Sows at the University of Illinois are being videotaped around the clock to determine if their “microenvironment” might create stress.

By filming the activities of sows 24/7, University of Illinois (U of I) scientists hope to learn if their surroundings are affecting their reproductive health and well-being.

Robert Knox and Janeen Salak-Johnson, associate professors in Animal Science, and Xinlei Wang and Kaustubh Bhalerao, assistant professors of Agricultural Engineering, all at the university, will research the effects of variability in gestation stall microenvironment on sow well-being, physiology and productivity. Their findings could give an edge to producers, says Wang.

“Reproductive failure is the primary limitation to performance and profitability for producers,” he adds. “There's also an overwhelming concern for the well-being of gestating sows in individual stalls in the United States.

“Once we develop better environmental control methods and automatic monitoring systems that will enhance the well-being of individually housed sows, we can transfer those management technologies to other swine housing systems if we need to,” comments Wang.

Until now, the microenvironment of a gestating sow hasn't been considered as a factor impacting sow welfare or productivity. Microenvironment includes immediate surroundings of a single animal — and those conditions can differ greatly among sows within the same building.

“For example, you and I could be sitting in the same room where the thermostat says 72°F, but if I'm next to a cold window, I will feel colder than you. Our microenvironments will be much different,” says Wang.

Temperature has been the primary environmental factor studied. But the U of I study will include humidity, air velocity and lighting.

The challenge is in figuring out whether changes in the microenvironment really affect the pig's physiological well-being.

“One way we measure a sow's welfare is by looking at her behavior,” says Salak-Johnson. “A sow might play with her water to try and cool herself, or she might pull her legs underneath her if she's cold.”

Sometimes animals perform behaviors in particular patterns, so if there is a change in their environment that causes them to be stressed, then they might change that pattern, she notes. “We'll see if there are certain patterns that occur in animals that are in a positive environment (one that improves animal well-being), vs. those that are in a negative environment.”

Salak-Johnson adds, “Researchers will be looking at social interaction with other pigs because that plays a significant part in the sow's well-being.”

More than 70% of the sows in the United States are housed in individual gestation stalls. But Salak-Johnson says pigs have a social ranking, no matter where they are housed, and that ranking carries a physiological consequence.

“One of the reasons sows are kept in individual stalls during gestation is their aggressive nature. If you let them roam in pens, the dominant sow will eat all her feed and then start moving everybody else out from theirs,” she explains. “But even if they're in individual stalls, a first-parity gilt could be right next to a fifth-parity sow who is intimidating her. That puts a tremendous amount of physiological stress on the gilt.”

The stress resulting from that interaction between sows could cause the gilt to give birth to lower-weight pigs or more stillborn pigs.

Salak-Johnson will be in charge of the round-the-clock videotaping. She hopes to develop an automatic monitoring system that will optimize the animals' reproductive health and well-being.

The research project will be conducted at the U of I's Swine Research Center. A building is being remodeled to create three control rooms that are similar in size, temperature control, air flow, animal numbers and housing.

“Each control room will have two different types of lighting — bright and dim,” says Wang. “And we will test each room at three different thermal levels: cold (55-64° F), neutral (65-80°F) and hot (81-95°F). There will be six stalls in each room, so there will be social interaction similar to a commercial setup.”

Funding to carry out this work was provided by a grant of $271,000 from the state's Council on Food and Agricultural Research Sentinel Project.

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