Slight modifications to sow gestation stalls may provide solutions to one of the most controversial issues facing the swine industry, according to a University of Illinois researcher.

“In the United States, the individual gestation stall is being banned based on perception, not science,” says Janeen Salak-Johnson, associate professor in animal sciences.

A number of companies and large swine operations are in the process of pulling sows out of gestation stalls and moving them to group housing. While group sow housing works, University of Illinois research shows this practice does not answer welfare concerns or improve sow performance.

“Producers are being pressured to move sows to group pens, but research is showing that overall, no real benefits are being realized by this move,” says Salak-Johnson. “Some sows do better in group housing and some do worse. We are discovering that slight modifications to current housing systems are positively affecting gestating sow behavior and performance.”

For the University of Illinois study, sows were observed in both standard gestation stalls and adjustable, flex stalls for behavior and productive performance.

The results showed that using flexible stalls positively influenced behavior, performance and productivity of sows in gestation. “Making minor changes in existing systems may truly improve the well-being of the sow and ultimately the welfare” Salak-Johnson says.

The flex stall allows the producer to increase the width but not the length of the stall. It can be adjusted midway through the gestation period to offset the sow’s growth during pregnancy.

When the flex stall width was adjusted to achieve more space between the sow and the stall when lying down, researchers observed fewer oral-nasal-facial movements and sham-chewing.

Sows also sat down more in the flex stall and drank less often. Sows in the flex stall farrowed more piglets and weaned more piglets than sows in conventional gestation stalls.

“This doesn’t solve all the issues – but it’s the first attempt in the swine industry to look at physical components and management strategies of various housing systems,” Salak-Johnson says. “Our ultimate goal is to find the components of a housing system that truly affect the well-being of a sow.”

Funding for this project was provided by Pork Checkoff and findings were presented at the Illinois Pork Expo last month in Peoria.