of 2
Current View
he farrowing crate is a small metal cage in which
pregnant sows are imprisoned for weeks on end,
usually from a week before giving birth until their
piglets are weaned three to four weeks later. The metal
frame of the crate is just centimetres bigger than the sow’s
body and severely restricts her movements. She is completely
unable to turn around, can scarcely take a step forward or
backward and frequently rubs against the bars when
standing up and lying down. Beside her cage is a ‘creep’
area – usually around 50-100cm x 2m in size – for her piglets.
The flooring is hard concrete and some form of heating,
either mats or more commonly heatlamps, is used as a
substitute for the warmth of their mother’s body. The piglets
are free to reach the sow’s teats to suckle but she is
prevented from moving close to them and grooming them
by the bars of the cage.
When not in the crate, sows used for breeding are kept
separate from those used for meat, most commonly in
concrete pens. Sows have a pregnancy lasting around four
months and are usually reimpregnated within a week of their
piglets being weaned, approximately a month after they were
born. This means they are forced into the farrowing crate for
28-35 days every five months until, usually at around five
years old, they are no longer commercially productive and are
sent for slaughter. The crate is used for around 80 per cent of
the 512,000 breeding sows in Britain (DEFRA, 2004a).
Unnatural Behaviour
The constraint of the farrowing crate prevents the sow from
fulfilling any of her natural maternal instincts. Studies of wild
or semi-wild pigs show that sows actually become more
active before giving birth, often walking many kilometres to
find a suitable nest site (Cronin
et al
, 1995; Biensen
et al
1996). They would naturally seek out a site in a covered area
which is isolated from the rest of the herd (Jarvis
et al
They then prepare a nest of twigs or leaves before giving
birth. The standard practice of confining sows in the
farrowing crate a week before they give birth not only
restrains them at a time of increased restlessness but also
denies them the privacy they desire by forcing them into
close proximity with other sows. Building a nest has been
described as “the single, strongest instinct for a sow” (Per
Jensen, quoted on Bowman website) and research indicates a
very strong desire for sows to obtain nesting materials (Arey,
1992). Even when they have nothing but a hard floor, sows
still attempt to build a nest, pawing at the floor, nuzzling the
bars and attempting to turn around. Although new
legislation will compel farmers to provide some straw for
sows in the crate, for a confined sow in a metal cage on hard
flooring inside a building, the nesting instinct will still be
completely frustrated.
While confined in the crate, the sow is unable to move
toward her piglets but is also prevented from moving away
from them when she wants to. This can lead to aggression
towards piglets, with one in eight piglets fatally mauled by
their mothers (
New Scientist
, 2000). This is a very rare event
in the wild.
The farrowing crate itself can cause the sow painful sores and
also pain and fatigue due to immobility. Studies of hormone
levels indicate raised levels of stress in confined sows (Cronin,
1996; Jarvis
et al
, 1997; Lawrence
et al
, 1994; Lynch
et al
website). Confined sows are also more aggressive than sows
who have not been confined when returned to pens with
other pigs (DEFRA, 2002).
Crushing Myths
The crate is supposedly used to prevent sows from
accidentally crushing their piglets. In fact, the danger of
crushing is a direct consequence of factory farming
techniques. In the wild, nests protect piglets from crushing
because they are pliable, providing some cushioning for
piglets if lain on; because piglets may simply fall through or
out of nests; and because the sow roots around before lying
down giving the piglets warning that she is about to do so.
The crate offers none of these forms of protection. Factory
farming also depends on minimising staff costs and that
means that most births are unsupervised. Brazil had half the
pre-weaning mortality of the USA in the early 1990s because
of higher staff ratios (Holyoake
et al
, 1995) and other South
American countries have achieved mortality rates as low as
three per cent (Guise & Mayland, 1998).
Alternative farrowing systems – such as Solari, Volkenroder
and Werribbee pens – have achieved broadly comparable
weaning rates to conventional crates in experimental
conditions (ibid; Arnott, 2001; Cronin
et al
, 1999; Far Eastern
Agriculture) while outdoor herds have lower mortality rates
than indoor, according to Meat & Livestock Commision
research (Far Eastern Agriculture, 1996). Selection of sows –
both by breed and as individuals – for ‘good’ mothering is
also effective in reducing piglet mortality from crushing and
other causes in organic and conventional farming (Brown,
personal communication; DEFRA, 2004b).
Piglet mortality increases with larger litter sizes (Jarvis, 2002)
and pigs today have been bred to produce litters of up to 15
piglets, where naturally around eight would be normal.
Large litter sizes increase competition and lead to
malnourishment for weaker piglets. Weaker piglets are at
greater risk of being crushed (Arey
et al
, 1992). Recent
evidence suggests that dietary changes alone may have a
significant impact on crushing death rates for piglets (Allison,
2003). Farmers are also likely to blame crushing for deaths
which are actually caused by malnourishment (Vallaincourt,
quoted in Holyoake
et al
, 1995). In fact, piglets in farrowing
crates appear more likely to die as a result of savaging by the
sow, starvation/chilling and splay leg (Cronin
et al
, 1996).
The crate also confines piglets. In the wild, three week-old
piglets would usually be found 20-30m from the sow (Pasille
& Robert, 1989) but in the crate they can not move further
than 1m. They are also unable to mix with other litters and
this makes them more prone to fighting when they are
weaned (DEFRA 2002). Piglets reared in open systems
demonstrate improved weight-gain after weaning and
exhibit fewer skin lesions, another sign of fighting (Malkin et
al, website; DEFRA, 2002).
