Piglet protection pens (or farrowing crates) are enclosures in which a sow farrows or gives birth and remains with her litter for around four weeks.
Some people do not like piglet protection pens, mostly believing these are detrimental to the sow. While no sow has lost its life from being in a piglet protection pen, conversely piglets lives are at risk if these pens are not used.
Piglet protection pens are routinely used in the Australian pork industry (and internationally) to prevent piglets from being crushed by the sow. This is an unfortunate but common occurrence in all types of pig farming. Farms which are “sow stall free” may still use piglet protection pens to protect piglets.
On average, piglet mortality (from crushing, predation and cold temperatures) in free range systems can be 18–20 per cent. Conversely, average piglet mortality in piglet protection pens is a lot lower at around 5–7 per cent. Confinement during the first seven (7) days of lactation dramatically increases piglet survival.
Piglet protection pens also help protect the stockperson who is caring for the sow and her piglets. Sows can be very large (up to 300 kg) and can be very aggressive after giving birth. The pen allows access to the sow and piglets without harm to the stockperson.
Both Australian and international pig industries have invested a significant amount of money into research looking at alternatives to piglet protection pens over many years. However, this research has not yet revealed anything that maintains comparable piglet welfare and survival as the piglet protection pen. Research into open designed farrowing pens that do not constrain the sow, provide less protection for piglets and consequently have considerably higher piglet mortalities. The Australian pork industry will continue investigating alternate farrowing systems that ensure the best welfare for the sow and her piglets.