Saving the bacon: Will UK pig farmers survive a cage ban? | Farm animals

After more than a decade of testing the removal of pig cages on her Yorkshire farm, Vicky Scott has lost confidence in her ability to make it permanent.

This would require building a new shed to create enough space to freely house all of her pigs, she said. “No one will pay for it. They [the retailers] want products as cheap as French fries and consumers want cheap meat.

Yet the UK and the EU should ban all forms of containment in pig farming.

In June, the European Commission confirmed that it would table a proposal to phase out the use of farrowing cages, which are used to confine sows before and after birth, by the end of 2023. The Kingdom United – and Boris Johnson himself – have made it clear that the long-term goal is to do the same.

Cages are used to confine pregnant sows until their piglets are weaned after four weeks. They limit the movements of the sows, thus reducing the risk of crushing the piglets.

However, in addition to restricting sows’ natural behavior and movements, including nest building and interaction with her piglets, cages have also been shown to increase the risk of stillbirth.

Piglets are susceptible to being run over by sows if they are not in a cage, but overall death rates can be managed, says pig specialist Emma Baxter of Scotland’s Rural College. Outdoor pig systems, where pigs are not confined, consistently return average piglet death rates similar to those indoors where pigs are confined, she says.

Piglets suckling on an outdoor farm in Yorkshire. The sow can freely interact with her piglets, but the piglets risk being run over by the sows if they are not in a cage. Photograph: Murdo Macleod / The Guardian

Since the majority of pigs in the UK are reared indoors because outdoor breeding is limited by soil type, producers will need to be able to adopt indoor welfare alternatives to farrowing cages. , explains Baxter.

“Indoor farrowing without cages is feasible, but generally requires more space per sow, which has financial implications. It also requires better breeding skills and, ideally, the right type of sow, ie good dam traits and a reasonable litter size, ”explains Jeremy Marchant-Forde, Animal Science Researcher at US Department of Agriculture.

But the industry’s trend towards greater spans could make it harder to break out of containment.

“There is still a push [from the pig industry] for larger and larger litters, and even if this means more loss of piglets from birth to weaning, the end result is an increasing number of piglets weaned with each litter, ”explains Marchant-Forde. “However, what the impact of cage-free farrowing might be on piglet mortality in large litters is somewhat unknown.”

For Scott, the only viable option to phase out the use of crates is an expensive upgrade to his interior system. It is not possible to move outdoors, given the humid climate and unsuitable soils for pig farming in Yorkshire.

“I wouldn’t want to give birth up to my knees in the mud. There is no way that my [piglet] mortality is better outdoors. The superior wellness system for me is on the inside, ”she says.

A more practical solution, Scott says, is a temporary farrowing cage system where the sow is confined only one day before farrowing and three or four days after. “I think this is the right way to go. the [mother] pigs are happier and piglets are safer.

Baxter believes pre-birth confinement is stressful for the sow due to the impact on instinctive nest-building behavior.

“If you’re going to confine it at all to protect the piglets, you do it in the first few days after birth, when the piglets are most vulnerable,” says Baxter. “But careful management is needed to reduce the disruption and disruption of important early breastfeeding behaviors.”

Making any changes for his herd of 1,700 would be an extremely expensive undertaking for Scott. And one that retailers, she says, refuse to help producers do. They say consumers won’t pay more for pork from indoor systems.

Unsurprisingly, this makes producers like Scott wary of change, especially given fears of an influx of cheaper American pork produced at lower standards in the event of a free trade deal between Britain and the States. -United.

Many pig farmers remember that the UK government banned the use of gestational cages in 1999. The introduction of the new rules while allowing imports of cheaper pork from the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany Germany, where no ban was in place, has helped halve the number of UK pork producers. The UK now imports around 50% of its pork.

Pregnancy crates
Sows in gestation cages on a farm in Italy. The UK banned crates in 1999, but allowed imports from countries where no bans were in place. Photography: Stefano Belacchi / We Animals Media

Farmer groups say support from government and retailers is vital for the transition of crates and containment, to protect against substandard imports and a collapse in domestic pork production.

“A lot will depend on the timing of the transition. We don’t want an exodus. We just want a managed transition so that the industry isn’t just exported overseas, ”says Zoe Davies, Executive Director of the National Pig Association.

“It’s best for the sow to stand up, walk around and interact with her piglets. If the supply chain supports the transition, it will be viable and we will attract new people to the industry and continue to improve.

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About Ethel Nester

Ethel Nester

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