How are farmed pigs housed?
Pigs raised in Australia to produce meat may be reared under different housing systems. The vast majority of pigs are born and raised in indoor systems, a smaller number are born outdoors and raised indoors, while some are born outdoors and remain outdoors for their entire life.
Boars are usually housed individually, whereas pregnant gilts (female pigs who haven’t reproduced before) and sows (female pigs who have reproduced before) are mostly housed in groups. The use of individual sow stalls for entire gestation has been largely phased out in Australia in favour of group housing of pregnant gilts/sows. Group sizes may vary from small groups (up to 10 sows) to large groups (100 or more sows). Pregnancy lasts around 116 days.
What is the difference between a farrowing crate and a farrowing hut?
In indoor systems, pregnant gilts/sows are moved to a farrowing crate (also known as a ‘piglet protection pen’) a few days to a week before they are due to give birth. Farrowing crates restrict the female pig’s movements and do not allow her to turn around. Some indoor systems may have farrowing pens which provide freedom of movement but which may also allow the sow to be confined to protect piglets from being crushed, particularly during the farrowing (birthing) process and the days immediately post-farrowing when the risk of crushing piglets is highest, or to carry out husbandry procedures. In outdoor systems, pregnant gilts/sows are moved to farrowing huts located within an outdoor area or paddock. Usually, farrowing huts are bedded with straw and are big enough to allow the female pig to turn around easily.
After giving birth, the gilt/sow will remain in the farrowing crate/hut for 3-4 weeks, at which time her piglets are weaned and moved to weaner accommodation. Farrowing crates confine the sow but give piglets room to access the udder as well as a separate creep area away from the sow which keeps them warm and protected.
Farrowing huts, on the other hand, allow the sow and her piglets (from around 2 weeks of age) to access the outdoor area. While in the farrowing environment, piglets in indoor systems will normally have their tails docked and some may have their sharp needle teeth clipped. Surgical castration, although uncommon, may also be carried out on male piglets in all systems.
Once weaned, the sow is returned to group housing and, shortly after, inseminated again and the cycle starts over. In indoor systems, the weaned piglets are grown out in group pens with concrete floors or slats with or without bedding or in large, deep-bedded shelters (also known as ecoshelters) with bedding made up of straw or rice hulls or the like. In outdoor systems, weaned piglets may be raised in similar bedded shelters with an outdoor area attached, or in outdoor areas with smaller shelters.
What is the pork production cycle?
The production cycle starts with the breeding herd which consists of gilts), sows and boars (entire male pigs). Most female pigs are artificially inseminated. Boars are used for the collection of semen as well as to bring the female pig onto heat, to determine if the female pig is on heat, and/or to mate naturally when artificial insemination hasn’t been successful or isn’t used. Artificial mating in indoor systems may occur within a pen or in a mating stall (similar to a sow stall), where the gilt/sow may be kept in the mating stall for up to five days after insemination. In outdoor systems, the gilt/sow may be brought into a larger mating pen for natural mating, or be artificially inseminated in a smaller pen or stall after which she is released.
The weaned piglets are raised for 5-6 months after which they are transported to an abattoir for slaughter. The meat from these pigs is used in the production of fresh pork products as well as bacon and ham (although the vast majority of bacon, ham and other cured pork products in Australia are imported). When sows and boars reach the end of their productive breeding life, their meat may be used for cured pork products such as salami. Other pork products include offal, blood products for human use, and ears, snouts and trotters for pet food, and pig hair for brushes.
Some pig farms specialise in breeding and raising pigs for meat, while others may focus on the breeding herd only and send piglets to specialist rearers once the they’ve been weaned.
What are the RSPCA’s standards for pig farming?
The RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme standards provide pigs with an environment that allows freedom of movement, the ability to meet natural behavioural needs and provide opportunity for enhanced welfare.
Sow stalls and farrowing crates are not permitted under the Scheme and farrowing pens must provide materials and space to allow the sow to carry out nesting and other maternal behaviours as well as provide adequate protection for piglets. Mating stalls must not confine sows for any longer than required to carry out the insemination procedure. Boars must be given the opportunity to exercise and have contact with other pigs. All pigs must be provided with a dry, bedded lying area. Also, painful husbandry procedures such as tail docking, teeth clipping, and surgical castration are not permitted. You can find out more about the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme standards at rspcaapproved.org.au.