US Hog Farmers Explore Humane Swedish Techniques

by Marlene Halverson

In September, a group of farmers from Minnesota and Iowa travelled to Sweden to visit their counterparts in that country. Unlike North American agribusinesses, Swedish farms use models of hog rearing that are based on the natural behavior of pigs. The American farmers and researchers who travelled with them made the trip with the intent of learning how to make their own farms more animal and environment-friendly.

Group housing of pregnant sows on deep straw beds has been "conventional" in Sweden since the mid-1980s. Since 1988, a new model to group house nursing sows with their piglets on deep straw is becoming popular. In both systems, modern management techniques are combined with traditional and new knowledge regarding the components of pig well-being. Together, attention to these factors helps farmers maintain individual sow productivity levels on a par with the intensive, industrialized farrowing operations commonly found in the US.

Swedish farmers Tomas and Magnus Carlevad and Gunilla
Pettersson stand in one of their group nursing rooms.

Sows move through the stages of the conception -- through weaning cycle in stable groups. Newly weaned and pregnant sows are kept on deep straw beds in large pens. Each pen has a row of individual feeding stalls, one stall for each sow. The sows are enclosed in their stalls for the 30 minutes or so that it takes for them all to finish eating. This, together with the abundant space and bedding, prevents the problems with bully sows that plague other group systems.

In the Swedish group nursing systems, sows give birth either in a separate farrowing room containing conventional Swedish farrowing pens, which are large enough for the sow to turn around and interact freely with her piglets, or in wooden cubicles set up temporarily in the group nursing room itself. After the piglets are 10 to 14 days old, or after they start to climb out of the cubicle, the temporary cubicles are removed and all sows and piglets in the group mingle.

The Carlevad nursery room has a special piglet creep area at the back to
keep the sows away from the youngsters' special feed, a "silent" ventilation
system, and sow feeding
area.

The amount of space, both in the group pregnant sow housing and these nursing rooms, is important not only for the well-being of the pigs -- smaller space results in more piglets stepped and lain on -- but for the "ecology" of the system. The combination of the right amount of straw bedding, the right amount of manure and urine contributed by the sows, and the air tramped and rooted into the beds by the sows and piglets comprises a "recipe" that leads to stench-free buildings and bedding that begins to compost in the barn.

To work well, group housing and group nursing take a special interest on the part of the farmer in the well-being of pigs, a solid knowledge of their natural behavior, and very good organizational and animal husbandry skills. The visiting American farmers were highly impressed with the cleanliness, animal-friendliness, and efficiency of the Swedish farms.

Can it be done here in the US? It is not the will that is lacking. Says Minnesota farmer Marv Freiborg who travelled with the group:

    I would love for us to pioneer this system in the US. After going to Sweden and seeing that it seems to work for them without antibiotics in the feed, and seeing that the farmers and pigs have a nice, clean environment to be in -- and there's no smell, it's just amazing. Just the fact I don't have to produce all that stinking liquid manure makes me want to do it.

Dan Wilson, a hog farmer from Iowa, comments:

    [After a year of operating a new, intensive confinement nursery, my brother] and I are convinced that we do not want anything to do with a system of raising hogs that does not use straw. We are also at the point in our lives where we are looking ahead at the future and trying to figure out how we will help our children get started in farming if this is what they want to do. We are also looking at all the new large confinement buildings that are going up all around us and thinking about all the problems they are going to create. We are now convinced that we would like to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, in keeping rural America alive and showing young farmers there is a better way to farm. Seeing the Swedish system I was so impressed by how little stress it puts on both the people and the animals. I was impressed by how easy it was to handle the hogs in this system and how contented they were.

To implement the Swedish model on their farms, new hog farmers will need to make a considerable up front investment. Those already in production will need to remodel or add on to older buildings. But in the long run, the Swedish model is a way for large numbers of family hog farmers to raise hogs humanely, ecologically, and profitably. Traditional agricultural lenders, including the US government, favor high-volume systems, but it is these mega farms that function at a high cost to animal welfare, environmental quality, public health, and viability of rural communities.


Marlene Halverson, a Ph.D. candidate in agricultural economics at the University of Minnesota, initiated and organized the visit by US farmers to Sweden.


AWI Quarterly Fall 1994, Volume 43, Number 4, p. 13