Free far­row­ing – The future of British pig pro­duc­tion?

High wel­fare pig pro­duc­tion isn’t always about free-range sys­tems. With grow­ing demand for eth­i­cal­ly pro­duced but inex­pen­sive pork, high wel­fare indoor sys­tems could be the way for­ward for the indus­try.

This arti­cle was first pub­lished in “The Fur­row” in April 2016.

The mod­ern con­sumer is a demand­ing one. We want top qual­i­ty food, pro­duced to the high­est wel­fare stan­dards, at the low­est pos­si­ble price. For today’s farm­ers, that presents a con­sid­er­able chal­lenge. But one pig pro­duc­er in Dorset is striv­ing to meet those demands, and has found a sys­tem that could be rolled out across the indus­try.

Robert Las­seter cut his farm­ing teeth pro­duc­ing out­door pigs in the rolling green hills made famous by Vic­to­ri­an nov­el­ist Thomas Hardy, author of Far From the Madding Crowd and Tess of the d’Urbevilles. “I bought a small herd of pigs and was sell­ing 70kg pork­ers off a few rent­ed fields,” he says.

But out­door pigs did lit­tle to enhance this Dorset idyll, turn­ing the green fields into mud­dy brown deserts pop­u­lat­ed by cor­ru­gat­ed tin arks. “I could nev­er answer the ques­tion: Why keep a wood­land ani­mal that likes damp shady con­di­tions in an open field where the only shel­ter is a tin hut?”

Green meadows of Corton Farm in Thomas Hardy county

Cor­ton Farm is based in Thomas Hardy coun­try, which looks pret­ti­er with its green fields than mud­dy out­door pig ranges.

So in 2007, when Mr Las­seter moved the herd to Cor­ton Farm at Fri­ar Wad­don, he became one of the UK’s few indoor pig pro­duc­ers approved under the RSPCA’s Free­dom Food scheme. This paid him a 7p/kg pre­mi­um for pork pro­duced to high wel­fare stan­dards – and since then he has con­tin­u­al­ly devel­oped and honed his sys­tem to max­imise pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, prof­itabil­i­ty and pig wel­fare.

A life chang­ing invest­ment

In 2014 Mr Las­seter made his biggest invest­ment yet – and if it catch­es on it could trans­form the lives of mil­lions of pigs each year. After inten­sive research and study tours, he decid­ed to replace his far­row­ing crates with new far­row­ing pens that pro­vide a far more nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment for the sow and her piglets and meet the RSPCA’s upgrad­ed stan­dards.

“To me, it’s the dif­fer­ence between caged hens and those in a colony sys­tem,” he says. “I don’t like the idea of moth­er­hood behind bars: The inter­na­tion­al pig indus­try is com­ing in for a lot of flack, and I think we need to change the way we farm.”

Far­row­ing crates were first intro­duced in the 1960s as a way to reduce piglet mor­tal­i­ty. Although extreme­ly effec­tive, Mr Las­seter believes their days are num­bered, as new­er free far­row­ing sys­tems offer a high­er wel­fare alter­na­tive.

Free far­row­ing could be the sys­tem of the future, allow­ing sows to express nat­ur­al behav­iour while pro­tect­ing the piglets.

Pio­neer­ing mater­ni­ty unit

“I went to look at a num­ber of dif­fer­ent free far­row­ing sys­tems, and learnt a lot from the pio­neer­ing farm­ers’ suc­cess­es and mis­takes,” he says. “Even­tu­al­ly we tri­alled 18 360° pens in an exist­ing Fin­rone build­ing, and after a few improve­ments invest­ed in two batch­es of 26 pens.”

A major advan­tage of the 360° pens, from the farmer’s per­spec­tive, is that they fit on the same foot­print as con­ven­tion­al crates. How­ev­er, the floor may need to be replaced to ensure it’s strong enough to sup­port the sow, as – unlike in crates – she has the space to turn around, move about and exhib­it more nat­ur­al behav­iour.

The pens have slid­ing bars that offer pro­tec­tion to the piglets, as well as heat mats and an area for creep feed that Mr Las­seter designed him­self. Open grids mean the sows and piglets can see their neigh­bours, while a lever-oper­at­ed crush can iso­late the sow for any man­age­ment required.

The pens are bed­ded with shred­ded paper over the slat­ted floor, with ad-lib food pro­vid­ed through man­u­al feed­ers. “It’s been a real­ly steep learn­ing curve, but we’re now wean­ing the piglets an aver­age of 1kg heav­ier at 26 days, which should mean we can fin­ish them at least a week ear­li­er,” he says.

Wean­ing weights have improved sig­nif­i­cant­ly as the sows are hap­pi­er and the piglets have bet­ter access to their teats, boost­ing milk yields.

Hap­py pigs do bet­ter

Mr Las­seter attrib­ut­es the heav­ier wean­ing weights to the sows being more relaxed and the piglets hav­ing bet­ter access to their teats. “Hap­py ani­mals do bet­ter. I think the piglets are suck­ling more, which is mak­ing the sows pro­duce more milk. The sows are eat­ing a huge amount more and real­ly seem a lot hap­pi­er.” He is also work­ing with the AHDB levy board and research facil­i­ty FAI Farms on tri­als using CCTV for the Co-op super­mar­ket to study best prac­tice and sow behav­iour in the 360° pens.

Because the pens are more spa­cious, the staff can get in with the sows and piglets, rather than hav­ing to do every­thing behind bars. “That’s real­ly ini­ti­at­ed a rela­tion­ship with the sows that we didn’t have before. They’re very qui­et and don’t see us as a threat, which is real­ly impor­tant.”

