Freedom for sow can be death for piglets

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.

16 Responses to “Freedom for sow can be death for piglets”

  1. Would the “sows rights” customers be prepared to buy a weaner before it is born. Then be content to be told “So sorry yours got crushed”? No you don’t get a refund. Thought not.
    Get some farrowing crates.

  2. This is the reason that I read you blog.

    I am happy to say that I am aware that pigs are killed in order to eat them, and that tofu is not an animal (I live in Berkeley in the US. My 2 year and 5 year old love tofu!)

    However, we do not have a day-to-day understanding of animal husbandry and we learn so much from this blog about the food chain and what it takes to raise our food. These details help us to be informed consumers and shoppers.

    Many thanks for the work that you do in sharing these details.

  3. A couple of people have said farrowing rails would have saved the piglets.

    No, they wouldn’t. Rails can prevent piglets being crushed between the sow and the walls. They can’t prevent piglets being crushed away from the wall. They can’t prevent piglets being walked on.

    The piglets that we lost to crushing and smothering were in the centre of the floor, away from the walls. Look at the photo of the one I found yesterday. The sow is against the wall with her belly facing inwards. The dead piglet’s head is under her bags. A rail against the wall would not have saved it.

    When Delilah stepped on a piglet and snapped it’s spine, it was away from the walls. A rail would not have saved it.

    We have a creep in the corner. The piglets are introduced to it early and moved in there when I feed the sows. It does help, but it can’t save all the piglets. Rails are the same.

    It’s also been pointed out that “good management practices” reduce piglet mortality. Yes, they do. And the main “good management practice” is having someone present 24/7 for the first three days after farrowing. It adds hugely to the cost on a commercial piggery (and remember that consumers want cheap pork), while on a small operation like ours it’s simply not achievable.

    Even when I am present, piglets still get killed. I was standing in the byre, checking Delilah, when she stepped on a piglet. In the past, I’ve been in the pen with a sow, seen she was going to crush a piglet and been unable to save it because a 225-250kg lump of sow has coming thudding down on it. SPLAT!

    If the sow lies down slowly, I can and have saved piglets. If the sow moves and her bags slump over piglets’ head, I can and have saved piglets. But I can’t save them all. As I said, if we have free-range pigs and don’t use farrowing crates, then we have to accept piglet deaths. Consumers have to do the same—they can’t wriggle off the hook by protesting “you should be able to do something!”

  4. I am so sorry for the loss of a high number of piglets. I think that the “free range’ lot need to also consider the rights of the piglets and the breeder. Farrowing crates for a few days, so that the sows piglets have a much greater chance of survival, has to be good for everyone. Berkhsires are a rare breed and will be even rarer if people like you cannot afford to breed due to high mortality of healthy piglets. Definitely get farrowing crates!!!!

  5. Understand the situation mate; my thoughts are wtih you 100%. I just hope you can keep smiling and keep up the good work with your Berkshires.
    Meat is usually more expensive at local butchers as compared to supermarkets, but I much prefer our local butcher for quality meat.
    A “down under” view where pricing is just the same as in the northern hemisphere.

  6. Are you considering the crates? Would they lose you too many customers? Despite being an omnivore I’m pathetically sentimental about the babies :-)

    • It’s not so much that I’m advocating crates, rather I’m pointing out that if people want us (or indeed the large commercial units) to forgo using them they should be honest about the costs involved. There are the costs in terms of piglet deaths and suffering. There are the costs in terms of the financial penalties incurred by spreading the finances over fewer surviving piglets.

      At the moment, the vast majority of consumers want all the “feel good” factors—real and perceived animal welfare improvements, traceability, rare/traditional breeds, less intensive methods, local production, small scale, less chemical inputs, organic principles, more jobs etc—but they don’t want to pay the costs of those.

      On the other hand, consumers demand ultra cheap food but they don’t want to know that the reality of that is ever more intensive production, real and perceived reductions in welfare, fewer jobs, genetic selection to improve efficiency, industrial production, more chemical inputs, global scale, more opacity of traceability and provenance, etc.

      My personal position on farrowing crates is that short-term use (ie a week either side of farrowing) need not infringe on the welfare of sows. Sows don’t move about much in their last week of gestation nor in the first week after farrowing. And, as we did with Delilah, the sows can be turned out for an hour or two a day if they are restless. Another advantage of turning them out is it provides an opportunity to muck out the cage and check the piglets without the sow getting anxious. (For a couple of interesting US accounts on how it used to be done, read “Farrowing Crates in California“, on Brad’s Take.)

