Loose sow housing plans delayed

Plans to convert all Canadian hog barns to loose sow housing by 2024 will be delayed to 2029 if recommended amendments to the pig code of practice are approved.

Many hog producers cannot meet the previous deadline due to complexity of converting older barns, cost, financing difficulties, larger space requirements and projected lower productivity during transition, according to data from the code technical panel.

In the five-year review of the 2014 version of the code, initiated by the National Farm Animal Care Council, members of the panel recommend 2029 as the new target date.

That recommendation and seven others are now subject to a public comment period that began Sept. 21 and will extend to Nov. 19.

“We’ve learned a lot about loose housing since 2014. It’s not a simple task,” said Hans Kristensen, a New Brunswick pork producer and member of the code technical panel.

“It is a more complex and expensive task, I think, than we originally anticipated and realized. And the simple truth of the matter is we’re just not going to get it done by 2024.”

Kristensen said every hog barn facility built since 2014 has incorporated loose housing and the industry remains committed to using that style. However, conversion of older barns is problematic given their many differences and there are other challenges as well.

“It’s renovating the existing barns but it’s also changes in the way producers care for their animals. It’s learning how to properly manage loose housing systems. Even genetics come into play. We’re learning there’s differences with different genetic lines and how well they adapt to loose housing and group housing systems.”

Kristensen said about 25 percent of Canadian hog barns now have loose housing and by 2024 that percentage is expected to reach 60. The remaining 40 percent are expected to reach the goal by 2029.

World Animal Protection, an organization that is represented on the NFACC board, expressed concern about the delay in transition to open sow housing but said it was encouraged that about one-third of the industry has already converted its barns.

“World Animal Protection is also calling on the Retail Council of Canada and the seven grocery retail members to publicly uphold their commitment to phase out sow stalls in their supply chains by 2022,” it said in a news release.

“As the industry has already made progress in moving towards group housing and will continue to do so, World Animal Protection expects enough supply will be available in Canada to meet this commitment.”

Sow welfare will not be compromised by the delay in barn transition, said Kristensen.

“If you rush this transition, if you do it poorly, that can actually have a negative impact on animal behaviour and animal welfare. This is more about taking the time to do it and do it right. The industry is 100 percent committed to this transition. We just want to get it right.”

The technical committee’s report regarding proposed amendments said barn conversion can cost $500 per sow and new farrow-to-wean facilities with electronic feeding can cost more than $3,500 per sow space.

It noted producer difficulty in obtaining financing for barn changes, which are typically repaid over 20 years or more. As well, producers may see lower productivity once the transition is made.

“The group housed system requires more space. As a result, barns need to be enlarged (often requiring the navigation of a challenging permitting processes) or the number of sows in the barn reduced. A reduction in the number of animal results in a decline in overall farm revenues,” the report said.

Forcing changes with inadequate time risks adverse effects on sow welfare, it added.

The current version of the code said mated gilts, sows and boars can be housed in stalls if they can turn around or exercise periodically.

The technical committee explored scientific research on greater freedom of movement and concluded that periodic exercise offered little welfare value to sows in gestation stalls. It also found that recommendations to provide enrichment for sows and gilts, in the form of toys or diversions, should be a requirement for sows that remain in stalls as of 2024, if that enrichment has measurable welfare benefits supported by research.

Other recommended amendments relate to space allowances, research priorities and skills in animal health and welfare required from stock persons.

The Canadian Pork Council has committed to provide an annual progress report on loose housing transition and data on code compliance.

Access to comment on the proposed amendments to the code can be found at www.nfacc.ca/codes-of-practice/pigs.

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