November 13, 2009

Is confinement the “cruelest manifestation of factory farming?”

Jessica Krauss

Jessica Krauss

pigYesterday, Dr. James McWilliams-a history professor from Texas State University, author of Just Food: How Locavores are Endangering the Future of Food and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, and Johns Hopkins University alum-posted on the New York Times blog Freakonomics. Dr. McWilliams provides an analysis of farrowing crates, which are cages that confine individual lactating female pig. He collects feedback from various farmers to discuss the controversial method of feeding, which some see as cruel factory farming while others argue this method saves the lives of piglets. The blog cites opinions from both sides of the argument.

For example, Dr. McWilliams cites a farmer, Ms. Deanna Quan, who states that she follows all of the Animal Welfare Institute guidelines except for the restriction on farrowing crates. She states that “instead of carrying out buckets of dead baby pigs, I now have a 95 to 98 percent survival rate [because of her use of farrowing crates].” On the contrary, Dr. Temple Grandin, an animal scientist at Colorado State University, states that these crates are similar to a human being “buckled into an airplane seat for six weeks.”

This personification of animals continues throughout the 76 diverse and heated comments on this blog post. One woman writes that the sows’ situation is similar to the situation of a woman disobeying her doctor and choosing not to partake in bed rest and that both, farrowing crates and bed rest, are “humane ways of dealing with the complications of pregnancy.” Others post that those concerned about these pigs, whether piglets or sows, should switch to a pork-free diet all together. Still others turn the argument into one between what may be a cruel phenomenon produced by Mother Nature verses a deliberate human action that causes obvious pain. Finally, others make the argument that if farmers were not on such a tight profit margin that this issue would not even be an issue. Needless to say, the argument of farrowing crates seems to have even more room for debate than gestation crates (or sow stalls)-which are banned in the United Kingdom and in some US states-simply because of the potential for increasing piglet survival rate that comes with the use of farrowing crates.

I encourage all of our readers to read and comment on Dr. McWilliams’ informative blog. I am glad that Dr. McWilliams brings attention to this issue, one that has been of concern for decades. Additionally, I would also like our readers to continue to dive more deeply into this issue, especially through investigation of the scientific research that has been done:

  • First, Dr. McWilliams’ blog provides an image of two young pigs, however fails to provide a picture of a farrowing crate. An image of farrowing crates, provided by USDA, can be found here.
  • A study that was published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science in 1996 entitled “Behaviour and productivity of sows and piglets in a family system and in farrowing crates” found no significant differences in piglet mortality between the two systems, increased piglet growth rates for those in family systems, and improved maternal behavior in family systems.
  • A study published in the Journal of Animal Science in 1994 entitled “An Ellipsoid Farrowing Crate: Its Ergonomical Design and Effects on Pig Productivity” designed and compared an ellipsoid farrowing crate with a conventional rectangular crate. The ellipsoid crate allowed sows to perform more behavioral activities like turning around, communicating with young, monitoring surroundings, and lying down more smoothly without changing the amount of floor space necessary. The study showed that the design improved the well-being of sows and pigs and, most importantly, did not cause a higher pig crushing rate.
  • A study in Applied Animal Behavior Science directed attention to the effect of gestation accommodation on behavior, welfare, and farrowing performance of sows in farrowing crates. The study found that loose housing of sows (in groups of four with feeding stalls) resulted in improved maneuvering ability and comfort of sows in the forrwing crate and improved skin health (less skin lesions). However, they did find that these loose housed sows were more restless during parturition and in early lactation.
  • A 2000 British study in The Veterinary Record looked at the timing and causes of piglet mortality between different farrowing systems. It showed that more piglets were weaned from conventional crates than from open systems. However, the study also showed that more than half of the liveborn mortality occurred during the first four days after birth. And although the study found that many of the deaths in the open systems were caused by crushing, the study introduced other factors that are related like parity and body length of the sows.
  • A 2005 study in Applied Animal Behaviour Science found that the crushing of piglets was due to a lack of a protective mothering style rather than an involuntary act.
  • Regarding the aggression shown in different mothering styles, one study connected this aggression with the conditions that female piglets are raised in. The results of this study showed that piglets raised in a poor environment (in a commercially used indoor standard farrowing crate) behave more aggressively than those raised in a more enriched environment (in a outdoor pasture with half-open farrowing crates.)

As I would not consider myself an expert on this topic, please feel free to leave comments with more scientific evidence. I should also mention that I did not make any effort to supply a biased reporting of the scientific evidence and simply posted the top articles that I found when searching “farrowing crates.”

-Jessica Kraus


  1. An interesting question to ponder is why do sows have so many pigs in a litter and why do they have two litters per year? Unless in the wild most of the piglets died before sexual maturity and successful reproduction, the world would be covered in pigs (or cats or dogs, which have the same proclivity). All these species have their wild feral relatives having litters, perhaps somewhat smaller but certainly not one or two born at a time. Still, their life has to be relatively short or their population would expand exponentially. (Albert Bartlett –

    So I assume that farmers observed that many piglet deaths occurred due to crushing and thus developed the farrowing crate to reduce that cause of death. If they didn’t see a benefit, why else would they spend their money on these things?

  2. hey,this is Bethanie Massare,just discovered your web-site on google and i must say this blog is great.may I share some of the writing found in the website to my local friends?i am not sure and what you think?in any case,Many thanks!

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