It is no secret that Europe markets lead the way in swine regulations. So if something is happening in Europe it is worth our attention, as North American trends usually fall in their wake. Read on for three notable regulatory trends that we are seeing in Europe.
For most piglets, castration is performed within a week of birth. The reason behind their castration is prevention of boar taint, a distinct flavor in pork due to testosterone and androstenone. Because selective breeding through artificial insemination naturally favors bigger and sometimes more aggressive pigs, castration can also help prevent aggression issues in males.
Why are many European countries moving away from castration? The biggest reason is that animal welfare groups are starting to demand it.
In most cases, piglets have historically not been given anesthesia before castration. This got animal welfare advocates asking if there isn't a better way. While there are several European countries popularizing pain relief for the procedure, anesthesia can be complicated, expensive, and bring the risk of complications.
So How Are They Avoiding Castration?
- Younger Slaughter for Males - Some countries such as Greece, Ireland, the UK, and parts of Spain and Portugal are choosing to slaughter males at a smaller (younger) weight, thereby avoiding or minimizing the "puberty" surge of hormones. This method has proven successful for some operations, but it isn't a strong solution for countries who regularly demand larger cuts of meat.
- Genetic Selection - While not the fastest fix, genetics can also play a role in this effort to avoid castration. There are already murmurings that some upcoming genetic lines will select for lower levels of the hormones responsible for boar taint.
- Vaccines to Delay Puberty - New medical advances such as a vaccine (Improvac) that helps to delay sexual maturity in piglets are also minimizing hormone surges. Improvac does not prevent puberty in hogs, it just delays the onset long enough for pigs to make it to a higher market weight.
Fewer Tail Dockings
When pigs are stressed they bite, and the tail is an easy place to grab. Tail docking is a common practice for most hog farms. But just like castration, most tail docking is done without anesthesia and is a target of animal rights groups. This has led to a movement away from docking. In fact, the European Commission now forbids the practice and provides materials on how to manage a farm without docking.
The Commission found that there were certain conditions that caused more issues with tail biting. If barn managers can avoid these stressors, the idea is that they can control the biting.
Stressors That Cause Tail Biting
- Boredom - Pigs are naturally curious. If they don't have a way to exercise their curiosity, they get curious about their neighbors.
- Too Warm, Too Cold, Too Dark, Too Light - Pigs that are uncomfortable get snappy and may start biting.
- Being Unhealthy - Sick pigs are often stressed, meaning they sometimes resort to biting.
- Competition - If a pig can't get away from the most dominant animal in the group, biting will often follow.
- Unhealthy Diet - Pigs need consistent, reliable, and nutritious feed to stay healthy. And they need accessible water nearby.
- Dirty Environment - Pigs naturally choose different areas of the pen for different activities such as dunging and resting. If they don't have distinct areas, or if their feeding or resting areas are dirty, they get stressed out.
Swine Enrichment Activities
As stated above, pigs are naturally curious and they can get bored. In the last 30 years, many European farms have found that providing swine enrichment activities helps to improve the lives of their pigs and reduces aggression. In fact, enrichment activities are the first line of defense against tail biting in farms that no longer use docking. If you're interested in how this applies to North American group sow housing, click here to learn about a study currently being conducted by The Prairie Swine Centre.
Enrichment Activities Commonly Include
- Straw - Straw is a favorite enrichment material because it works with pigs' natural desire to root and chew. Straw can be used as bedding or in compacted logs in which pigs can root.
- Paper and Cardboard - Some producers have found that paper bags and cardboard can provide a welcome distraction to pigs in growing and finishing pens.
- Tough Dog Toys - If they are designed for heavy chewers, pigs will probably enjoy them too. Just be sure to rotate the toys frequently.
- Wood on a Chain - This provides the opporunity for both exploration and natural chewing behaviors.
Only time will tell if these trends make it to our side of the pond. What do you think of these ideas? Are you going to get your sows a few dog toys or do you think it is crazy? Let us know in the comments!