While preparing to attend IPVS in Dublin this week, I had the opportunity to discuss the global pig industry with a number of professionals considered authorities in their fields.

A common theme emerges that I plan on verifying further, but I thought it merits mentioning here to solicit the input from our readers. (For some reason, you find it difficult to leave a public comment on my blog, but I do receive many emails to my posts — and for this one I definitely need your comments!)

So, I have been told that the next animal welfare issue to be addressed will be crate-free pigs. This is about lactating sows kept in large, open boxes, unrestrained in their movement. Even small groups are considered by some more progressive minds, and in fact, such attempts are not new in several Scandinavian counties.

Of course, one has to take into account the welfare of the piglets along that of their mother. After all, lactation crates were designed so that piglet mortality due to crushing is eliminated. For that, a number of ingenious contraptions are tested, but so far none is as effective as the old crate. Research is ongoing, however, and perhaps increased neonatal mortality will be another issue hard to resolve.

But there are benefits that have not been considered so far. Some suggest that cross-fostering can be easier; cross-suckling can become the reason why grouped sows weaned heavier piglets, and feed intake among piglets might increase as they observe their mother exhibiting more natural feeding habits.

All in all, this is exciting news for researchers and some equipment manufacturers, although not good prospects for most producers. Perhaps it is an opportunity to a less expensive production option for newcomers. After all, lactating crates (the good ones) tend to be an expensive investment.