birth are housed in separate stalls, where they’re able to freely move around. The emphasis in the legislation is on ensuring that lactating sows are able to move and turn around within a defined space.

Now, however, a report commissioned by Sweden’s agriculture ministry in February 2014, and delivered in late January this year, has found that meeting these space and mobility provisions results in the death of about 500,000 piglets every year due to a range of primary causes – that equates to 18% mortality.

The report attributed the main fatality causes to hypothermia, malnutrition and piglets being trampled to death under foot.

The chairman of Sweden’s pig producers’ organisation, Sveriges Grisf√∂retagare (SGF), is Ingemar Olsson and he’s clear the problem is that the country’s farm animal protection laws are based on research from the mid-1980s.

“Times change, and the situation is different today,” he says. “Such a high mortality is not acceptable. We have, in general, the world’s best animal husbandry practices in Sweden, and yet we have one of the world’s highest piglet mortality rates. This simply doesn’t make sense.”

SGF will run the pilot project, which is expected to be completed by May this year with results delivered in June. Several pig-husbandry systems widely used in Denmark will be trialled in a bid to reduce piglet mortality rates.

The test programme will be conducted at 12 selected host farms in Sweden. These will be supplied with smaller-sized farrowing crates, and they’ve all been granted special exemption by the ministry of agriculture to breach general pig welfare and animal care rules in order to trial the new methods.

At a time when freedom farrowing is gaining traction throughout the rest of the EU, Sweden’s move is a timely one, but maybe the country’s system just needs tweaking rather than being completely overhauled.

Work underway at the Sainsbury’s-funded Pig Innovation Centre in Northern Ireland is not only comparing different freedom farrowing crates, but exploring the effects on piglet mortality of different lengths of sow confinement.

The key to success in this issue may simply be finding the point where the piglets are old enough to recognise the danger signs and escape.

> Graeme Kirk has been editor of Pig World since March 2013. Born into a farming family in South-west Scotland, he’s been an agricultural journalist for nearly 30 years

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