A professor at the U of M is conducting research into tools that will assist farmers in making the transition from the individual housing of sows to group housing.
Laurie Connor is a professor in the faculty of agricultural and food sciences and head of the animal science department. Her research into alternative housing for sows is focused on transitioning from the housing of pregnant sows in individual gestation stalls into one of several group housing configurations, and on helping farmers intending to make that switch decide which configuration would best suit their needs.
Typically, sows have been kept in individual gestation stalls, which facilitate ease of management for large numbers of animals. This housing arrangement also presents problems, however, as sows are allowed very limited amounts of exercise and are unable to engage in many of the social behaviours characteristic of their species.
Group housing schemes, on the other hand, are seen as more closely resembling a pig’s “natural” environment and allows them room to walk freely.
“Pigs are naturally social animals, so being with other pigs is considered important. In group or loose housing they can express their investigatory or foraging behaviour, have freedom of movement/exercise and within the confines of the space, can choose the most comfortable environment at any point in time,” explained Dr. Connor.
There is a concern, however, that choosing the wrong group housing configuration can have dire consequences.
“Group housing, per se, does not improve sow welfare. If we don’t get the right combination there can be major welfare problems for group housed sows,” remarked Connor.
These welfare problems include aggressive and bullying behaviours during feeding time between the animals, which were common in traditional group housing arrangements before the advent of individual gestation systems.
The solution involves farmers selecting from one of four modern feeding systems, as well as one of four flooring systems, each with their own pros and cons. For example, a setup may utilize an electronic sow feeder (ESF) coupled with a partially slatted concrete floor. Such a setup would give pigs a comfortable area on which to rest and allow animals to be fed on schedule without human intervention, but also presents the possibility of computer malfunctions getting in the way of a scheduled feeding.
Connor recently presented her research at the Saskatchewan Pork Industry Symposium, where she discussed how her and her colleagues’ project would aid farmers in making a transition that is potentially quite expensive. Connor explained that the current project has been divided into two phases.
“Phase 1 is a thorough review of the literature and presenting it in a form readily accessible and readable for the layperson/farmer.”
The second phase is the designing of an “interactive computer program that will assist in the step-by-step plan for the conversion.”
“We have been consulting with the pork producers/farmers at each stage in an effort to ensure we are meeting the needs of the sector with this project,” noted Connor.
Dr. Connor is also at work with colleagues in setting up a national project – the National Sow Housing Conversion Project (NSHCP). The NSHCP will involve a collaborative effort between Saskatchewan’s Prairie Swine Centre and provincial pork organizations spanning five provinces.
“Based on the work of our Manitoba project and knowledge base of the other partners we have applied for funding to establish a National Sow Housing Working Group and demonstration farm conversions in five provinces.”
More information on Dr. Connor’s research will soon be made available on the official websites of Manitoba Pork, the Manitoba Rural Adaptation Council, and the National Centre for Livestock and the Environment.