As always, and I will emphasize now, this article deals with California and to some extent, the USA. On this particular topic, I found lots and lots of articles on Europe, but their farms are different, their hogs are different, and I’m relying on data obtained in the States.
O.K.! Before I get started, let’s get some farming terms down. A Gestation Crate: a metal enclosure that restricts turning around in which a pregnant sow is kept for the duration of her pregnancy, about four months. A Farrowing Crate: a wider metal enclosure in which a pregnant sow is kept during labor and nursing, approximately one week.
There has been much confusion in animal welfare talk between farrowing crates and gestation crates. Allow me to be blunt.
Gestation crates are a huge welfare concern. Farrowing crates are a huge welfare benefit.
Gestation crates are being phased out of much of conventional farming (a market driven decision—who knew?). The sows would be housed in a small crate in which they cannot turn around. They only stand up and lay down, for months. The crates are banned in California, a lot of farmers don’t like them, and every animal science professor that I’ve had doesn’t like them. And yes, there have been arguments for their merits—the hogs are protected from one another. The farmer can keep an eye on each individual hog. And, you know, if the farmer loves his or her animals and does a good job, I can see it working in a case-by-case basis—but on the whole, I’d like to see them gone. In California, you typically see group housing (which is its own welfare concern—seems manageable, though).
Farrowing crates are a different story—in fact, they’re very important to ensuring animal welfare. Here’s why:
Sows are big. And fat. And they smell bad—but mostly, we’re concerned about them being big and fat. They really don’t know how to manage their mass. Mother sows, left to their own devices, will stand, meander a bit, turn around and lie down—on their babies.
That’s right. They will accidentally kill off their own litter by crushing them.
The farrowing crate is designed so that there is a barrier that the piglets can get through, but not the sow. The sow may stand, turn around, lay down, and the piglets are free so scurry past the barrier to safety. So, the sow gets a week in less-than-accomodating conditions (although, frankly, they don’t look upset—I can’t tell you why) and the piglets get to nurse from their mother and live to tell the tale.
So, imagine you are a newborn piggie. It’s your first day out of the womb, and it’s bright and not so warm and cozy as it used to be, but at least you get to meet mom face-to-face for the first time. “But wait… what? Mom’s about to lie down—wait—can’t you see me? Wait, mom, stop—noooo!”
One professor gave a similar skit, complete with a look of horror. It was between horrifying and hilarious. What can I say? I’m dark.
Point is, if you were a piglet, wouldn’t you be glad that there’s such a thing as a farrowing crate?