Loose Sow Housing No Panacea, Producers Say

“Removing a crate from the barn has a huge ripple effect.”


Mention activists who oppose sow gestation stalls and Marg Rempel gets so frustrated she can hardly talk. It isn’t just anti-stall people who upset her. It’s their lack of knowledge about what eliminating gestation crates would really mean for pork producers.

“Removing a crate from the barn has a huge ripple effect,” said Rempel, a hog farmer from Ste. Anne.

Take manure handling, for example. Eliminating gestation stalls means moving toward a straw-based open housing system. Rempel wonders what would happen to slurry, lagoons and injectors. You’d have straw-based manure, like in a cattle feedlot. You’d need a whole new manure management system.

Then there’s the straw itself. Rempel calls straw a “fabulous environment” for moulds, bacteria and parasites. Last year, cool, wet weather made it almost impossible for farmers to access clean, dry straw free of vomitoxin. What would contaminated straw mean for herd health? Or food safety?

Nobody thinks of these things when demanding an end to gestation crates, says Rempel.

“There are many, many more ramifications than just having these simplistic comments and answers,” she said. “There are really, really sound reasons why gestation stalls came into use.”

But Rempel says when she tries to point these things out to stall opponents,“their eyes just glaze over. I don’t think they want to, and therefore don’t, comprehend.”

Rempel made her comments after a March 25 panel discussion at the University of Manitoba on alternative hog production systems.

The meeting featured Dr. Kees Scheepens, a Dutch veterinarian nicknamed “the pig whisperer” for his reputed ability to communicate with pigs.

Scheepens described how the Netherlands, a country with 16 million people and 12 million pigs, is trending away from gestation stalls toward straw-based group housing for pregnant sows.

In a PowerPoint presentation, Scheepens said the Dutch will ban gestation crates effective Jan. 1, 2013. That means smaller barns and more sustainable operations, he said.

“Let’s go back to a human size of industry and let’s go back to a human size of farming,” he told the audience.

But Rempel, who also spoke on the panel, said moving to loose housing would have exactly the opposite effect here.

Abandoning gestation stalls would force producers to expand floor space to accommodate group housing. The industry is in terrible financial shape right now and producers are fighting just to survive. Smaller producers couldn’t afford the necessary changes and would have to leave the business, said Rempel.

Tom Leppelman wasn’t at the March 25 meeting but he echoed Rempel’s comments.

“If it was legislated, a large number of producers would probably say, I guess this means we have to exit the industry because we simply don’t have enough equity left to make that conversion,” said Leppelman, who runs a farrow-to-finish operation near Steinbach.

He acknowledged gestation stalls deprive sows of one of the so-called Five Freedoms: the freedom for an animal to express its normal behaviour by providing sufficient space.

But there are trade-offs in deciding what’s best for an animal, Leppelman said.

Leppelman said he once had a breeding barn on his farm with stalls that could be left open. Sows could roam freely in an open area at the back of the barn. Usually, though, they would remain in the stalls where they knew they would be safe. “It tells me that, for most of the time, that’s where they’d prefer to be.”


Dr. Mike Sheridan, a Steinbach swine veterinarian who also appeared on the March 25 panel, said the Dutch model wouldn’t work here because swine herds are much larger and winters much harsher.

“We need to design our own system, not that of the Europeans, because of weather differences, manure-handling differences and biological aspects of reproduction.”

Also, he added, “It’s going to take a lot of creativity to figure out how to swing large confinement systems over to loose housing.” [email protected]

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