You may have recently seen on the TV, in print or in radio advertisements, Coles and Woolworths pushing the “No Sow Stalls” message for their Christmas hams and pork products. But what exactly are they, is it better not to have them and why the fuss?
PETA, Animals Australia and other animal activist groups have been pushing the anti sow stall message for some time, given their highly confining nature. On the other hand, sow stalls prevent injury and sow death due to aggression between sows poorly adapted to communal pens, whilst other confining cages (farrowing stalls) protect piglets from being crushed by their mother. There is evidence on both sides of the policy divide as to the benefits and negative impacts of sow stalls. The Australian pork industry is currently aiming to voluntarily phase out sow stalls by 2017, where they are currently banned in the UK and Sweden, with greater restrictions on European piggeries.
With these points in mind, this article is not about convincing you (the consumer) one way or another, instead providing information, facts and background about their use, so that you can make more informed decisions in line with your values when purchasing that Christmas ham.
But before the detail here are the pros and cons of both, and if you want more detail read on!
Pros – sow stalls/comfinement
- Prevent aggression
- Prevents injury and abortion during pregnancy
- Ensures adequate and even feeding
- Prevents piglets from being crushed
Cons – sow stalls/confinement
- Severe and lengthy confinement – no walking/normal pig behaviours
- Long periods of standing
- No social interaction
- Potentially reduced meat quality (from stress)
Firstly, a sow is a female breeding pig whilst boars are the male. This is a sow stall:
A sow stall (or gestation stall) is a cage used to confine the sow during some or all of her pregnancy (gestation period of ~115 days). It is used to prevent undue aggression and stress during pregnancy to avoid injury and abortions. The sow stalls reduce labour, enable dense stocking of animals and greater output of pigs. The stalls also allow for even feeding, preventing a bully sow from taking all the food. The aggression and fighting between sows out of stalls is argued to be the result of high stocking densities and poor training as piglets to a social environment.
Other types of stalls such as farrowing crates are similar confining enclosures used during birth and the following four weeks to prevent the sow from rolling over and crushing piglets to death. It locks the sow on her side. These pens are widely used around the world and in Australia and in piggeries labeled as “sow stall free”.
Fully aware of the negative side effects of sow stalls and the growing global trend of moving away from sow stalls, the Australian pork industry and the representative body has aimed for complete and voluntary phase-out of sow stalls by 2017.
Research conducted by the representative body, Pork Australia, indicated that loose housing from one week after mating until a week before birth (105 days) presents an improved alternative. Loose housing provides freedom of movement, with more sows per pen, enabling socialising and interaction.
Aggression is managed through a number of well researched techniques:
- Early mixing strategies – accustom sows to a social life
- Escape and hiding areas built into the pen
- Providing straw and other materials for normal rooting/foraging behaviour
- Using modern feeding systems (pigs get hangry too!)
- Sending the aggressive sows to time out – isolation
So next time you shop at Coles/Woolworths looking for the perfect ham consider how the meat was produced. If you believe the benefits of sow stalls (prevent injury, aggression, proper feeding, protecting piglets) outweigh the negatives (very close confinement, lengthy periods of standing >100 days, no social interaction) then go ahead and buy the meat. Otherwise sow stall free pork is for you. But be aware sow stall free does not mean confinement free.