COLUMBUS, Ohio —It turns out that pregnant pigs act kind of like college roommates.
The pigs really don’t like sharing space, at least not at first.
Consider the college student who goes from having their own bedroom at home to having roommates, many roommates, and having to share a kitchen, bathroom, front room and a refrigerator.
Pregnant pigs will be making the same transition as a new state regulation requires them to be housed in groups by 2025. So swine farmers are preparing for the inevitable: fights.
Fights happen. And swine are a lot less merciful when they attack than warring college roommates tend to be. Pregnant pigs will chase each other and bite each others’ necks, heads and ears. Like college roommates, they’ll sometimes steal each others’ food.
“We haven’t figured out a way to eliminate the fighting,” said Monique Pairis-Garcia, an assistant professor of animal sciences in The Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES).
But the ruckus typically simmers down after two days, at least among pregnant pigs. Once they figure out who’s the boss and what the hierarchy is, then they all abide by that, that is, until new pigs are added to the group. Then the chaos begins again.
This dynamic is a tricky one for hog farmers to contend with, and it will be discussed at a Feb. 13 conference specifically on housing pregnant swine, also called sows. Ohio State, Michigan State University and Purdue University will host the Tri-State Sow Housing Conference at the Columbus campus to provide swine producers advice on managing group housing for sows.
Across Ohio, there are nearly 3,500 swine producers, and the state ranks as the seventh highest pork producer in the nation.
Pigs are generally housed in groups, however pregnant pigs are moved to individual stalls. That’s done partly because pregnant sows living in separate cages can’t risk being injured in fights or losing all or some of their food to an aggressive sow. But seven years from now, Ohio’s swine producers will no longer be able to place pregnant pigs in individual stalls for the majority of their pregnancy. Group housing will be required to give the pregnant pigs more room to roam and interact.
Seven years may seem far off to be prepping for this regulation change, but it takes time and a sizeable investment to reconfigure a barn with the new group pens.
Across the nation, states are increasingly requiring group housing for certain farm animals, including hens, pigs and young cows. This year in Ohio, new livestock rules require that veal calves be housed in group pens after they are 10 weeks old.
Some research has shown that animals that lay eggs or whose meat will be sold as food tend to have lower levels of cortisol in their blood if they’re raised in open environments versus separate stalls. Cortisol is a hormone produced by animals, as well as people, when they are under stress.
“The move toward group housing addresses a consumer perception that animals reared in less intense settings have better welfare, freedom to move and freedom to turn around,” said Steve Moeller, an animal sciences professor and swine specialist for Ohio State University Extension. OSU Extension is the outreach arm of CFAES.
However, the change comes with challenges in managing the animals, so ongoing research and field studies are critical, he said.
Though the rule requiring group housing for sows does not state how large an area the sows need to live in, swine producers are not likely to cram too many pigs into one space because if a sow isn’t getting enough food or water, the sow won’t likely be as healthy or productive, Pairis-Garcia said.
But even more important than where a sow lives is how well a hog farmer tends to the needs of the swine, Pairis-Garcia said.
“They need to be comfortable, have access to food and water,” she said. “Their ability to have piglets and raise them successfully is based on how they’re managed while they’re pregnant.”
Registration for the Tri-State Sow Housing Conference can be completed online through the Ohio Pork Council. Registration fees are $25 for the Sow Housing Conference or $50 for the Sow Housing Conference and Ohio Pork Congress.