Delilah, the Berkshire sow that farrowed yesterday, has just crushed one of her five remaining piglets.
Her litter is now to down to four from 13.
All five were alive and suckling at 0810. Thirty minutes later and I noticed Delilah had shifted slightly, spilling her bags over one of the piglets and asphyxiating it as it suckled. It was still latched on.
Daphne’s litter still has seven piglets remaining.
Between them, the sows farrowed 24 piglets. One of Daphne’s was almost certainly too weak to have survived long but all the rest were strong piglets, even if Daphne’s were small.
They died because we have free-range pigs, with the sows free to move around.
Animal rights advocates believe this to be the morally correct approach and campaign vigorously against the use of farrowing crates, saying they are not animal friendly, restrict the freedom of the sow and prevent the sow from experiencing natural activities.
(Farrowing crates are not the same as gestation crates/sow stalls, which are illegal in the UK, usually prevent sows from turning around and see them confined for long periods. Farrowing crates house a sow in one section and the piglets in another, allow the sow movement and contact with her piglets, but prevent her from lying on them.)
However, the animal rights view is that farrowing crates are almost as bad as sow stalls in the way they deny “freedoms” to the sow.
Many of our customers agree with this view, so we don’t use farrowing crates.
However, what is ignored in all this is the impact a decision not to use farrowing crates has on piglet mortality and on the pig breeder’s costs.
If we’d put Delilah and Daphne in larger farrowing crates, just before or just after they farrowed, and kept them in crates for 72 hours we’d have cut the number of dead piglets from 13 to two. (Piglets are most likely to be crushed in their first 72 hours, so the sow could come out after that.)
The piglet that wandered off into a semi-frozen puddle and died of exposure would not have been a fatality.
The piglet that had its spine snapped when Delilah stood on it would not have suffered while I brought out the air rifle to shoot it.
Nine of the 10 piglets that were crushed under the sows would still be up and about.
We’d almost certainly have lost one very small piglet to an infection. And we’d probably still have lost one to crushing as it was flattened more than a week after farrowing, at which time Daphne would have been out of a crate anyway.
Freedom for sows comes at the cost of death for many piglets. We usually lose less than we have this time, but we always lose some.
There’s another cost, too.
If we have fewer piglets surviving to weaning, we have fewer weaners to sell. If we have fewer weaners to sell, we have few weaners to share the costs of breeding pigs. And that should mean higher prices.
At the moment, for example, it costs us just over £650 to produce a litter of weaners for sale at 10 weeks old. Our two current litters will have cost £1,300 by the time they’re ready for sale.
If 21 of the 24 piglets from the two current litters had survived to weaning, that would be a cost of 61.90 each.
At the moment, we have 11 piglets still alive and if they all survived to weaning that would be a cost of £118.18 each.
Obviously, many litters have higher numbers of piglets surviving to weaning so we average it out over the year. We aim for 13 piglets per litter with 10 surviving to weaning, which means they cost an average of £65 each.
Where we start to run into problems is when, as now, we have a couple of litters in quick succession with poor survival rates.
Litters like this push the average down markedly and severely affect the short to medium-term cash flow. We’ve been spending on feed, straw, medications, detergents, disinfectants and more, dipping into the red in the short-term while aiming to come back into the black when the weaners sell.
People look at the price of weaners and say, “You’re raking it in, that’s £650 cash for a litter! How do I get into this breeding lark?”
What they ignore is that at around two-thirds of the money will have been spent already and the other third has to be put aside to cover future expenditure while we wait for the next litters to come through.
Yes, we could be more efficient when it comes to piglet mortality. We could ensure more piglets survive. And we could edge costs, and therefore prices, down a little if more piglets survived.
However, to push survival rates higher, we’d have to use farrowing crates. Crates would add a little to the costs, spread over three years, but they would cut more by pushing up the average number of weaners per litter.
Of course, we’d be infringing the sow’s “rights” and “freedoms”, so we’d lose many potential customers who only want free-range pigs from sows free to indulge in natural behaviours.
Is it possible to square the circle?
No, I don’t believe so.
If people genuinely want free-range pigs with the sow’s “freedoms” respected above all, then they have to accept more piglets will die—sometimes horribly. They have to accept fewer piglets means fewer weaners at a higher cost each. (And they have to accept I’m going to be tired and grumpy after checking sows and piglets every hour or so for days at a time as I attempt to save as many as I can.)
If people are only interested in lower prices, then they have to accept the use of farrowing crates to restrict the sow’s freedom for a few days so as to push survival rates per litter up from 10 per litter to upwards of 12.
If people are horrified by images of crushed, squashed and splattered piglets, then they have to accept that’s the cost of the sow being free to roam around. I have accept the reality. So do they.