By Matt Reese
Back in 2009, Ohio’s livestock industry was facing growing pressure regarding farm animal welfare and, in response, introduced Issue 2 on the November ballot. Ohio voters overwhelmingly supported Issue 2 that created the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board.
Now in 2018, Ohio’s nearly 3,500 swine producers are in the process of transitioning to group housing for pregnant sows by 2025 as a part of the requirements of standards set by the board.
Pigs are typically housed in groups, but pregnant pigs are often moved to individual stalls partly because pregnant sows need consistent access to food without the risk of injury fighting among each other. Battles for food and the establishment of dominance can lead to overfeeding, underfeeding and serious injuries for sows in group housing situations.
Individual stalls, however, can also have disadvantages for pregnant sows. Some research has shown that production animals tend to have lower levels of cortisol — a hormone produced from higher stress levels — in their blood when they are raised in open environments versus separate stalls. In addition, there is considerable unfavorable pubic perception of individual stalls for pregnant sows.
“The move toward group housing addresses a consumer perception that animals reared in less intense settings have better welfare, freedom to move and freedom to turn around,” said Steven Moeller, an animal sciences professor and swine specialist for Ohio State University Extension. “We are making this conversion in Ohio from individual stall housing to group housing. That transition period is occurring now and we have lots of options. Many of our systems have converted but we also have many others still trying to make those decisions. How can we move forward with this transition that is required by 2025?”
Dale Minyo caught up with Moeller at this winter’s Ohio State, Michigan State University and Purdue University Tri-State Sow Housing Conference in Columbus in cooperation with the Ohio Pork Council. Under the Ohio requirements, swine producers will no longer be able to place pregnant pigs in individual stalls for the majority of their pregnancy. Group housing will be required to give the pregnant pigs more room to roam and interact with other sows. The transition will take time, expense and careful consideration to reconfigure barns with the new group pens.
Each facility has different challenges and must look at the numerous options available for making the group housing transition.
“There are definitely options in how we want to address individual feeding in a group setting, which is quite different from individual stalls which we can control every day. There are differences in the sizes of the systems,” Moeller said. “The system size will dictate how many animals you will put in a group. It will also dictate your options for feeding because we do want to address the individual needs of that sow whether she is in a group or not. How does that group dynamic change with regard to her needs?”
The needs of each sow must be carefully considered to maximize animal health and the productivity of the operation.
“As we think about the conversion to group sow housing, we have some time periods where we don’t want to mix them. We can mix them very early after they mate or we can wait until the embryo has secured itself in the uterus around day 30 or day 35 and then we mix those animals,” Moeller said. “Any time we mix we do recognize that there is aggression. We do have dominance or hierarchies that are established in these groups. Part of our goal is to make sure she is safe in pregnancy for her own good, but we are still learning through research and on-farm practice about how to do that best.”
Even with ongoing efforts to address the problem, sow-to-sow aggression remains a significant issue, said Monique Pairis-Garcia, an assistant professor of animal sciences in The Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.
“We haven’t figured out a way to eliminate the fighting,” she said.
Pregnant pigs will chase each other and bite necks, heads and ears, potentially causing injuries. After putting the pregnant sows in a group, the worst of the fighting typically slows down after two days once the hierarchy is established. The process starts over each time new sows are added, though, which can make management very challenging. Research can be very valuable in sorting out some of the finer details to minimize aggression and maximize sow safety.
“Though the rule requiring group housing for sows does not state how large an area the sows need to live in, swine producers are not likely to cram too many pigs into one space because if a sow isn’t getting enough food or water, the sow won’t likely be as healthy or productive,” Pairis-Garcia said. “They need to be comfortable, have access to food and water. Their ability to have piglets and raise them successfully is based on how they’re managed while they’re pregnant.”
As farm operations increase in size, Moeller emphasizes the importance of evolving in a way that prioritizes animal care.
“It is definitely important for us to recognize that as we have become larger, more focused and more integrated in our systems that we have to look at the animals and the challenges that come with that. Hopefully we can still have the same level of animal care standards, the same expectations of the animals in our systems and ultimately have the same level of sustainability of our operations over time as we make this transition. We have evidence we can do that but it does take a new mindset and a change with our caretakers’ abilities and desire to work with those animals,” Moeller said. “As we get our population in this country in general further away from the animal production — not just pigs but all species — we do have challenges.”
Ohio hog producers are not alone in this transition to group housing. Across the nation, states are increasingly requiring group housing for livestock, including hens, pigs and young calves. This year in Ohio, new livestock rules require that veal calves be housed in group pens after they are 10 weeks old. The Ohio poultry industry is also moving to more cage-free systems.