Changes to satisfy hog enrichment don’t have to be expensive

Hog producers are looking at ways of meeting new animal care requirements as they come into effect

As Manitoba hog producers begin implementing the new code of practice, it’s clear that sow barn conversions are top of mind.

young woman at microphone

Yolande Seddon
photo: Shannon VanRaes

“We’ve had a lot of questions looking for clarity about the group housing; there are different requirements,” noted Yolande Seddon, a researcher at the Prairie Swine Centre in Saskatchewan.

As of last year, the Canadian code of practice for the care and handling of pigs required all new hog barns to forgo gestation stalls in favour of group housing, Seddon said. But by 2024, open housing will be required in all existing barns as well.

To give producers an idea of what to expect during a barn conversion, Neil Booth shared some of his experience with a pilot project at Maple Leaf Foods.

man speaking at podium microphone

Neil Booth
photo: Shannon VanRaes

“What did we learn? That there are a lot of things to consider — there will be things that work in your system, that won’t work in ours, and vice versa,” said the director of manufacturing. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution.”

But some things to consider are how pigs will be trained to use a housing system that requires them to find their food and water in different locations. What type of feeding system to install is also a big decision — electronic feeding, feed dumps, how often and where.

During the actual transition process, Booth said producers need to be keenly aware of which pigs will be able to learn a new way of doing things and which should be culled.

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Getting the pigs to make use of communal areas so that they benefit from exercise takes planning as well. Booth said that flooring material can be a make-it-or-break-it factor as animals decide where to spend their time.

But it’s not just housing methods that are changing; pain control has also been mandated for a number of procedures, notably castration.

Since 2014 castrations done on males over 10 days old have required anesthetic and analgesic to help control pain. And starting July 1, 2016, that rule will expand to castrations performed on swine at any age. Similarly, the new code has already required pain control for tail docking done on pigs over seven days old, and expands that rule starting July 1, 2016 to require analgesics when tail docking is done on swine at any age.

Producers at the Niverville event wondered what the cost of implementing these changes would be. But there are also signs it could reduce mortality and increase production.

A study done at Guelph University showed that male piglets that received pain control for castration were more likely to survive.

“The study had looked at a lot of piglets and it did find that… the parity sow’s male piglets were four times less likely to die if they’d been given post-operative pain management, which is an interesting one. I’m not sure of the mechanism at play quite yet, but there’s something going on there,” Seddon said. “So it’s interesting to have some evidence coming out that if we’re able to control this inflammatory process, we’re helping the pig in the longer run.”

Questions about enrichment were also raised, although the researcher said the code’s requirements in this area are not particularly onerous.

“We have to bear in mind that at the moment the code requirements are quite easy to meet,” she said. “If the pigs have social contact, if they can smell another pig, if you’re providing feed in a variable form, you have met enrichment.

“But we encourage producers to look ahead to what the recommendations are suggesting, if we can provide in non-bedded systems, say manipulable objects for the animals,” Seddon added.

And there are many inexpensive options producers can choose from when it comes to enrichment, including secured cotton rope or even pieces of downed trees, stripped of their bark.

“They will gather around that and chew it down to nothing,” she said.

And while the researcher said there are drawbacks to implementing new husbandry methods, there are also benefits.

“You do get positive benefits in the sense of reducing the pig’s fear of novelty, reducing excitability; there is more calm and contentment within the groups,” Seddon said. “So if you can provide enrichment, it is a lower labour way of providing interaction.”

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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