NewStream Farm Animal Care, Volume 1, Edition 19
Q&A: The science of sow housing
Posted: October 17, 2013
Perspective from Lee Whittington, President/CEO, and Dr. Jennifer Brown, Research Scientist - Ethology, with the Prairie Swine Centre Inc.
Courtesy: Alberta Pork
The previous edition of NewStream Farm Animal Care featured the findings of review on the science of sow housing by the Prairie Swine Centre, which focused on the "groups or stalls" question. (See the story, "Groups or stalls: Prairie Swine Centre weighs in" here.
In Part Two below, PSC's Lee Whittington and Dr. Jennifer Brown offer further perspective on the review and its findings.
Q: Why did Prairie Swine Centre tackle the gestation stalls question?
Lee Whittington: The Prairie Swine Centre is a non-profit research corporation created 21 years ago and linked to the University of Saskatchewan. Our role is to look at science and technologies that assist commercial pork production.
Obviously today there is a recognized media pressure to shift away from stalls and for more producers to incorporate group management systems. There's a tremendous need to understand the effect that shift will have on individual pork producers and their farms. Prairie Swine Centre has a responsibility to meet those evolving production system needs by anticipating the right questions to research and develop solutions.
We have and will continue to pursue research that helps provide the knowledge base to support management decisions. It's also important for everyone to have a broader understanding of what the science says overall and to that end we are a resource. Right now it's very timely for commercial producers to have an updated assessment of what the science says - that was why we developed the 'Groups or stalls' review.
Q: Freedom of movement seems to have become the 'tipping point' of the debate. Why is this concept so critical in determining the industry direction?
Dr. Jennifer Brown: Influential organizations such as OIE (World Organization for Animal Health) are saying that a certain level of freedom of movement is a requirement for animal welfare and that a lack of this freedom of movement is a disadvantage of conventional systems using gestation stalls. There are more and more indications that this is becoming the accepted logic among bodies that set welfare standards and also in what we are hearing and seeing in terms of societal expectations, trends in mainstream media and the intentions of food retailers.
If this logic continues to be accepted and become the conventional thinking it will be more challenging for producers to use stalls in the future. So there is a lot going on here beyond the science that is driving the expectations.
From a scientific perspective, it's important to keep in mind that stall size compared to animal size changes over time, and research is ongoing to assess the factors of stall size and time spent in stalls as it relates to comfort and welfare. However with the bar rising on what is considered adequate freedom of movement, clearly there will be rising pressure to reduce time in conventional stalls and adopt greater use of group systems. What we know from science and will continue to learn from science can help producers transition to systems that better meet the new expectations.
Q: A big reason for stalls in the first place was to protect the animals and support their health through individual care. Aren't there real welfare drawbacks too with group systems?
Dr. Jennifer Brown: There is no one perfect system. We recognize that welfare can also be a problem in groups, that's something that we are working on to assist producers to develop systems with new management ideas.. If you simply put sows in a group environment without taking certain management precautions there is going to be aggression issues, injuries and other problems. But as the review shows, there are things we know we can do to reduce aggression. Certainly in many group housing systems, , it's really not a serious issue, and we also see that European producers are regularly achieving equal or higher production levels in groups.
Q: Clearly animal welfare is in the spotlight more than ever before. How is this driving the agenda both at Prairie Swine Centre and at level of your industry stakeholders?
Lee Whittington: Pork producers and industry have always been interested in the welfare of their animals. That really hasn't changed. What's become different is the welfare of the animals is now a social topic that other parts of society are engaging in. That has changed the whole perspective just in terms of who is involved in this discussion. Certainly, this has heightened the awareness of producers and that's why producers like to see practical research that not only looks into welfare questions but helps provide new tools and new system designs that allow the pork producer to be successful.
To the credit of our producer stakeholders, animal welfare and behavior were among the priorities for research when Prairie Swine Centre was started two decades ago and that remains the case today. I think producers understand whatever challenge they face, they are better off the more knowledge they have that looks at solutions in the context of the overall swine enterprise. Obviously the health and welfare of the animals is critical to all aspects of profitable and sustainable production.
Regular improvements in areas such as early identification of potential issues that can be improved through research (such as lameness, system designs that improve the group environment) can all add up and make a big difference. We're always interested in finding those opportunities.