Producers in the European Union (EU) discuss sow housing alternatives and welfare compliance.

Not many U.S. pork producers probably know it, but the ban on gestation stalls scheduled to go into effect in the European Union (EU) in 2013 actually grew out of a debate over a different sow housing system, says Sherrie Niekamp, Director of Animal Welfare for the National Pork Board.

Producers in the EU commonly used sow tethers in an open-backed stall system until welfare concerns led to its ban in January 2006.

That's when sow stalls popped up on EU legislators' radar screens, which eventually led to the upcoming ban.

Sow gestation stalls won't actually be outlawed, clarifies Niekamp. In general, the EU regulation allows stall use during the first four weeks or so after breeding and also a week or two prior to farrowing.

EU Regulations Differ

Representatives of the National Pork Board and the National Pork Producers Council, which toured Germany and Denmark in early November, learned there were differences in regulations.

“While the EU has set regulations, countries have their own rules that may or may not be more strict than the EU regulations,” Niekamp says.

For instance, the United Kingdom (UK) passed its own version of the sow stall ban back in 2003. It specified that the ban is not in effect “for the period between seven days before the predicted day of farrowing and the day on which the weaning of her piglets (including any fostered by her) is complete,” according to the Code of Recommendations for the Welfare of Livestock from the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Niekamp says most EU producers they talked to made it clear they didn't intend to convert their stall systems until the 2013 deadline.

Sow Systems

The U.S. producer groups visited the Laake Company in Germany, which manufactures the Free-Access Sow Gestation System, recently purchased by Chore-Time Hog Production Systems (See: National Hog Farmer, Feb. 15, 2007, page 38). With this system, sows can manipulate the back gate to move in and out of the stall to spend time in a loafing area, then return to the stall at will for feeding.

U.S. producers expressed interest in this free-access stall system and visited three farms in Germany where this system was employed. Two other farms used an electronic sow feeder (ESF) system similar to the group sow housing system offered by Schauer Company, and one other producer utilized a trickle feeding system for sows.

“I think the number one take-home lesson that everybody learned, regardless of housing system, was that management was the key,” Niekamp recalls. “Every system has the potential to be successful as long as it is managed correctly. There are certain advantages and disadvantages to each system, but that is something the producer can adapt to.”

Niekamp stresses that this was borne out by the enthusiasm and competitiveness that each German producer displayed in talking about his respective sow housing system.

“It became apparent that there are different management practices associated with each of the different housing types, and those differences in personality, labor force and willingness to adapt need to be matched up with the type of sow housing system,” she says.

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German operations included an 1,100-sow free-access system, a 500-sow ESF system and other systems that averaged 300-500 sows.

The Denmark tour consisted of three farms, two with 400-sow ESF systems and a third, 600-sow farm with indoor-outdoor gestation facilities.

Other Danish producers who visited with the U.S. leaders said they had already made the switch to group sow housing, while others were waiting until the 2013 deadline.

Farm Inspections

The U.S. pork producer leaders met with Danish government officials and learned that farm inspectors visit 5% of Danish farms annually. Inspectors review standards for animal welfare, worker safety, manure management and use of antibiotics.

Of the 5% of farms that get inspected, a certain number are pre-selected based on size and ownership, while the others are selected at random, Niekamp says.

While the EU created agricultural regulations, they don't maintain an enforcement division, leaving it up to each of the 12 countries that comprise the EU to implement and enforce EU regulations.

Packing Plant Visit

The U.S. producer group had an eye-opening experience when they toured the Danish Crown plant at Horsens, Denmark, dubbed the world's most modern pork plant.

The plant slaughters and processes 77,000 pigs a week using state-of-the-art technology that starts with automated arms guiding hogs through lairage, and continues through much of the processing areas. The technology eliminated a number of jobs, but provided better pay and working conditions for the remaining staff.

Niekamp says 2-3 full-time employees provide guided tours of the plant using large viewing windows that showcase the brightly lit, highly modernized facility.

The tours are not just for farmers, but are very popular with average sightseers, apparently proving that some consumers actually do care where their food comes from, she notes.

Housing Decision Surprises Producer

Elma, IA, pork producer Max Schmidt admits the moves by Smithfield Foods and Maple Leaf Foods to phase out the use of sow gestation stalls caught him a bit off guard.

“Our current gestation stall barn only holds 700 of our 1,300 sows. We have been considering building a new gestation and farrowing barn and were planning on using stalls,” he explains.

All sows are bred in gestation stalls. Some are grouped in pens and some in outside lots.

“Originally, when we began moving sows to outside lots, we waited until they were confirmed pregnant and then moved them. We experienced 30% abortion rates,” Schmidt says.

The Iowa producer says he soon learned to move the sows shortly after breeding. “But the return to estrus rate is still higher than the sows left in the stalls,” he adds.

With the Smithfield decision to phase out gestation stalls, Schmidt is rethinking his building plans.

If Smithfield's decision was made to accommodate consumer demands, and since they harvest a large percentage of the nation's hogs, he wonders if this sow housing change will become a market access issue.

Schmidt suggests packers could use this issue in an attempt at market differentiation with pork from “humanely housed sows.”

But he warns producers face a couple of big challenges before considering a move to group sow housing. “The first is developing a much higher level of skilled management for working with the sows. The second is developing genetics that will thrive and produce in group housing,” he notes.

Schmidt reminds producers they haven't had to select for temperament when sows were individually stalled. “The mean sows will have to be culled. How long will it take to get the genetics that produce lean meat consumers expect, and provide sows that are gentle in their temperament?” he questions.

European Experiences

Schmidt wasn't part of last fall's producer group that toured Europe to learn more about sow housing trends. But he was in Europe a couple of years ago and visited two Dutch producers' sow barns, where sows were housed in groups.

The sows were kept 10-12/group and were fed in stalls where they could be locked in. While the sows were locked in their feeding stalls, the manure alley was scraped and bedding was replaced. The manure was handled as a solid material.

Schmidt recalls: “The system was working fine. However, the facility cost/sow was quite high because of all of the space. Because of Holland's milder climate, there was no need to heat the barns.

“I'm not sure that system would work well in the Upper Midwest with the -20° F weather we experience,” he notes.