Kinane, O., Butler, F., O’Driscoll, K. 2022. Freedom to move: Free lactation pens improve sow welfare. Animals 12(14), 1762.

Farrowing crates present a major animal welfare problem. This study investigated the effects of temporary confinement at farrowing on sow welfare and aimed to determine whether this type of system could improve sow welfare through increased freedom of movement. Sows were housed in one of two farrowing accommodation treatments: conventional farrowing crates (Control) or free lactation pens (Free). Sows in the Control treatment were confined from entry to weaning, a period of five weeks. Sows in the Free treatment were temporarily confined from before farrowing (approximately 24 h) until day 4 post-partum, after which time the crate was opened, and they had increased freedom of movement. Sow physical measures (weight, back-fat thickness, hoof score, locomotion score and tear stain score) were measured at entry to farrowing accommodation and at weaning. Salivary cortisol concentration was measured throughout lactation. Farrowing duration and sow posture (Days 1, 3, 7 and 34 after entry) were recorded. Between entry and weaning, locomotion scores significantly increased for sows housed in the Control treatment compared with those housed in Free lactation pens (p < 0.01). Sows in the Free treatment were observed to use all orientations in the pen, showing that when more space is made available to them, they will choose to utilise the space. Tear staining under the left eye was found to be less in Free sows at weaning (p = 0.05), indicating reduced stress. However, salivary cortisol concentration was higher in Free sows overall; cortisol is affected by both positive and negative stimuli, and so, this may be due to factors other than stress, such as higher levels of activity and mental stimulation. These results suggest that free lactation pens can benefit sow welfare; increased freedom of movement throughout lactation can improve sow locomotory health, and as suggested by improved tear stain scores, sow stress levels may be reduced in this type of system compared with conventional farrowing crates.

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