Survey among Belgian pig producers about the introduction of group housing systems for gestating sows

There is a global move from individual to group housing of gestating sows. In the EU, individual gestating stalls will be banned by 2013. Just like in other industrialised regions, these stalls have been the standard housing system for intensively kept sows from the 1960s onward in the Flemish region of Belgium. As the socio-economic consequences for the pig industry may be far-reaching and as farmer attitude may influence the realisation of the hoped-for improvement in animal welfare in practice, the Institute for Agricultural and Fisheries Research, Melle, Belgium, conducted a survey from 2003 until 2009 among representative samples of Flemish pig producers every 2 years. The share of farms with group housing increased from 10.5% in 2003 to 29.8% in 2007, but then dropped to 24.6% in 2009. It appears that after 2005 users of old group housing systems in particular stopped farming. As sow herd size increased more on farms with versus without group housing and as the proportion of the herd that was group-housed also tended to increase between 2003 to 2009, the change to group housing took place faster when expressed at the level of the sow (from 9.1% in 2003 to 34.1% in 2009) instead of farm. The percentage of farmers planning to convert to group housing within 2 yr was 4.1% in 2003, and 6 to 7% thereafter. These were typically young farmers (P = 0.006) with a large sow herd (P < 0.001) and with a likely successor (P = 0.03). Free access stalls were the most common group housing system (31% of farms, 37% of sows). Their popularity is expected to increase further at the expense of electronic feeding stations, ad libitum feeding, and stalls/troughs with manual feed delivery. User-satisfaction was generally high but depended on whether or not all gestating sows were kept in group (P < 0.001), the provisioning of environmental enrichment (P = 0.057), and the age (P = 0.012) and type (P = 0.016) of system. The main criteria for choosing a certain group housing system were the investment costs and sow health and welfare. The importance of economic reasons (P = 0.007) and type of labour (P = 0.043) decreased with the age of the system. In 2003 and 2005 the main reason for not having converted to group housing was that farmers would stop keeping sows by 2013. In 2007 and 2009 it mainly concerned uncertainty about the future and maximally delaying the conversion. Belgium is one of the EU-countries where the pig industry is expected to undergo drastic changes during the few years remaining before the ban on individual housing.

Tuyttens FA, Van Gansbeke S, Ampe B. J Anim Sci 2010 Oct 29 [Epub ahead of print].