Pork producers who discontinue the use of gestation crates have choices to make, according to Iowa State veterinary expert

AMES, Iowa – Pork producers who are looking to abandon the use of gestation crates to house pregnant pigs will have to weigh a series of options to find the best fit for their operations, said an Iowa State University swine veterinarian.

In a letter to producers, Tyson Foods announced last week that it is encouraging contract hog farmers to “improve housing systems for gestating sows by focusing on both the quality and quantity of space provided.” Earlier this month, Smithfield Foods reaffirmed plans to end the use of gestation crates in its facilities, adding momentum to the cause of animal rights groups that argue the crates are too cramped and don’t allow sows enough room to move.

James McKean, a University Professor of veterinary diagnostic and production animal medicine and associate director of the Iowa Pork Industry Center at Iowa State, said it’s likely a matter of time before gestation crates fall out of use among American pork producers.

“In the next 10 to 15 years, hog farmers will likely have to be making this decision,” McKean said. “Some will choose to do it earlier.”

The European Union banned the use of gestation crates in 2013, and other countries are considering such a policy as well, he said.

But implementing alternative housing practices for sows is a complex process that comes with a price tag attached. Switching to group housing – allowing multiple sows to share more spacious pens – requires producers to either retrofit existing facilities or build new ones, he said.

McKean said pork producers will have to choose between small group housing, where each pen holds between six and 15 sows, and large group housing, usually with more than 20 animals to a pen. Producers will then have to decide if the animals will be fed individually, as they would be in a gestation crate, or as a group, which can make it difficult to ensure each sow is fed a proper portion.

Deciding how pigs will be grouped together is another wrinkle that requires consideration, he said. Will the same pigs be housed together permanently, or will different pigs be added to the pen as time goes on? The wrong mix of sows can result in fighting and injury to the animals, McKean said.

“Each of these systems has basic rules associated with them,” McKean said. “You could write a book on the various possible permutations and basic concepts that go with each of them. But these are the choices that producers will have as they decide to move away from gestation crates.”

Group housing systems make less efficient use of space than gestation crates, McKean said. He estimated that a space used to house 100 sows in crates would accommodate only about 60-70 sows under a group housing system. This will require producers either to make available additional space or reduce output, McKean said.   

“Ultimately, the decision as to whether you use gestation crates or other alternative facilities should be the producer’s decision,” he said. “But increasing pressures from retailers and activist groups may force changes through sales requirements or other contract arrangements.”

ISU Extension and Outreach swine program specialists and ISU faculty members traveled to Europe last fall to study alternative production systems and talk with European producers who have transitioned away from gestation crates, McKean said. Extension field specialists will share the findings from the trip with any Iowa pork producers with questions on group housing systems, he said.