I think the whole indus­try will be mov­ing to free far­row­ing in the future – the 360° pen is the most impor­tant devel­op­ment since the far­row­ing crate.

Robert Las­seter

Work­ing indoors is also far nicer than deal­ing with the change­able British weath­er, he adds. “Although we’re short of labour right at the moment, we’re all a lot less stressed. Work­ing with the sows now is a real plea­sure.”

The sows remain in the pens for 26 days after far­row­ing, after which the piglets are weaned and moved into a con­vert­ed cat­tle shed. As they grow they are moved again into straw-bed­ded pens housed in a large gen­er­al pur­pose build­ing, before being fin­ished at about 80kg dead­weight. Mr Las­seter keeps replace­ment gilts in groups, and uses Regu­mate to syn­chro­nise them before arti­fi­cial­ly insem­i­nat­ing them. “We’ll AI them twice and then turn them out with a boar.”

Batching and disinfection system on a pig farm

The sows far­row in three-week batch­es and the all-in, all-out sys­tem fol­lowed by dis­in­fec­tion has reduced expen­di­ture on vac­ci­na­tions.

Groups elim­i­nate bul­ly­ing

After their first lit­ter, Mr Las­seter keeps the young sows togeth­er in out­door pens to elim­i­nate any bul­ly­ing by old­er sows. “That makes a mas­sive dif­fer­ence – we no longer get any sec­ond par­i­ty drop-off in pro­duc­tion. They then join the main indoor sow herd after their sec­ond lit­ter.” To keep costs down, Mr Las­seter pro­duces all of his own cere­als and straw, grow­ing 130ha of win­ter wheat, win­ter bar­ley and spring bar­ley, with spring beans as a replace­ment to bought-in soya.

“I want to pro­duce as much of my own feed as pos­si­ble, but I do buy in some creep and grow­er feed as I don’t seem to be able to cre­ate a diet that’s good enough for pigs up to 20kg. If you can get them off to a good start it makes a huge dif­fer­ence.”

Mr Las­seter weighs all of his piglets at wean­ing and again six weeks post-wean­ing. “We used to just weigh an aver­age group, but now we’re weigh­ing every lit­ter and we’ve realised that some sows are pro­duc­ing twice as much pig meat as oth­ers,” he says. “We always select­ed our gilts from sows using num­ber of piglets born alive and weaned, as well as fer­til­i­ty – now we’re adding in lit­ter weights as well.”

Cor­ton Farm in fig­ures

  • 160ha farm with 130ha pro­duc­ing wheat, bar­ley and beans
  • 200-sow indoor pig unit
  • Piglets born alive: 13.5
  • Wean­ing 11 piglets (sows 10.5, gilts 11.3)
  • Aver­age wean­ing weight: 8kg
  • Fin­ish­ing 5000 pigs a year

Huge genet­ic poten­tial

The new far­row­ing pens are also reveal­ing the sows’ true genet­ic poten­tial, with some wean­ing 15 piglets, and a top 26-day lit­ter weight of 145kg. “We had no idea that some sows had the poten­tial to do that. And the poten­tial of our gilts looks even bet­ter, so there’s plen­ty more to come,” says Mr Las­seter. In a bid to fur­ther improve pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, he is serv­ing more sows over a slight­ly extend­ed peri­od, and has upped his replace­ment rate to bring gilts through more quick­ly. “We’re also select­ing gilts with 16-18 nip­ples in pref­er­ence to those with 14.”

Mr Robert Lasseter holding a piglet

“Hap­py ani­mals do bet­ter”, says Mr Las­seter.

For this year Mr Las­seter is bud­get­ing to sell 21t of pig meat (dead­weight) every three weeks from 27 sows far­rowed; in 2014 he aver­aged 15.8t. “It’s not a big f

The sows far­row in batch­es three weeks apart for ease of man­age­ment, and the all-in, all-out sys­tem fol­lowed by cleanout and dis­in­fec­tion means Mr Las­seter has been able to reduce expen­di­ture on vac­ci­na­tions. “I like sim­ple sys­tems – plus all the jobs on the farm must be able to be car­ried out by a girl. You’re dou­bling your poten­tial work­force, and women are real­ly good with the young stock. I real­ly like hav­ing a young work­force because they have bags of enthu­si­asm and loads of ideas.”

It is essen­tial sows have only one type of far­row­ing pen so they can learn the sys­tem, he warns. “This makes it a more dif­fi­cult finan­cial chal­lenge to change from crates, but unless all are changed the ben­e­fits for staff and sows won’t come through.”

arm, but when it comes to prof­it in pigs it’s all about the num­bers. When prices are low you can lose a lot, but when they are good you can recoup a lot and rein­vest, which is what we did in 2014,” he adds. “Our return on invest­ment in the far­row­ing pens will be 10 years or more, but I think the whole indus­try will be mov­ing to free far­row­ing in the future – the 360° pen is the most impor­tant devel­op­ment since the far­row­ing crate.”

Key ben­e­fits of free far­row­ing

  • Allows sows to exhib­it their nat­ur­al behav­iour
  • Piglets suck­le more, boost­ing wean­ing weights – by 1kg at Cor­ton Farm
  • Work in the pen, with the sow, not from out­side a crate
  • Hap­pi­er pigs, hap­pi­er work­force – less stress all round
  • High­er wel­fare sys­tem pre­ferred by con­sumers
  • Poten­tial for pre­mi­um price through RSPCA assur­ance