Sow Stalls

Sow stalls

Sow stalls, or gestation crates, are designed to keep pregnant pigs in small enclosed spaces. The “stalls” are metal barred cages about two feet wide by seven feet long, which keep sows confined 24/7. They are so small the sow cannot turn around or step forward or backwards. She must eat, sleep, urinate and defecate in this tiny space during her pregnancy. The waste falls through slatted concrete to a pool of raw sewage below. Deprived of natural behaviours, sows perform pointless, repetitive motions such as bar-biting or attempting to root at the concrete floor.

A more humane alternative is group housing, which allows sows to move freely in groups in large spaces in the barn, ideally with bedding such as straw. Group housing is used successfully by some hog producers in Canada and worldwide. When sows are housed together, it is important to provide sufficient space for submissive sows to move away.

Just before the sow is due to give birth (“farrow”), she is moved to another restraining device, the farrowing crate, where she gives birth and nurses her young through metal bars. Due to genetic selection, sows often birth more piglets than they have teats to feed. The extra piglets may be killed or put with another mother.

A sow has an average of only three litters before her productivity wanes, and she is then sent to slaughter at 24-30 months, though her average life span is 15 - 20 years. Prolonged confinement in sow stalls causes lameness, foot injuries, weakened bone and abrasions. Poor levels of cardiovascular fitness causes some sows to die during transport to slaughter.

The present

In 2013, the prolonged use of sow stalls was banned in the European Union. The 2014 NFACC Code of Practice for pigs in Canada still allows sow stalls in the future, but calls for new installations and replacement of existing stalls after July 1, 2014 to provide opportunity for greater movement, such as not simultaneously touching both sides of stalls.

As of July 1, 2024, sows must be housed in groups, individual pens or stalls that allow “opportunity to turn around or exercise periodically or other means that allow greater freedom of movement.” As well, individual stalls may be used up to 28 days after breeding.

Several major Canadian grocers have committed to purchasing pig meat only from sows kept in open housing by the end of 2022.

Transport to slaughter

In Canada, sows and boars may be legally transported up to 36 hours in all weather, without water, food or rest. Transport is hard on pigs since they are prone to stress and travel sickness. They must stand in their own waste during the journey, which is especially difficult on them since they have a much keener sense of smell than humans do.

Sows are particularly vulnerable to rough handling during transport as they are often slow moving from ailments caused by a life of confinement. They are often shipped long distances to the US for slaughter.

How to help: eliminate or reduce the pork you eat and replace it with plant-based foods.

Download the OMAFRA fact sheet, Management of Sows in Loose Housing Systems, by E. Barrie.

Read the report Gestation Stalls and the Welfare of Sows in Canada: A Summary of the Scientific Literature.