Finding the best sows for high welfare systems

Scientists in Edinburgh and Newcastle have embarked on a three-year “FREESOW” project to identify the best sows to make free-farrowing systems economically viable.  

Funded by Sainsbury’s, the project involves teams from Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) and Newcastle University, working with breeders and farmers, to advance the free-farrowing system of management.

SRUC researcher Emma Baxter explained that to succeed commercially, free-farrowing systems needed to deliver piglet mortality levels that are “on par” with crate systems.

“We have been working on these free-farrowing systems for a number of years,” she said. “However, now Sainsbury’s is involved we hope we can get the information about how to breed good mothers directly through the supply chain much quicker than through traditional academic routes. I hope this will see more farmers adopting these systems which have sow and piglet welfare at the very heart of their design.”

Free-farrowing systems, such as PigSAFE (Piglet and Sow Alternative Farrowing Environment), developed by SRUC and Newcastle University, are claimed to give the sow space to move around freely while protecting her piglets. They’re designed so the sow can instinctively build a nest in an enclosure with specially designed sloped walls which help her lie down without trapping her offspring.

Researchers believe that finding the best sows for free-farrowing systems is essential to the delivery of economically viable results. The project will include gathering data from three commercial farms with free-farrowing systems, creating a profile of a “good mum” by measuring sow performance in terms of the number of piglets born and weaned and the behavior of the sows involved.

The scientists will then determine whether these traits are related, whether they are consistent over time and whether carefulness can be identified at a pre-breeding age. This data will then be made available by breeders to help producers pick the best mothers for these systems.

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