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Pork CRC recommendations for successful sow group housing

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article image Dr Roger Campbell at the Toowoomba Sow Workshop

Pork CRC recently conducted a series of workshops for pork producers and industry stakeholders on successfully transitioning to sow group housing.

Australian pork producers are increasingly opting for group housing for sows in their care as part of the concerted efforts to produce high integrity Australian pork and appropriately differentiate the product from that of overseas competitors.

Addressing 150 pork producers and industry stakeholders at the recent Pork CRC and APL ‘Successful Group Housing Systems for Dry Sows’ workshops in Toowoomba, Queensland and Melbourne, Victoria, CRC for High Integrity Australian Pork (Pork CRC) CEO, Dr Roger Campbell described group housing the Australian way as ‘now virtually a done deal’.

According to Dr Campbell, most producers have made the transition and those who are now a couple of years down the track are reporting very satisfactory production levels and improved welfare outcomes for sows.

Dr Campbell adds that key factors contributing to these successes include providing adequate quantity and quality of space for the sows; plenty of feed availability and access, especially immediately after first mixing of sows into groups; and good stockmanship.

Pork CRC Subprogram Leader, Professor Paul Hemsworth of the Animal Welfare Science Centre (AWSC), University of Melbourne, said domestic pigs, just like their wild relatives, needed to establish a social order or hierarchy and this needed to be done quickly when sows were first mixed.

Sows need adequate space to avoid other sows and research has shown that space is more important than group size when mixing sows. Stress will typically reduce from day two to nine after mixing, and maximising space allowances, especially up to day two, will help reduce aggression between sows.

Professor Hemsworth said superior stockmanship is very important with group housing; being aware of recent familiarity between sows will reduce the aggressive behaviour on mixing. He added that the quality of floor space and feeding system type was also important.

Producers at the workshops generally agreed that providing plenty of feed, including perhaps multiple drops per day if floor feeding, was very important, especially when sows were first mixed in groups.

All feeding arrangements, including electronic sow feeding systems (ESFs) where sows are trained and full or shoulder stall feeding, had advantages and disadvantages.

Producers should, for example, ensure sufficient ESFs for the number of sows in the pen to minimise aggression during entry to the ESF.

Dr Jean Loup Rault, a colleague of Professor Hemsworth at AWSC, addressed the workshops, recommending that producers should consider using feeding stalls and distinct mating stalls, and make efforts to limit sexual interaction by dominant sows over submissive sows in order to limit unwelcome aggression between sows mixed at weaning.

Chris Richards and Associates veterinarian, Dr Bernie Gleeson, warned of unintended consequences, saying that nothing happened in isolation and this was particularly the case in group housing.

Producers needed to be aware of potential hazards such as mycotoxins in straw bedding, overweight sows, especially when floor feeding where dominant sows may eat more than submissive sows and the strategic placement of self-feeders.

Robust producer panel discussions were held at the Toowoomba and Melbourne workshops, with most agreeing that the transition to group sow housing was working well in spite of the challenges and that there was no one-size-fits-all solution.

A very informative manual, titled ‘Mixing Sows – How To Maximise Welfare’, was launched at the workshops and made available to producers. Edited by Pork CRC Program One Leader, Dr Ray King, it outlines the latest research on group housing sows and strategies for mixing sows post weaning or post insemination.

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