Extreme confinement: The questionable role of the farrowing crate in New Zealand’s future

In New Zealand, approximately 16,000 mother pigs (sows) are each confined to cages that allow them only the space to take one step forward or backward, for up to five weeks at a time, two to three times a year. Many of these crates were installed when pigs were physically smaller making them even more confining for today’s larger sows. Does the social license for such severe confinement still exist as we consider the deeper meanings of welfare for farmed animals?

Pressure has again been put on Parliament to ban the use of farrowing crates in New Zealand. Over 112,000 people have signed a petition requesting a ban, the largest petition to Parliament in five years. A recent Horizon Research poll showed that 73% of New Zealanders support a ban on farrowing crates. The Primary Production select committee will soon be considering the future of farrowing crates in New Zealand. SAFE’s Online Action Kit for Pigs shows the ways in which you can stand up and make a difference.

Sows naturally have a strong motivation to make nests and when prevented from expressing these behaviours they demonstrate frustration through actions like restlessness and biting the bars of the cage. Allowing normal nest building activity reduces the stress and length of farrowing, reduces the risk of piglets being crushed, and improves maternal behaviour after farrowing. It can also help reduce aggressive feeding behaviour in piglets later in life, which can cause further welfare problems.

In their 2016 review of farrowing crates, the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC) identified significant compliance issues with the current minimum standards. The minimum standard restricts the period of sow confinement to four weeks, except in a small proportion of cases where necessary for piglet health. The industry refused to accept or comply with this standard. Additionally, industry failed to agree or comply with the minimum standard to provide material for sows to manipulate (to undertake nesting behaviour) in recently constructed farrowing systems.

There is far from a scientific consensus around the impact of housing system on piglet survival rates. Of twelve studies investigating piglet survival in different housing systems, two studies showed no difference; pens performed better than crates in five studies; and crates performed better than pens in six studies. Despite this evidence, industry continues to stridently defend the use of crates under the justification of piglet survival rates.

NAWAC emphasises in their review the importance of other factors in reducing piglet mortality. One of the most significant factors being litter size, with smaller litters resulting in larger, healthier piglets who suffer lower mortality. Additionally, reducing stress around farrowing increases piglet survival. This is a clear benefit of providing for nesting behaviour. Selecting for more genetically appropriate pigs, bred for welfare rather than profit, is an obvious step forward and one favoured by NAWAC.

Increasingly, evidence from neuroscience has been filtering into the animal welfare space providing strong support for the experience of emotions in animals and challenging the ability of industry to silence critics with the accusation of anthropomorphism. As we continue to improve our understanding of animals’ affective states society will continue to critically examine our interactions with animals; most importantly, are those interactions where we significantly interfere with an animal’s ability to perform normal behaviours such as through extreme confinement in a farrowing crate.

The pork industry is concerned that they cannot be economically viable if they lift their minimum animal welfare standards. I think they should be much more concerned about the long-term viability of their industry. If they cannot demonstrate compliance with current minimum welfare standards and husbandry practices, which are socially acceptable to the majority of New Zealanders, they will have no future.

The sows of New Zealand need your help so please visit our Online Action Kit for Pigs and make your voice heard.

By Roz Holland, SAFE’s Veterinary Science Advisor

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