Am I the only person who feels slightly uneasy about research into designs for farrowing without crates? In my travels, it is worrying how often I hear the suggestion that the development of non-crate housing will allow farrowing crates to be banned at the first opportunity.

This begs the obvious question of why a ban should be considered necessary. But the other basis of my unease is that no-one is laying down any ground rules for the standards that a non-crate method must meet before it is considered a viable alternative to existing systems.

Campaigns against confinement 

Talk of bans should surprise no-one. Self-proclaimed animal rights groups have joined up with vegetarian-oriented societies in several parts of the world to proclaim that confinement is cruel and free is natural. Their lobbying of politicians and regulators has already played an important role in the decision to rule against single-stall pens for pregnant sows in Europe and elsewhere. As soon as gestation was taken care of, they moved their sights quickly to the farrowing area.

The people who produce pigs for a living are accused of professional prejudice for daring to suggest that the case against confinement is far from proven. We should probably accept that our voice on such matters will not be heard. I do not see why that should stop us from continuing to express our view, nor from criticising those who make lazy and baseless statements about a supposed link between housing and animal behaviour.

Priority One: protect piglets 

The major animal welfare concern in the maternity area must be the right of baby pigs to survive beyond a few hours of their birth. Surely we need to be pointing out time and again that the only reason we pay for a crate to go in a farrowing pen is to increase their chances of survival.

I am tempted to add from personal experience that crate-less maternity can be a health hazard also for the person who ventures near a sow with pigs on her. One of my earliest memories is of dodging the mouth and teeth of a Saddleback that had been put with her litter inside a pen consisting simply of concrete walls without rails or frames of any sort. However, worker safety is not our main reason for investing in crates—it is to keep piglets alive.

Therefore, I fail to see how crates could be banned as not being welfare-friendly. I regard them as entirely positive to piglet welfare. Whether the welfare of the sow is threatened greatly by confining her for a relatively brief period is itself open to debate. Certainly there would be little of concern in the compromise now often proposed, of crating sows only for the first days when the danger of crushing pigs is at its greatest.

 Ten-year target 

None of this has stopped the campaigners, as you might imagine. This year has brought more examples of calls to ban crates in maternity places, such as when Denmark’s Ministry of Justice issued a statement that new regulations should outlaw the farrowing crate on Danish units by the year 2021.

In Europe, this school of thought has been backed by a related proposal (again from the so-called animal rights people) that all meat should by law bear a label stating whether it had been produced intensively or extensively.

Although the political pressure is undeniable, it has been held back so far by the absence of a form of housing for the birth process that could be termed viable as a non-crate option. This is where my sense of unease comes in. It seems to me that researching ways of loose farrowing only feeds the idea that an appropriate alternative to crates must exist.

 Viability test needed 

I would be less wary if we were given some clue about the standards that a crate-less system must fulfill. Sadly, no test of viability has been formulated. In theory there would be nothing to stop the regulators from insisting that every sow herd throw out its crates, because someone somewhere had conducted a few trials with an alternative design and found that it saved almost as many pigs from being crushed to death.

Make no mistake this threat is real, regardless of how illogical it may sound to us. To confuse you even more, the same people who criticize farrowing crates are also at this moment shouting about the tragedy of large numbers of piglets dying around the time of birth.

They say we should do more to save pigs that would otherwise be rated as stillbirths. It rather misses the point that the commercial producer would intervene anyway whenever that was justified economically.

But the future we face is of larger litters in which the average birth weight is lower and the chances of the smallest pigs surviving are reduced. We will struggle enough to keep as many piglets as possible alive and growing well, without facing new laws saying we cannot provide the crush protection offered by a crate.