There's no ideal way to house sows

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What is the best way to house sows? Is it individual gestation stalls? Is it group housing? For most people, sow housing raises a lot of questions. Let me start with saying:

"There is NO perfect sow housing. None. Nada."

When housing pregnant sows indoors, there are two basic options: Keep pigs in groups or put them in individual gestation stalls. Market hogs (used for food) are housed in groups. So why are sows housed individually? Because they behave differently.

We have farmed for nearly 40 years, and during those years, our farm has changed significantly to improve our lives as farmers, improve the lives of our animals or a combination of both.

Starting with a 96-sow herd, our sows were housed outdoors, because, frankly, that was our only option. Our farm consisted of four outdoor dirt lots separated by a fence. Each lot contained a group of 24 sows. They remained in the outdoor lot until it was time for them to give birth, where they were moved into a farrowing barn. They remained in the farrowing barn through the birthing process and until the piglets are weaned, which is about three weeks.

Having sows outdoors was wonderful on the sunny, 70-degree days with a warm breeze blowing across your face. But, unfortunately, we have five days a year like that in Minnesota (okay, maybe a little exaggeration). It seems like either it's too windy, too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet, too sunny, etc.

We continued raising pigs in this manner for a few years. But we always knew we needed to make changes if we wanted to raise pigs long term. One particular incident was a perfect example of why we needed to change how we housed our animals.

Shortly after a thunderstorm, a sow gave birth to piglets outside. Even with the best planning, sometimes births happen outdoors. Another sow picked up each of those baby piglets, took them outdoors and drowned them in a mud puddle.

Every single one.

The sight made us sick. Both my husband and I looked at each other in bewilderment as we removed each one of those 10 healthy piglets from the mud puddle. We both agreed there must be a better way to take care of our animals. So was the beginning of our journey to build a gestation barn with individual gestation pens.

Our decision did not come easy. It took time, lots of farm discussion meetings, multiple trips to the loan officer and numerous discussions with our veterinarian, who was our animal consultant.

Most people don't realize that pigs are pack animals — they actually exhibit some of the same behaviors as wolf packs. They need to establish a hierarchy within the group — or a "boss" sow. The way they establish this hierarchy is by attacking/fighting/killing each other. I have seen broken backs, broken legs, bitten/torn off ears and tails, and bitten/torn off vulvas. And not only are sows physically attacked, they also bully others from eating. In addition, fighting results in terminated pregnancies.

It's not pretty.

Consumers' tastes also were changing. They were demanding a leaner cut of pork, so our pig genetics had to change. We now raise a cross-breed between a Large White and Landrace pig for a long, lean pig—perfect for lean and nutritious pork. Prior to housing our animals inside, our main focus for pig genetics was survival of Minnesota's winters.

The day we brought our sows inside, we noticed a difference in their behavior. Our sows were content. No longer were they having to fear the "boss sow." They now had protection.

Research shows that sows housed in stalls have a lower stress hormone than those housed in groups. In addition to animal contentment, we could eliminate nearly all the weather issues.We now could ensure they all ate — no more skinny or fat sows. In the summer, we kept them cool with a water sprinkling system, which is so important because pigs do not sweat. And we could give individual medical care, if needed.

Sow housing is an individual choice. For our farm, individual gestation pens were the right choice. But for others, group housing works for them. The American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Swine Veterinarians agree both types of housing are acceptable. The real key to animal care is not the type of housing but, rather, the management of those animals.

Farmers do care for their animals by working as a team with veterinarians and animal nutritionists. Animal mistreatment on farms makes as much sense as a car dealer keying his inventory. And none of us are "keying cars."

Editor's note: Patschke and her husband, Chuck, farm in southern Minnesota, where they raise corn, soybeans and pigs. Read more at www.mnfarmliving.com.