      I’ve watched sows extensively in both domesticated and wild settings. (I used to shoot feral pigs.) Sows build their nest close to food and water supplies, then sleep for most of that fortnight either side of the farrowing date. They like to be able to adjust their position, but they don’t like to walk far. It’s too exhausting and takes energy away from the growing piglets.

      However, it does depend on the crate. Some aren’t much better than gestation crates and are intended for use on slats. Others, particularly some of those used in Switzerland, are more spacious and can be used with straw bedding. Of course, those are more expensive to buy and more labour intensive to maintain and clean. Also, I not keen on using them until the piglets are weaned, although commercial weaning is done at 21-28 days and we wean at 56 days. (I understand why commercial units do it, though.)

      Despite what many people believe, there’s no free lunch to be had.

  7. It would appear that the people who bleat about the ‘free range’ life of the pigs they want to buy could just be the same folk who try to knock your prices down?

    Ask any mother and I’m sure she’d tell you that a good rest, particularly AFTER childbirth is very welcome…. Neither two legs nor four legs want to be prancing around.

    Being contained for a week shouldn’t damage the pig’s free range credentials, surely?

    I loved FrankC’s comment about pre-purchase, by the way!

    • There is overlap between the different customer groups.

      Almost all our potential customers want totally free-range pigs: farrowed outside, raised outside, weaned outside, finished outside. Some accept outside farrowing is not realistic in a Scottish winter, but not all do.

      We’ve gone for farrowing pens in the byre as it increases piglet survivability. The heated creep gives the piglets a safe area, they can’t wander off and suffer hypothermia, the rough walls stop the sow sliding straight down on them, good lighting and headroom mean the vets and I can intervene easily and safely if necessary, and so on.

      We believe that’s putting animal welfare first, as well as reducing piglet mortality to some extent. Other people believe the pigs should be totally “free”. That’s fine. They can buy elsewhere.

      As for everyone else, they have to accept that even this degree of “confinement” still involves a high level of piglet mortality compared to the use of crates. It means higher costs and it means some piglets suffer, but that’s price of freedom for the sows.

  8. I’m one of the people who like reading your blog, but never comment.

    I do understand that you need to do what your customers want. That being said, I would vote to get the furrowing crates (not that this is up for a vote here…). A fortnight confined for the greater good is not cruelty. Especially if the sow doesn’t want to move during that fortnight anyways.

    That’s my sentiment from “the other side of the pond.” Best of luck with the rest of the piglets!

  9. I was sorry to hear about your losses. Could this be more of a “Berkshire mothering instincts” problem, rather than a crate-or-not-to-crate issue? The reason I ask is because another small farm in the U.S., Nature’s Harmony, has phased out their Berkshires altogether because of losses like the ones you’ve had. Their other heritage breeds — Ossabaws and now Large Blacks, which they replaced their Berkshires with, don’t have these kinds of problems … at least not on the same scale. Here’s a link to an older blog post from Nature’s Harmony on this issue … and down in the comments, one of the owners, Liz, wrote some more about the comparison between breeds:

  10. just chanced over this DISGUSTING piece through with it after half of reading it.pigs are nature and mistakes happen this isnt the cost its what its always been your disgusting humiliate animals for provit and cal it a gd deed to “farrow”it is nature and immoral to do this to animals for money give sombody a go at being stuck in a plank of wood and see how they like it

  11. Great blog! I understand your challenges, its a common problem in africa where we hardly use farrowing crates.The piglet mortality is always high.
    The reality is for a commercial farm the sows have to be confined in a farrowing crate to reduce piglet mortality.

  12. I love my sow she is a pet as well as a producer, but she is crated 2 days before delivery and one week after, even though she is very carefull with her young accidents are going to happen and it is best to reduce the problems before they happen. Bess does not mind the pen, for what time she is in it she is warm, feed, watered, and cleaned, she gets to see and call her young to her, they just can’t get stuck under her. We find after a week the pigglets move quicker and are wiser about moms size, then mom and babies are put in a furrowing pen where the babies have a safe warm corner to go to when mom is up and eating and mom can call them out to feed them when she wants. they stay in this form for the next 3 weeks. then if weather permittes all are turned out to free range tell they are sold 3 weeks later. I loss a few always but Bess and I work togather to keep the loss down, I use this method with my 14 other sows, if the buyer wants meat they can have it my way.

  13. Are you serious with this article? All animals should have the freedom to move around and display their normal behavior. They should have the chance to enjoy life. It’s the least we can offer them if we are going to eat them. It’s time we stop treating the planet and everything else on it with no respect. All producers should be at least be in accordance with The Five Freedoms. You may win some people over by pulling on their heart strings with the piglet story but those piglets should never be in that environment in the first place.

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