Easing producer fears of housing updates

Easing producer fears of housing updates
Oct 16, 2018

Maple Leaf leads the way in animal health and welfare with their loose sow housing system and new trailer fleet

By Kate Ayers
Staff Writer

Maple Leaf Foods has successfully transitioned 40,000 sows – over 50 per cent of its herd – to an advanced open sow housing system.

“Our system removes the gestation part of confinement as well as the breeding portion of confinement,” Dr. Greg Douglas, vice-president of animal care for Maple Leaf, said to Farms.com on Friday.

Maple Leaf will transition its entire herd to the new open system by 2021, a company release said last week.

“The sows are allowed to move freely amongst themselves, to socialize, exhibit natural behaviours, feed when they want, drink when they want, and move around,” Douglas said.

Since the animals can walk around and interact with each other, they have stronger legs and joints, he added. 

This transition has taken time and intensive research. The company started the process about 10 years ago, exploring systems and feeders from around the world. Maple Leaf has progressively implemented the advanced open sow housing system over the last five years.

“We use an electronic feeder, which allows the animals to go through on their own and be monitored in terms of their feeding. … Animal health and welfare are always being monitored,” Douglas said.

In addition, “we wanted a system that was consistent with our vision to be the most sustainable protein company on earth. From an environmental stand point, we didn’t want to waste feed.”

The advanced open sow housing system has stood the test of time and improved sow productivity, Douglas explained.

“We are starting to see the longevity of our sows increase, meaning the more they move around, they fitter they get,” he said.

“We haven’t seen any decreases in productivity in this system. That was one of the myths we faced with implementing this system – the notion that we would see a decrease in say, for example, litter size or body condition of sows. We haven’t seen any of that.”

The farm workers also prefer this new system.

“Our people like the open system better,” Douglas said.

“They interact more with the animals, they can see them better. (The system) leads to overall better health and welfare outcomes. We can detect things like lameness or illness, earlier, which leads to productivity and welfare gains.”

The pig genetics that Maple Leaf uses is an important component of the company’s transition, Douglas stressed. Its sows have sound leg health and strength. And their conformation is suitable for a more mobile lifestyle.

Producers who are considering switching to this system can consult many resources and sources of information, including the National Sow Housing Conversion Project, swine welfare specialists, university research extension staff, and other experienced producers.

“There is no right or wrong system, just systems that will work better in your situation,” Douglas said.

“These are the systems of the future. While they are expensive, pork producers … are going to have to continue to look at these higher welfare systems in order to be accepted in the marketplace.” 

Maple Leaf is also converting its trailer fleet to a new hydraulic floor lift transportation system that eliminates narrow, steep ramps used in conventional trailers. This system reduces the stress of loading animals, as well as potential injuries, the release said. 

National Pork Board and the Pork Checkoff, Des Moines, Iowa photo

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