Dutch researchers examine open housing systems for hogs

The Swine Innovation Centre at Sterksel and Wageningen University are testing new systems to see how animals adjust when they are no longer confined. Their work was shown to a recent Canadian farm tour hosted by the Netherland’s economic affairs ministry. 


Anne-Marie van Bussel, head of research development at the centre, said gestation stalls were banned this year, and some farmers left the hog business. 


“The predictions are in 2018 we will be about 3,000 farms. We see farms getting bigger, but also due to the new regulations, old buildings are not ready to comply to these regulations, so they are breaking them down or they have a new destination for them,” she said. 


Many in the industry now realize that changes must come gradually. Early government directives, going back 30 years, were often not well received because they were arbitrary and did not always make sense to producers. 


“Instead of directing, they started stimulating,” van Bussel said.


“I think that had quite a positive effect.”


The swine centre’s research farm keeps 370 sows and 2,400 finishers that are sold into the commercial market. It is considered an average sized Dutch farm. 


The centre has a $2.2 million research budget and leverages matching funds from the private sector, government and farm organizations. Government policy is to stimulate innovation, so some projects have received grants covering 50 percent rather than the usual one-third.


Part of the centre’s research addresses the challenge of building socially acceptable farms that are also practical. 


Large farmers may be seen as respected businesspeople in rural areas, but urban residents often see them as disrupters of the environment who operate barns that produce too much manure, dust and odour.


“The image of the pig farmer is not too good,” van Bussel said. 


Local authorities limit farm size, and no new barns may be built near towns or nature preserves. 


As a result, researchers need to find ways to develop friendly housing and deal with manure to reduce pollution.


The centre has experimented with group housing systems as well as care of sows after breeding. 


European Union rules say sows should be released from breeding stalls after 28 days, although the Dutch government has said four days are adequate because the sows maintain body condition when they receive more exercise. 


Pig farmers did not favour the four day release because they worried the sows may lose the pregnancy. Aggression and stress are also higher at this time. 


“It demands more of you as a farmer,” van Bussel said.


“You need specific skills and ways of working with your animals.”


Statistics from these new systems show the number of weaned pigs improved to 27.2 per sow per year. Farrowing rates have shown a wide variation but appear to have settled around 87 percent.


Producers’ attitude and behaviour toward sows are important in these new systems. Workers need to learn how to recognize signs of stress and find ways to lower pigs’ anxiety by giving them more feed or things to chew. 


“Is the farmer thinking like a pig or is he thinking like a human?” van Bussel said.


Researchers who monitored behaviour around feeding stations to see if there are ways to reduce fighting have found that groups of 50 to 60 seem to work best so the animals can rank each other. 


However, she said the final choice of housing and feeding is up to the farmer. “We can’t tell a farmer which is best.”


Experiments have also tested different types of flooring in open barns because hogs walk more in these types of systems and put more pressure on their feet. Claw health must also be monitored. 


The public is also pressuring the industry to stop tail docking, castration and teeth clipping. Tail docking is still a common practice in the Netherlands, except for producers in organic programs. 


“All the changes we do to pigs, tail docking, teeth clipping, it is all in the same package we would like to stop in the future,” said Liesbeth Bolthuis, an animal science researcher at Wageningen University. 


However, short tails are still bitten and it is hard to stop the practice, even if the EU parliament wants to end the practice within five years. 


“Is zero percent realistic? We think it is not. There will always be some tail biting,” said van Bussel. 


Tail biting is a multiple problem related to genetics, frustration, boredom and stress. 


Staff at the centre have tried to train pigs to bite on other things rather than each other. A common practice is to give them a sheet of burlap in the farrowing and rearing areas, in which they can nest and play with.