New farrowing systems and the role of breeding companies

The topic of “free farrowing” has been widespread in social and political dialogue. Expectations are that legislation will require all sows in the country to be offered free farrowing systems by 2035.

Successful cooperation between science and practice

The good news is: Unlike many other political decisions, there is good cooperation and support for scientific projects in the field of animal husbandry. In addition, model farms that have already converted are being supported. The experience of these farmers can then be used as a basis for any future conversion projects. It is important to set the course for the future now.

A wide range of options already available


Let’s focus on the good news already mentioned and the fact that free farrowing is possible and has been proven to not only work well economically but can actually lead to more animal welfare for the sows and job satisfaction for the farmer.

Dr. Irena Czycholl, a behavioural veterinarian, is an expert on animal welfare and behaviour and is involved in various research projects on the topic of “free farrowing”.

She is involved in practical tests of new farrowing systems and their correct management, assessing animal welfare factors, especially from the aspect of maternal behaviour, in order to understand this further and better. The options that are now available on the market are as diverse as the research projects.

For the time being, differently designed so-called movement pens have prevailed. This means that the sow remains fixed in the crate during the period of birth, but the crate can be opened up so that the sow has more opportunities for movement after birth. “We have to adapt the system as best as possible to the animals’ needs so that it works well,” says the expert.

For example, the beginning and end of short-term restraint in the movement pens must be properly designed. At the beginning, the sow must be able to live out her nest-building behaviour. This has been proven to have a positive effect on the birth process, the vitality of the piglets and also the number of weaned piglets. And the end of short-term restraint should not be based on a rigid plan, but on the sow’s behaviour. For example, studies show that opening all pens in the morning can lead to increased restlessness, on the one hand due to what is happening in the neighbouring pens and on the other hand due to restlessness caused by normal farm procedures. It is best to really open the pens individually when the sow is calm, not increasingly aggressive, all piglets are vital, a suckling order has formed, and the piglets use the intended piglet nest as their preferred resting area.

Automatic opening management systems are currently being researched. In the behavioural expert’s view, there is also still plenty of need for research in the acceptance of the piglet nest. “The pig orientates itself strongly with the sense of smell and is also much better equipped here than we are. A maternal pheromone leads to a strong mother-child bond and is involved, among other things, in the piglets orienting themselves towards the udder. Now we expect piglets to independently move away from these odours to a warm but odourless area.” Several current scientific projects are working to better understand olfactory communication in pigs. In the future, odours could show the piglets the way to the nest and help them to accept the nest more quickly.

How can genetic improvement support?

And what is the breeding company PIC doing now to support its customers?

In addition to taking behaviour into account in management, it is of course also a question of farmers housing a sow with which this system can work. Keywords here are good feet and legs, maternity, healthy, vital piglets. All these points are taken into account in the breeding value assessment at PIC and the successes are measurable. Even in the different systems with free farrowing.”

DR. CRAIG LEWIS, responsible for PIC’s “Genetic” divison in Euorpe

But what about the universally demanded maternalism and balanced character on the part of the sows?

“Here we also face conflicting goals that we have to take into account,” Czycholl and Lewis explain.

“Good maternalism also means that a sow defends her piglets, i.e., has a certain aggression potential. But of course, we don’t want that in terms of occupational safety. However, in the past we have very successfully demonstrated how apparent conflicting goals can be taken into account together in the breeding value assessment. Correctly implemented, this is ultimately the sustainable way. The breeding goals of litter size and piglet birth weight can be mentioned as an example. For a long time, this was a contradiction. If more piglets were born, they were lighter. Through the correct and targeted application of the selection index, including genomic tools and a variety of data, PIC has managed to increase the number of piglets born alive and still increase the average birth weight, which of course goes hand in hand with an increased vitality of the piglets,” Craig Lewis elaborates.

The main problem is the correct phenotyping, i.e., the scientifically objective measurement of what we actually have and want to breed. Especially with behaviour, this is always an enormous challenge, because behaviour is influenced by pretty much everything: By genetic potential, the husbandry environment, the previous experiences the animal has had and is having throughout its life, the group in which the animal lives, and so on and so forth.

Private lecturer Dr. Irena Czycholl, specialist veterinarian for behaviour, expert for animal welfare and behaviour and involved in various research projects on the topic of “free farrowing”.

For example, there is a whole range of behavioural tests that are supposed to describe maternalism. However, we were able to prove that different behavioural tests carried out in different environments measure completely different aspects and that there is no such thing as “THE” motherliness, but that, on the contrary, different sub-areas of maternal behaviour have to be distinguished. For example, there is the sow who tends to look after the one piglet in distress and another who prefers to look after the rest of the litter. And then there is one that initiates a particularly large number of suckling acts and another that builds a particularly good piglet nest. It is not the one or the other sow that is ‘the better mother’. This has to be taken into account in the scientifically objective measurement.”

Dr. Irena Czycholl

In a study, a so-called factor analysis was used to investigate what exactly different behavioural tests on mothering actually measure. With the help of a “factor analysis”, many initial variables can be combined into a few factors by assuming that the initial variables partly measure similar things. These similarities are filtered out and each presented as a separate factor. In this way, variables that are not directly accessible to measurement can be used.
Using the factors identified, the researchers were able to identify at least four components of mothering: Communication, Contact, Nurturing and Connectedness.

Different behavioural tests measure different behavioural components

It also shows that the different behavioural tests measure different components of maternity under different conditions.

The use of these scientific findings for breeding is an ongoing process. The Precision Livestock Farming Team within PICs is also assisting in this process. Dr Eric Psota has specialised in this area in pig farming, and PIC was able to recruit him from the University of Nebraska to strengthen the team. In addition to the topics “Automated opening management (for farrowing pens)” and “Automated recording of the different components of maternal behaviour” (in a practical environment), for example, lying down behaviour and the so-called “rolling behaviour”, which represents a particular risk to piglets and apparently has a genetic component, are among the current issues being worked on at PIC with his help. “Another behaviour that could be suitable for phenotyping in the future is the nasonasal contact between the sow and her piglets. If this behaviour is shown more often, there will be less crush losses.

We hope to be able to recognise this behaviour automatically in the future by means of an algorithm,” says Czycholl about further planned research projects at PIC.


In a nutshell: The new requirements for farrowing systems can be implemented, whereby management plays a decisive role. Of course, PIC is always there to advise its customers with the appropriate service teams. The sows already have the required characteristics today, but, in line with the company’s goal of “Never Stop Improving”, a lot is also happening. Here, PIC focuses on sustainability in the sense of scientific correctness and orientation towards long-term success. In this way, PIC is doing its part to ensure that farmers can successfully master this challenge and use it to their advantage.