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Sows used for breeding are confined in 7ft x 2ft gestation crates.
A gestation crate, also known as a sow stall, is a 7 ft by 2 ft metal enclosure used in intensive pig farming, in which a female breeding pig (sow) may be confined during pregnancy, and in effect for most of her adult life.

Between 60 and 70 percent of sows are confined in crates during pregnancy in the United States, each pregnancy lasting four months, with an average of 2.5 litters every year. Sows, which can weigh 600 lbs, spend most of their three or four years of adult life in crates, giving birth to between five and eight litters. As the sows grow larger, they no longer fit in the crates, and must sleep on their chests, unable to turn, until they are slaughtered. The crates are usually placed side by side in rows of 20 sows per row and 100 rows per shed, the floors of the crates slatted to allow excrement to fall into a pit below.

Pork producers and many veterinarians argue that gestation crates are needed because sows who are housed together in pens will fight. According to the U.S. National Pork Producers Council, the American Veterinary Medical Association "recognize[s] gestation stalls and group housing systems as appropriate for providing for the well-being of sows during pregnancy." While the practice of immobilizing the animals in crates helps limit fighting, it also increases the animals' stress levels, causing other health problems. Some producers are solving this dilemma by providing opportunities for sows to exercise their inherent natural proclivities and behaviors, by developing multi-species farms that offer greater efficiencies and economic viability.

Animal welfare advocates regard the use of gestation crates as one of the most inhumane features of factory farming. Temple Grandin of Colorado State Universitymarker's Department of Animal Science — and a member of a McDonald's panel of experts who advise on industry best practice — has said: "I think gestation crates for pigs are a real problem ... I mean basically you’re asking a sow to live in an airline seat."

Where crates are used

In the European Union, the crates are being phased out by 2013 after four weeks of pregnancy. They are already banned in Sweden and in the UK. As for the US, they have been banned in Floridamarker since 2004, Arizonamarker since 2006 and Californiamarker since late 2008. Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the US, said in January 2007 that it will phase out gestation crates from its 187 piggeries over the next ten years, because of concerns from its customers, including McDonalds and several supermarket chains, however in 2009 they stated they would no longer be able to phase them out in 10 years due to low recent sales.

Welfare issues

Michael Morris of Victoria University of New Zealand writes that many studies have shown that sows in crates exhibit behavior such as bar-biting, head weaving, and tongue rolling. They also show behavior that indicates learned helplessness, according to Morris, such as remaining passive when poked or when a bucket of water is thrown over them.

Paul Sundberg, a veterinarian and vice-president of the U.S. National Pork Producers Council told The Washington Post: "Farmers treat their animals well because that's just good business. The key to sow welfare isn't whether they are kept in individual crates or group housing, but whether the system used is well managed." Sundberg said: "[S]cience tells us that she [a sow] doesn't even seem to know that she can't turn ... She wants to eat and feel safe, and she can do that very well in individual stalls."

The Washington Post reports that researchers have not found sows in gestation crates to have elevated levels of stress hormones. The author writes that this suggests their overall health is not compromised. Other researchers say the pigs' behavior does indicate chronic frustration. Sows in crates bite the bars, chew even when they have no food, and press their water bottles obsessively, all reportedly signs of extreme boredom. The Post writes that a report by veterinarians for the European Union concluded that abnormal behavior in sows "develop[s] when the animal is severely or chronically frustrated. Hence their development indicates that the animal is having difficulty in coping and its welfare is poor."

Farrowing crates

A nursing sow in a farrowing crate.
A few days before giving birth, sows are moved to farrowing crates, which are slightly wider so they can lie down to nurse. Crates have 1'6" "troughs" on each side where the piglets can safely lie without being in danger of sow overlay (when the sow lays down on top of a pig).

One source reports that there no difference between piglet mortality rates in Sweden, where farrowing crates are banned, and Denmark, where they are used.

References

  1. Rollin B.E. Farm Animal Welfare: Social, Bioethical, and Research Issues. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1995, p. 76 cited in The Welfare of Sows in Gestation Crates: A Summary of the Scientific Evidence., Farm Sanctuary.
  2. Reun, P.D.; Dial G.D.; Polson, D.D.; and Marsh W.E. "Breeding and gestation facilities for swine: matching biology to facility design," The Veterinary Clinics of North America: Food Animal Practice 8(3):475-502, 1992, cited in An HSUS Report: Welfare Issues with Gestation Crates for Pregnant Sows, Humane Society of the United States.
  3. Rollin B.E. Farm Animal Welfare: Social, Bioethical, and Research Issues. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1995, p. 76; cited in "The Welfare of Sows in Gestation Crates: A Summary of the Scientific Evidence", Farm Sanctuary.
  4. Webster J. 1994. Animal Welfare: A Cool Eye Towards Eden (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Science Ltd, cited in An HSUS Report: Welfare Issues with Gestation Crates for Pregnant Sows, Humane Society of the United States.
  5. "Obtaining optimal reproductive efficiency" (pdf), Swine News, North Carolina State Cooperative Extension Service, February 2006, Volume 29, Number 1.
  6. Kaufmann, Marc. "In Pig Farming, Growing Concern, Raising Sows in Crates Is Questioned", The Washington Post, June 2001.
  7. Kaufmann, Marc. "Largest Pork Processor to Phase Out Crates", The Washington Post, January 26, 2007.
  8. Shapiro, Paul. Pork industry should phase out gestation crates (Guest View), Globe Gazette, January 10, 2007.
  9. "An HSUS Report: Welfare Issues with Gestation Crates for Pregnant Sows", The Humane Society of the United States, January 6, 2006.
  10. Morris, Michael C. "Sow stalls and farrowing crates – ethically, scientifically and economically indefensible", Organic New Zealand, 62, no. 1, Jan/Feb 2003, 38-39.
  11. Weng, R.C., Edwards, S.A. and English, P.R. (1998) "Behaviour, social interactions and lesion scores of group-housed sows in relation to floor space allowance," Applied Animal Behaviour Science 59, 307-316, cited in Morris, Michael C. "Sow stalls and farrowing crates – ethically, scientifically and economically indefensible", Organic New Zealand, 62, no. 1, Jan/Feb 2003, 38-39.


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