Maple Leaf Foods now expects to complete its shift to open sow housing with years to spare.
The company is more than halfway completed its transition, according to Dr. Greg Douglas, vice-president of animal care. About 40,000 of the company’s 70,000 sows are currently managed under the advanced open-housing system, and the company expects to complete the shift by 2021.
The pork industry has until July 2024 to do away with gestation crates, except for a period right after breeding. By that point, all sows and mated gilts must be housed in groups, individual pens or, if stalls are still used, given the chance for exercise. The changes came down with the release of the National Farm Animal Care Council’s Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pigs in 2014, which sought to phase out gestation crates.
New barns have had to meet the standard since the document’s release. The new code has mandated that any new or rebuilt facilities be fit with group housing, and that any new or replaced stalls for use right after breeding had to be big enough that the pig could stand without touching the edges and lie down without pushing into the next stall.
Maple Leaf Foods says it has rebuilt 31 barns so far. Animals are sent to a training facility during the rebuild to acclimate both pigs and staff to the new system and the electronic feeders that are now status quo for Maple Leaf Foods.
“We can monitor whether one animal picks up on the new system right away or if another animal takes a lot longer to learn the system,” Douglas said. “We will monitor that with computers, where we can tell which animals go through the system, and then if an animal needs more time or if it needs human help to show it the way, then we do that.”
Some barns have been retrofitted twice, Douglas said. A year and a half into conversions, the company opted for what it describes as an “advanced open sow housing system,” a system it says cuts down breeding stall time from over a month to seven to nine days. The company returned to refit the already converted barns.
The advanced system promotes more mobility compared to other systems where stall structure is largely intact and sows have to back out of the stall into a common area to socialize, the company says. Under the design, Maple Leaf Foods houses 40-60 animals per enclosure. Electronic feeders sit at the periphery while the wider room is segmented into periodic alcoves with half-walls, something the company says will allow their animals to socialize in smaller groups or escape any aggressors, if needed. The company has also opted for one-way, single animal feeders to avoid a competitive feeding environment and give control over each pig’s ration.
“We’ve found that our densities are optimal for animals figuring out quickly what social structure they’re in and they access the feeders on their own and we get very little competition,” he said.
Douglas also argued the company’s static group management has helped allay competition issues, something that has been among the prime concerns of farmers contemplating a switch to group housing.
“They go to farrowing together; they come out farrowing together and they go into group housing together,” he said. “So the same 40-60 sows get to know each other and they know who goes through the feeder first, who goes through last, who likes to sleep with who, who likes to hang out with who. It’s very much relying on natural behaviour.”
Staff have also found it easier to diagnose issues in the new system, since they more freely interact with the animals under group housing, he added.
The company’s 40-60 sow groups are par for the course, according to Mark Flynn, manager of quality assurance and animal care with the Manitoba Pork Council. Flynn says other barns equipped with open housing have used similar numbers.
The pork council is pleased with Manitoba’s transition, given the 2024 deadline, he added.
“We’re making good progress,” he said. “There’s a fair amount of infrastructure and equipment and stuff in barns that, as that needs replacing, it’s making sense for producers to switch over to the group housing at those times.”
Producers were initially reluctant to shift, he said, citing aggression and other management concerns they observed with previous attempts at group housing.
New facilities have had an advantage during the transition, he added, as they are designed for open housing from the start.
“It’s kind of nice in the sense that you can build a barn specifically for group housing, so you can incorporate all of those designs as well as the knowledge kind of allows us to,” he said. “You end up with the best welfare outcomes. When it comes to retrofitting a barn, those barns weren’t necessarily built for group pens. We’ve worked to try and optimize those systems when they have been retrofitted to group pens, so we can still get good welfare outcomes, but you really need to make sure that you’ve done your research ahead of those retrofits.”
The pork council has seen growing interest in group housing and best practices, he said.