Caring for Sows

Pregnant sows require individualized care throughout their gestation period. Sows have special nutrition requirements. They need daily monitoring and evaluation. Diagnostic tests track their development. Farm personnel take steps to minimize exposure to disease or disease carriers during gestation. This is essential for good sow health and helps ensure the health of piglets.

Individual maternity pens, or gestation stalls, are preferred by farmers and many vets because they protect pregnant sows and their unborn litter from other aggressive hogs.

The goal: individualized care

Like many animals, pigs establish a hierarchical social order when mixed together. When sows are in groups, dominant sows tend to act aggressively (e.g., by biting); they can cause serious injuries to less-dominant sows. Submissive sows also may have difficulty getting access to enough food, which can lead to poor weight gain and pregnancy complications. Gestation stalls were introduced in the 1960s to help protect and nurture all sows during pregnancy.

The transition to individual stall-style barns happened over a few decades and after considerable investments of time, scientific research and capital by farming organizations. Studies have been conducted that compare the well-being of sows in gestation stalls (sometimes known as gestation crates) with sows housed in groups.

Advantages of individual and group housing

In individual housing systems, sows are housed in a structure large enough for one sow, though the design varies. The advantages of individual housing systems are that they minimize sow aggression and injury, reduce competition, allow individual feeding and nutritional management, help maximize each sow’s body condition and reduce worker injuries; however, they also restrict behavioral expression, freedom of movement and exercise. In group sow housing, sows move about more freely, but it can be very challenging to ensure each sow receives the proper nutrition and care and is free of injury from more aggressive sows.

Which system is best?

This is still a matter of debate among farmers, veterinarians and animal agriculture experts. Currently, it is the position of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians and the American Veterinary Medical Association that both individual sow housing and group housing have advantages and disadvantages, and what really matters is the individual care given to each pig. Pig farmers believe that decisions about the best way to care for sows must be based primarily on sound science and input from veterinary experts. Whether a given farm uses group housing or individual housing for sows, most experts agree that what really matters is the individual care given to each pig.

To further our understanding of the best way to ensure sow well-being, farmers have been proactive in supporting efforts to advance animal well-being. Long-standing, national programs are in place to provide training in proper animal care. National organizations provide significant funding to research animal care practices, specifically on the issue of sow housing. Over the past 10 years alone, farmers have invested more than $1.37 million into swine-housing research and $3.13 million in general research to improve animal well-being. Farming methods are always evolving. As new insights about sow housing emerge, farmers will continue to make responsible decisions to earn the public trust.

Additional resources
Real Farmers, Real Food: Myths and Facts
American Association of Swine Veterinarians Position Statement: Pregnant Sow Housing

Pork Checkoff Research
For information on sow behavior, alternative sow housing strategies or retrofitting stall housing systems read objective, independent research based on pig farming priorities. The National Pork Board does not have control over the outcome of the research nor does it have editorial review of research reports, the content of which belongs to the authors.