Sows on conventional pig farms spend about half their lives in metal cages. These cages (called crates or piglet protection cages) are justified by the industry as preventing the sow from crushing the piglets after birth. The real reason, however, is an economic one – the production of as many pigs as possible in the shortest possible time in the smallest possible space.
The sows can hardly move in the stalls and cannot turn around. Nest building and social ties with their piglets are not possible. The sows are forced to lie over their own excrement on a hard concrete floor. As a result, their natural needs cannot even begin to be met.
A sow is up to 22 weeks a year locked in the crate – 1 week before and 3 to 4 weeks after the birth in farrowing pens, as well as 5 weeks during and after the insemination in the so-called mating center. In the farrowing pens it is not possible for the sow to bond with her piglets. The behavior of the piglets in this barren environment without any bedding and employment opportunities is also severely restricted2. With two litters that a breeding sow has per year, this means that the animals are fixed for almost 6 months a year.
Like the fattening pigs, the breeding sows are also kept on fully slatted concrete floors without bedding. Throughout their lives, they never have a soft lying surface available, which leads to severe joint inflammation in the animals, which can become very large and heavy. The stalls, especially in the covering center, cannot be adjusted to the size of the individual sows. Large sows in particular suffer from massive skin injuries and even purulent inflammation because the animals are too big for the individual stalls. Since the animals are housed there close together, they can never straighten their legs when lying down and can never lie fully stretched out without contact with metal bars.
The «advantage» of fully slatted floors, which makes the farmers’ work easier, is that the animals themselves kick their excrement through the slats into the manure pit below, so the pens do not have to be mucked out. In the case of the sows in the crate, however, this only applies to a limited extent, since the animals cannot push their own droppings through the gaps behind them due to the massively restricted movement. The droppings can accumulate behind the sows, forcing them to lie in their excrement, which is not only extremely unhygienic for the newborn piglets during labour, but also very uncomfortable for the otherwise very clean animals.
Another serious disadvantage of these farrowing pens is that the piglets are often trapped in the concrete slats because their feet are smaller than the usual slat width. The crevices also repeatedly injure the sow’s teats, as they can become trapped in the crevices1.
A few days before giving birth, the sows feel a strong urge to build a nest away from the herd. In the wild, they would travel long distances to gather twigs, grass, and leaves. In the conventional attitude, they can neither live out their urge to move that goes with it, nor build a piglet’s nest, which is actually a basic need. Nest building and birth are directly related and inherent in every sow. If this natural need cannot be fulfilled, this leads to massive stress and frustration, which can negatively affect the imminent birth. Providing straw that the sow can manipulate and carry around could satisfy this need. Studies show that sows restrained at birth have more problems giving birth than non-restrained sows, births in restrained sows last longer and the number of stillborn piglets is higher8.