Gestation crates: News from the front lines

On January 1, 1999, British pork producers entered the scenario that's currently keeping many American producers up at night a ban on gestation crates. Producers in the United Kingdom (UK) had to make huge investments equivalent to $4,086 per sow space for indoor housing or about $410 per sow space outdoors that their competitors in the rest of the European Union could put off for well over a decade.  Scrutinized by the public, pressured by regulations and squeezed by a series of crippling economic disasters, nearly 40 percent of the nation's operations left the pig business within two years of the ban.

Fifteen years later, the British pork industry soldiers on. Word from the front lines is that the gestation crate ban has been tough, but not as bad as feared. As stated, the UK has a total ban on gestation crates. The European Union's (EU) partial ban on gestation crates took force in January 2013: It allows the use of crates for four weeks after insemination. Lessons learned from the British experience (and the EU's partial ban) may help U.S. producers weather impending bans stateside.

Productivity Sags

There's little question that loose housing, the group pens that accommodate Britain's crate-free gestating sows, lowered productivity in the UK. 

Ian Smith, managing director of Bedfordia Farms in East Anglia, England's leading hog-producing region, houses gestating sows in groups of 25 on deep bedded straw. He says the farrowing rate of his operation's 1,100 sows averages 80 to 85 percent, down from above 90 percent in confinement systems.

"We probably lost 10 percent of the farrowing rate," Smith figures.  Given the opportunity to re-design the UK's system, Smith says he'd prefer to use the model being adopted by the rest of the European Union, which allows the use of gestation crates for the first four weeks.

"Once she's in-pig, that animal is much more robust to mix in with other sows," he notes. Protecting that vital first few weeks of pregnancy can significantly improve farrowing rates, Smith says.

The data appears to bear out Smith's suspicions. According to InterPIG data collected from the UK, United States, Brazil and many European countries, the UK average number of piglets weaned per sow per year in 2012 was 24.0 for indoor loose-housing operations. The average was 21.6 among outdoor producers, who represent about 40 percent of the country's breeding operations. Sweden, which has a total ban of gestation crates like the UK, weaned an average of 23.8 pigs per sow in 2012.  The U.S. overall average that year was 24.9, although the top 10 percent of U.S. herds achieved 29.6 in 2012.

Other Factors at Play

Mick Sloyan, director of BPEX, England's pig checkoff program, points out that the soft numbers reflect more than just the difference in gestation housing. The crate ban coincided with an outbreak of classic swine fever, followed by a pork-price meltdown and a year-long bout with foot-and-mouth disease, he notes. The result: a massive drop in investment in pork operations, including genetics and other productivity-boosting technologies. It also explains some of the other factors that drove so many producers out of the pork industry, he says.

By contrast, Sloyan points out that Denmark, which he estimates had about 60 to 65 percent of its gestating sows in loose housing by 2012, enjoyed an average of 29.6 piglets weaned per sow that year.

Stockmanship Skills

British producers are gaining ground, Sloyan says. 

"We've learned how to manage sows in loose-housing systems," he explains.  "You have to go back to all your stockmanship lessons. You've got to manage the animal more than the system, recalibrate your eye to manage the animal and look at group dynamics."

Smith agrees. "A lot of the skills are really trying to identify early, and through behavior, the sows that are returning to heat," he says. "Within a group of 20 to 25, it's much more difficult to see one who's off-color or not doing too well.

"Handling as well is more difficult when you have to separate sows," Smith adds. "You want to be very calm and quiet. You learn to do your pregnancy testing at a time when the sows are quiet and laying down."

Selecting well-tempered sows becomes more important when workers have to move among two dozen animals, he points out.

Temperament can also impact the inevitable fighting that occurs as a group of sows sorts out its hierarchy.

"There's some hierarchy sorted out  a bit of argy-bargy goes on and that takes energy," Smith notes. "Some sows fare well and others not as well. Some of the sows have pink scratches down their sides, but it's very superficial."

Bedfordia Farms" electronic sow feeding system dispenses one of five feed rates to individual sows, triggered by each animal's ear tag. The system plays an integral role in ensuring that low-ranking pigs aren't denied adequate amounts of feed by the animals at the top of the pecking order. It also allows Smith's crew to put condition back onto thinner pigs entering the loose-housing system from the farrowing barns.

Tough Market

Increased production costs and lower productivity put a tight squeeze on British producers" margins, Sloyan notes. Competition ramped up immediately. After all, free trade among members of the European Union, which includes the UK, makes importing Danish or German pork into England as easy as sending meat from Ohio or Indiana to a buyer in Chicago.

British supermarkets promised to support the nation's pork industry as it shouldered the extra costs of loose housing production, but the buyers" backing didn't last long, says Sloyan.

"It didn't take much," he notes. "Our support more or less evaporated."

Ceaseless industry lobbying and consumer demand have earned British indoor pork producers a six-percent premium for the past five years. In today's market, says Sloyan, the extra six percent in price "is just about enough" to cover the added expense of producing pork without gestation crates. "But very few are making big margins out there," he notes.

"We've been able to hold on to a premium, but we did it at a cost," Sloyan warns. "In 1998, Britain was about 80 percent self-sufficient in pork. By 2012, we were 48 percent self-sufficient. We've got a long way to go."

Advice to American Producers

While the states that have passed initiatives on gestation crates are not major pork-producing states, the pressure from activist groups will likely continue. Sloyan and Smith recommend watching European producers carefully for tips on maintaining productivity in loose-housing systems.

"I would urge American hog farmers to monitor what's going on with top producers like the Danes," Sloyan says. "If anybody's going to learn how to do it, it's them. Keep up with international contacts, because there's a lot to be learned from Europe."

"The important issue, really, is to get prepared," Smith adds. "Be aware of what is likely to come, and don't leave your planning to the last minute. And keep your people informed. The more people on the farm who understand what is likely to happen, the better your outcome is likely to be."

In all, the shift to loose-housing hasn't been an easy road. But with the stereotypical stiff upper lip, Britain's leading producers have weathered the storm, and are holding their own as the rest of Europe starts to face similar challenges and level the playing field a bit. Sloyan predicts American producers will do the same.

"It might knock your productivity a little bit," he acknowledges. "But it's not going to destroy you if you're good. If you have an inherently productive industry, then you can find a way to make this work. It's a challenge."

Editor's Note: Steve Werblow is a freelancer who writes for a number of agricultural publications in the United States. He presently lives in Scotland and provided PorkNetwork with this first-hand, exclusive report.

Do loose-housing systems enhance pig welfare? 

That's a touchy subject, Ian Smith of Bedfordia Farms admits. "Undoubtedly it's kinder on the eye, from a human perspective, looking at a group of sows in a straw yard," he says. "I suppose one could reflect on the importance of individual sow space to the sow when she has a choice. In Europe, I've seen housing where sows have free access to the feeders, then can go back out. Not many sit in the communal area. Many sit in the crate area, even though they have a choice not to."

Sloyan believes many British pig producers wouldn't switch back to confinement housing. He says, "I think the majority of those who farm indoors would probably say, ‘no, we've got a system that works."