Sow stalls are metal barred cages about 2 feet wide by 7 feet long. Female breeding pigs (called “sows”) are confined to these tiny stalls for their entire life. The stalls are so small the sow cannot turn around. Instead, her movement is limited to one step forward or one step back. She must eat, sleep, urinate and defecate in this tiny space. The waste falls through slatted concrete floors to a pool of raw sewage underneath her.
Over 1,440,000 sows are raised in Canada – the vast majority in stalls. Almost 320,000 sows are kept in Manitoba, which has Canada’s fastest growing hog industry. The problem is getting worse. Canada’s hog industry continues to expand and most new sow barns are equipped with sow stalls.
The 1997 Report of the European Union’s Scientific Veterinary Committee, The Welfare of Intensively Kept Pigs, pulled no punches in its condemnation of sow stalls. It stated that sow stalls presented “serious welfare problems” and “Sows prefer not to be confined in a small space.” Furthermore, the report added that “(the committee) find(s) the confinement offensive.”
Just before the sow is due to give birth, she is moved to another restraining device – the farrowing crate – where she gives birth and nurses her young through metal bars. After anywhere from 10 to 21 days of nursing, her piglets are removed and the process is repeated all over again, pregnancy after pregnancy.
An alternative to sow stalls is group housing. Group housing, where groups of pregnant sows can roam around barns with suitable bedding material, such as straw, is a good alternative. The agriculture industry argues that keeping pigs together results in problems, such as fighting and aggression, and mother pigs crushing their piglets, but these problems only result when animals are overcrowded. With proper management and animal care, group housing is easily possible. This type of housing is being used successfully by hog producers in Canada and elsewhere around the world.
Typically, a sow has about 2.2 pregnancies a year, producing 19 to 22 pigs annually. A sow has an average of only three litters before her productivity wanes and she is sent to slaughter at an age of 24 to 30 months. Sows that are no longer productive are termed “cull sows.” Due to prolonged confinement, lack of exercise and the fact that pigs have been bred for large size, culls sows often experience lameness, foot injuries, weakened bones and painful abrasions. When sent to slaughter, pigs that have difficulty walking or navigating the transport ramps are too often roughly handled and outright abused. Electric prods, despite being discouraged by animal welfare scientists, are over-used, causing pigs to go down (“downers” are animals that are unable to stand or walk).
For more information on sow stalls and alternatives, download our fact sheet.
Download the french version of our fact sheet.
Download the OMAFRA fact sheet, Management of Sows in Loose Housing Systems, by E. Barrie.