Defra Secretary Theresa Villiers wants to ban farrowing crates post-Brexit, but without support from Government and retailers, such a move would threaten UK pig farming’s future, says Zoe Davies, NPA chief executive.
The National Pig Association is, and has always been, committed to encouraging its members to continually improve standards – and they are rightly proud of the journey they have been on, despite the challenges endured along the way.
But a shockwave is sent out when comments* about banning or phasing out farrowing crates, which have long been viewed by pig farmers as a life saving device, are made.
Thoughts immediately and understandably return to 1999 when the Government banned sow gestation stalls.
Few have forgotten the aftermath of the ban, as it led to the loss of 50 per cent of the UK sow herd – around 400,000 sows – as many farmers, already stuck in a cycle of poor prices, were unable to stump up the cost of converting their old stall houses.
Those brave souls who did make the change had an even tougher time dealing with reduced productivity because they had no guidance or training on how to manage sows in loose housed systems, since the UK was first to adopt them.
In addition, their efforts were rewarded with no support from retailers or Government as both continued to source product from countries in the EU which were still using stalls, despite promises to the contrary – thus, on balance, not improving the welfare of sows one iota.
While one could argue sow stalls served largely as a management tool to benefit the farmer, farrowing crates are genuinely designed to protect piglets by reducing the risk of being crushed by the sow.
They also to allow stock people to work safely in the farrowing house.
The trade-off is the sow’s movement is restricted for a short period, hence calls to ban them.
Banning farrowing crates, or even phasing them out, would I suspect lead to a similar exodus as seen in 1999 – largely of smaller family farms without the ability to invest in newer systems.
Once more, British production would be exported to EU countries where there is not even a hint of interest in banning or even phasing out farrowing crates.
Those larger UK companies which may be able to invest and transition to temporary crating or free farrowing would then have the challenge of competing with cheaper imports from other countries.
UK retailers have shown little interest in paying for free farrowing, as they already have comparatively priced outdoor-bred product which is far more appealing and easier to sell.
This does not mean, however, that our industry is standing still.
I really do believe we will start to move away from traditional farrowing crates as more promising options emerge, and many have already looked into alternatives.
There are certainly some benefits to sow and piglet welfare to be had, and sharing positive experiences with early adopters is key, but we must ensure we don’t adopt new systems which result in poorer welfare just to tick a box.
Crucially, any such move will need financial assistance and support from both Government and retailers, with systems which are proven to work in commercial settings and the proper training in place to manage sow, piglet and staff safety and welfare.
Without those key elements in place, I honestly fear for the future of many hard-working British pig farmers.
Zoe can be found tweeting at @Mrs_Pig
*At Oxford Farming Conference, Theresa Villiers was asked about whether she and Defra Minister Zac Goldsmith still supported a ban on farrowing crates.
She said: “We certainly both, Zac and I, want to work with the agricultural sector to see if we can move towards a point where we start to phase out these methods of production.
“We know that will take some time, but I continue to believe with the right support through the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) we can see a steady increase in animal welfare standards.”