Factors contributing to high performance of sows in free farrowing systems

EM Baxter*, Nicola Bowers, Rebecca L. King, Sarah Brockelhurst, Sandra A. Edwards

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Background: Pressure to abolish farrowing crates is increasing, and producers are faced with decisions about which alternative system to adopt. For sow welfare, well designed free farrowing systems without close confinement are considered optimal but producers have concerns about increased piglet mortality, particularly crushing by the sow. Reporting accurate performance figures from commercial farms newly operating such systems could inform the transition process. This study investigated performance on three commercial farms operating four different zero-confinement systems, three of which were newly installed. A total of 3212 litters from 2920 sows were followed from farrowing to weaning over a three-year period with key performance indicators (KPIs) recorded. Mixed Models (LMMs, GLMMs) determined the influence of different factors (e.g. farrowing system, sow parity, management aspects) and litter characteristics on performance, including levels and causes of piglet mortality. Results: Piglet mortality was significantly influenced by farm/system. Live-born mortality ranged from 10.3 to 20.6% with stillbirths ranging from 2.5 to 5.9%. A larger litter size and higher parity resulted in higher levels of mortality regardless of system. In all systems, crushing was the main cause of piglet mortality (59%), but 31% of sows did not crush any piglets, whilst 26% crushed only one piglet and the remaining sows (43%) crushed two or more piglets. System significantly influenced crushing as a percentage of all deaths, with the system with the smallest spatial footprint (m 2) compared to the other systems, recording the highest levels of crushing. Time from the start of the study influenced mortality, with significant reductions in crushing mortality (by ~ 4%) over the course of the three-year study. There was a highly significant effect of length of time (days) between moving sows into the farrowing accommodation and sows farrowing on piglet mortality (P < 0.001). The less time between sows moving in and farrowing, the higher the levels of piglet mortality, with ~ 3% increase in total mortality every five days. System effects were highly significant after adjusting for parity, litter size, and days pre-farrowing. Conclusion: These results from commercial farms demonstrate that even sows that have not been specifically selected for free farrowing are able, in many cases, to perform well in these zero-confinement systems, but that a period of adaptation is to be expected for overall farm performance. There are performance differences between the farms/systems which can be attributed to individual farm/system characteristics (e.g. pen design and management, staff expertise, pig genotypes, etc.). Higher parity sows and those producing very large litters provide a greater challenge to piglet mortality in these free farrowing systems (just as they do in crate systems). Management significantly influences performance, and ensuring sows have plenty of time to acclimatise between moving in to farrowing accommodation and giving birth is a critical aspect of improving piglet survival.

Original languageEnglish
Article number16
JournalPorcine Health Management
Issue number1
Publication statusPrint publication - 2 May 2024

Bibliographical note

© 2024. The Author(s).


  • Pigs
  • Free Farrowing
  • Welfare
  • Performance


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