Comparison of three different farrowing systems : skin lesions and behaviour of sows with special regard to nursing behaviour in a group housing system for lactating sows
While group housing (GH) is mandatory in the European Union for the greater part of pregnancy, single housing in farrowing crates (FCs) during lactation that restrict sows in most of their natural behaviour patterns is still practised on a large scale. Research is urgently needed to develop alternative farrowing systems that improve sows' welfare. Therefore, sows in three different farrowing systems - pens with FC, loose housing (LH) pens and GH for six sows - were compared regarding the level of skin injuries and their active and resting behaviour. A skin injury score was assessed for 15 body parts of 102 sows in six batches on 3 days (days 1, 14 and 34). In total, the active and resting behaviour of 77 sows in six batches was examined on 3 days (days 18, 25 and 32) between 0700 h and 1900 h by means of a scan sampling method. The suckling behaviour and the level of cross-suckling were analysed in GH by means of direct observation in four batches during three 4-h sampling periods (days 17, 24 and 31). No significant differences were found in total skin injuries when the sows entered the systems (day 1), but GH sows showed significantly higher total skin injuries compared to FC and LH sows in the middle (day 14) and at the end (day 34) of the lactation period. A significant difference between FC and LH sows was never seen. Differences were found for the proportion of different body postures between the three systems. The odds for lying in lateral recumbency versus standing and sitting versus standing were significantly higher for FC and LH sows compared to GH sows. Additionally, sows were significantly more likely to be standing as opposed to lying in lateral recumbency as the lactation period progressed. Cross-suckling was a frequent behaviour in GH, seen in 35.0% of all successful suckling bouts. However, only an average of 0.56 piglets per successful suckling bout was observed cross-suckling, suggesting only a few piglets were engaged in cross-suckling. In conclusion, the skin injury score was only moderately increased in GH compared to FC and LH and comparable to pregnant group-housed sows, both free farrowing systems seemed to be an environmental enrichment for lactating sows and good management cannot prevent the occurrence of cross-suckling in a GH system, but can probably reduce it.
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