The Farrowing Crate
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Natural weaning age for pigs is between 12 and 15 weeks
and the process occurs gradually over the weeks before final
weaning. Abrupt weaning, whether at 21 or 28 days, is more
than piglets’ immature digestive systems can cope with (Van
Heugten, website), often leading to scours – diarrhoea – and
failure to thrive. As a result, piglets require medication and,
in intensive conditions, end up on a daily regime of drugs.
eaning in this abrupt manner is also, clearly, a psychological
trauma to both mother and piglets.
The problem the farrowing crate is designed to address –
piglet crushing – is a direct result of factory farming
techniques. While pigs are reared intensively that problem
will persist. Even the introduction of non-crate systems in
indoor farming is resisted for commercial reasons. In the
words of one expert on pig welfare:
“. . . Producers are wary of change because of the costs
involved in providing efficient and humane farrowing
accommodation” (IJ Lean, in Ewbank
et al
, Management and
elfare of Farm Animals, 4th Ed, 1999).
The farrowing crate is designed to increase productivity of
piglets. It is not used to preserve their welfare but to
preserve the meat they will produce. Farmers – and the
Government – accept its severe adverse consequences for
both sow and piglet welfare because it is, at present, the
most cost-effective system overall. From a welfare point of
view, it is indefensible.
Pig in Hell campaigns
iva! has filmed in over 30 intensive pig farms and the plight of intelligent sows confined in crates fuels
The Mother Cage
our campaign to ban the farrowing system in the UK. Using shocking footage from undercover investigations we’ve revealed
dead pigs, injured animals, maggots crawling over piglet corpses and constant misery in farms that supply the supermarket
giant Tesco, leading to much local and national press including an article in the
Pig in Hell
eport and video exposes the intense suffering of diseased, dead, dirty and dying animals raised for meat, and
has received huge media attention. Although 90 per cent of Britain's pig producers claim to follow a code of practice on
animal welfare, 95 per cent of pigs killed for meat are factory farmed! The units we chose at random are not run by rogue
farmers; one supplied the biggest bacon factory in Britain, which supplies major supermarket chains.
Abbott TA, Hunter EJ, Guise HJ, Penny RHC (1996)
Survey of farrowing management of outdoor pig
production systems, Proceedings of the 14th
Congress, Bologna
Allison, Richard (2003) Fish oil improves piglets born
alive, Farmers Weekly 17/1/03 p44
Arey DS (1991) Tail biting in pigs, Farm Building
Progress 105 20-23
Arey DS (1992) Straw and food as reinforcers in
prepartal sows, Applied Animal Behaviour Science
33 217-226
Arey DS, Petchey AM, Fowler VR (1992) Farrowing
accommodation and piglet mortality, Farm Building
Progress 107 5-7
Arnott E (2001) The effect of housing on sow and
piglet welfare
Biensen NJ, von Borrell EH, Ford SP (1996) Effects of
space allocation and temperature on preparturient
maternal behaviours, steroid concentrations and
piglet growth rates, Journal of Animal Science 74
Blackshaw JK, Blackshaw AW, Thomas FJ, Newman
FW (1994) Comparison of behaviour patterns of
sows and litters in a farrowing crate and a
farrowing pen, Applied Animal Behaviour Science
39 281-295
Bowman G Fitting the farm to the hog
Brown, Helen (organic pig farmer), personal
communication with Viva!
Cole JA, Wiseman J, Varley MA (ed) (1994) Principles
of pig science, Nottingham University Press,
Cronin GM & Smith JA (1992) Suckling behaviour of
sows in farrowing crates and straw-bedded pens,
Applied Animal Behaviour Science 33 175-89
Cronin GM, Lefebure B, McClintock S (1999) An on-
farm comparison of the Werribee farrowing pen
and conventional farrowing crates, Manipulating
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effects of gestation and farrowing environments on
sow and piglet behaviour and piglet survival and
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Affairs [DEFRA] (2002) Final project report:
Management of sow and litter in a free farrowing
environment, AW0121
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Affairs [DEFRA] (2004a) Agriculture in the United
Kingdom 2004.
Department for Environment, Food and Rural
Affairs [DEFRA] (2004b) News release Defra and
SEERAD announce £550k collaborative research
project with industry on genetics of pre-weaning
piglet mortality 190/04
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Management and Welfare of Farm Animals, 4th Ed,
Universities Federation for Farm Animals Welfare,
(Uncredited) (1996) The future of the farrowing
crate, Far Eastern Agriculture Nov/Dec 44-45
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farrowing house: is there a viable substitute to
crates? Pig Farming Sep 28-29
Haussman SA, Lay DC, Buchanan HS, Hopper JG
(1999) Butorphanol tartrate . . . sow activity, which
could lead to reduced piglet crushing Journal of
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individually www.teagasc.ie/research/report/pigs
Malkin S, Marchant JN, Day JEL The effects of
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Carolina Healthy Hogs Seminar, www.asci.ncsu
For more information about factory farming or going vegetarian, contact Viva! 8 York Court, Wilder Street, Bristol BS2 8QH;
0117 944 1000; E: info@viva.org.uk; www.viva.org.uk
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