Farm case study: FarrOPEN

Below we hear from a farmer who has implemented the FarrOPEN system on their 2,000-place sow breeding unit. They share economic, environmental and management details, as well as the views from the stockpeople working on the unit.

Farm information

An investment was made to renew the farrowing accommodation for a 2,000-place sow breeding herd.

The production system, now housed in a temporary confinement system with a 6m2 pen, is a weekly batch-farrowing system, with a target of 90 farrowings per week.

This system was selected as piglet mortality can often be higher in fully unconfined systems.

Table 1. Farm performance data over a three-month period in 2022


Temporary confinement1

UK indoor national average (annual)

Variance compared to national average

Born alive




Born dead




Preweaning mortality (%)




Wean per sow




Average weaning weight (kg)




Farrowing rate (%)




Replacement rate (%)




1 Based on a combination of three temporary confinement systems on farm.

2 Weaning weight was lower in the temporary confinement, this may be a result of weaning at 24 days old.

Table 2. Overall mortality breakdown

Cause of mortality

Farm preweaning mortality (%)

Proportion of preweaning mortality occurring in first 7 days of life (%)







Low viability






Management routine of sows and gilts at farrowing

Management routine

  1. Entry to farrowing pen: Acclimatised 48 hours pre farrowing in an open pen
  2. Farrowing period: Pen remains open during farrowing, enabling sow to display natural farrowing behaviour
  3. Post farrowing: Confined in a restricted area of the pen until day four to reduce mortality of piglets
  4. Day four post farrowing: After the piglets are vaccinated, the pen is opened for the remainder of the lactation

Opening the pen at day four is considered optimal for the management and timing of piglet tasks e.g. vaccinations. It can also reduce the piglet mortality rate as the highest rate of mortality, 73.2%, occurs within the first week of life (see Table 2).

However, it is thought that mortality could be reduced further if the sow remains in the confined area of the pen until day seven.

“We would like to open the pen from day seven. As the piglets become more aware of their surroundings, they are able to move out of the way when the sow wants to lie down.”

Therefore, pre day four confinement is based more on piglet agility than the needs of the sow and is balanced to control mortality.

The current farm protocol to manage sows that lie on three or more piglets is to confine them in the restricted area of the pen for the remainder of the lactation period to prevent them from lying on the litter.

The producer commented:

“We have found that in the past, if the sow is not confined, the whole litter can be laid on.”

“It is not viable to run a business where over 50% of the litter is lost due to being laid on, this is why we need the option to confine for piglet welfare and sow management.”

The practice of placing older sows in full confinement is being continued, as they had the highest rate of piglet mortality.

Gilts were initially housed in the Big Dutchman (BD) free-movement pen as it had a smaller pen footprint (5.25m2), and have since continued to be routinely rotated around all three types of temporary confinement systems, which didn’t cause a significant difference in behaviour traits.

Stress levels were also noted to be lower in the temporary confinement systems:

“The pen size is larger allowing the sow to move, turn freely and lay as and where she wishes, she can also face the passageways allowing visualisation and assessment of any perceived threats, such as stockperson foot traffic, which in turn has proven to reduce stress levels. Notably with the elimination of savaging in gilt litters and major reductions in noise levels.

“Our staff and visitors can see the difference in behaviours; the sows are relaxed and unfazed when we enter the rooms, when previously they would react to any human activity. Generally, the rooms are quieter”.

Other management steps taken to reduce stresses with ad lib feeding have also had a positive impact.

The provision of shredded paper as a nesting material prior to farrowing had little noticeable effects:

“We don’t think nesting material plays a major part of reducing stresses post farrowing and the materials generally end up around the edges of the pen, unused."

Straw is not a viable option for a nesting material due to the slurry system, it can also retain dirt and harbour infection.

Economic and environmental factors

The cost per sow place for the FarrOPEN ranges between £1,500 to £2,000, based only on the temporary confinement materials i.e. this does not include pen and building alterations. The preferred construction route was to replace existing buildings with new, rather than to retrofit.

The AHDB Building Suppliers Forum state that the cost per sow place, including pen and building costs, is estimated to be £5,500 to £6,000. Retrofitting and/or alterations to existing flooring can cost 1.5 times more than a conventional system. 

Stockperson considerations

The farm initially purchased the 360° Freedom Farrower ‘off the shelf’. However, after consulting staff on the practicalities of the design, including a discussion of how tasks could be completed safely, ease of feeding, access points in the pen, and working with sow movements in and out of the pen, they identified limitations e.g. the ability to ad lib feed in the 360° Freedom Farrower.

A link between hand feeding and piglet mortality, due to excess movement in the room, resulted in overlays.

As a result, the BD free-movement pen was installed to offer the ability to provide feed ad lib and the producer said that “the staff were much happier with the new feeding system as a whole.”

This experience highlights the importance of learning, adapting and consulting staff. Ad lib feeding has been added to all farrowing systems on the farm and has resulted in a reduction in mortality rates.

“My stockmen find tasks can take longer in the 360° Freedom Farrower. Piglet handling can be difficult because when the piglet runs to the other side of the pen, they can’t reach it and have to climb out of the pen and climb back in. The BD free-movement pen is easier; however, it can take more time to confine the sow as it is a three-point process.

“A difficult, impractical system makes tasks seem like a chore, making the stockmen dislike their work.”

Staff welfare is at the forefront of decision making.

“If a stockperson feels they are in danger while they work, they will simply leave, and it’s difficult enough to keep staff in the pig industry as it is! Temporary crating allows us to better manage the sow, as it provides flexibility to confine and protect the health and safety of the stockman.”


Considerations over the workability of off-the-shelf products led to the farm designing a FarrOPEN system, which incorporated elements of the existing systems.

Staff report that working in the FarrOPEN makes it easier to confine the sow, as the system uses sliding side bars.

Additionally, there is space at the back of the pen to enable the stockperson to move between pen sides without getting out of the pen.

“We designed our pen (FarrOPEN) to be a practical, simple, solution that allowed better sow and piglet welfare while ensuring productivity. It is a simple system for staff that does not compromise health and safety.

“The design comes from taking the good points from previous systems and adapting the bad points.It’s an amalgamation of different ideas and solutions.

“For example, we found bigger gates stopped pigs escaping from the BD free-movement pens. Space at the back was trialled with someone standing behind the gates, a lot of our system is based on trial and error.”

“The staff are very happy with the new system. They are unanimous that they wouldn't return to the conventional way of doing things, and they're delighted that their input helped create a successful system that benefits everyone.”

How will this comply with possible future legislation?

There are concerns among the group of early adopters of adaptive farrowing in the UK that their systems and specifications may not meet the requirements of any new legislation, and that costly alterations might be required.

“I wouldn’t want to move to full free farrowing as mortality could spike. My flooring is 6m2 and Germany introduced a new policy to reflect a pen size of 6.5m2. I have found 6m2 to be the most beneficial for maintaining low mortality and directing the sow where to lie down.

“Farmers will identify different confinement periods, either during or after farrowing, that work for their system and reduce the risk of piglet mortality during the critical period. However, I would be nervous of changing to anything less than four days.

“I believe the free farrowing and temporary crating policies should not be a one-size-fits-all policy, as every unit is different, from buildings to the genotypes used.

“Farmers should be trusted with a loose protocol that suits their individual systems.”

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