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

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

July 31st, 2018

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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