Successful free farrowing systems for pigs

Any substantial change brings challenges. Find out how to switch to a free or other alternative farrowing system while meeting the needs of the sow, piglets and stockperson.

Back to: Alternative and free farrowing options for pig farms

Time and management

Whenever a system changes, there are changes to performance. These tend to show a decrease in desirable traits such as piglet survivability and wellbeing. Those traits may be economic in terms of additional labour, a combination of welfare and economic concerns such as reduced piglet survivability or more practical in nature regarding the safety and experience of staff.

Research from Newcastle and SAC (Edwards and Baxter, 2012) shows that experience and standardised operating procedures have a substantial impact in ensuring effective piglet survivability when switching from conventional crates to free farrowing systems, such as PigSAFE.

Research on the success of free farrowing systems in the UK compared to conventional crates has so far been made under research conditions at institutions such as Newcastle University and Scotland's Rural College (SRUC). These conditions are not always representative of commercial enterprises in terms of labour, process and allocation of resources.

Currently, little data exists on the performance of free farrowing systems in a commercial enterprise.

The effect of staff experience on piglet survival outcomes with the PigSAFE system – from Edwards & Baxter (2012)

Case study: Free farrowing alongside conventional pens

A family farm installed 72 free farrowing pens in 2012 on their 1,700 sow indoor breeding unit. They have a weekly production system moving pigs to finishing for Cranswick Country Foods.


  • Sows are quicker to farrowing and produce better colostrum
  • Sows are calm and contented, especially after farrowing


  • Sows do not always differentiate between sleeping and dunging areas, increasing labour for cleaning out
  • Mortality is slightly higher (14–20%) than a conventional crate system (12%)

The farm observed that using a mixture of farrowing accommodation caused challenges for the sows, with gilts taking well to free farrowing systems but older sows finding it harder to adjust. This has led to the need to create a 'herd within the herd': sows and gilts to free farrow, and those that do not. This would take considerable additional management time.

Farrowing pen size

The footprint of farrowing pens shows substantial variation, from 4.3 m2 to 7.2 m2. The variations in size are due to the distinction of zones for sows (lying and toilet areas) and piglets (creep areas and areas for enrichment). Also, typical sow sizes have increased, making the dimensions of the pen vital when investing in new accommodation.

When determining size, the minimum guidance is to ensure the welfare of the sow when restrained, even temporarily, for the safety of the stockperson. The sow should be able to stand freely, without contact with the sides, top and ends of the pen. With sows increasing in size (Moustsen, Lahrmann and D’Eath, 2011), ensure that any future investment reflects these changing dimensions.

A pen that is too large can also be an issue. If the pen is too open and the sow cannot make use of the design, such as sloping sides, it can lead to an increase in crush deaths of the piglets. A pen that is too big or has poorly laid out creep areas for piglets can also lead to chilling and increased mortality.

In short, when choosing a pen, be aware of:

  • The goal of the investment – there is a balance between what the future customer may require (higher perceptions of welfare) and the balance in productivity*
  • The size of your sows – the larger the sow, the larger the pen required
  • The needs of both piglet, sow, and stockperson

*Cain et al (2013) made a point of stating for free farrowing to be adopted as the standard of production, a premium would need to be offered to offset production losses. There are however, no guarantee of premiums being provided to producers for using these systems even if assurance standards are met. This was mirrored the FAWC report (2015).

Standard operating procedures

The evidence suggests that experience is a major factor in reducing piglet mortality in new systems. With labour continuity and availability an issue in pig production, the use of standard operating procedures (SOPs) can help support staff training and produce consistent results between stockpersons. The EUPiG programme showcased such an SOP for farrowing from the University of Wageningen (Pig Vitality).

Download an example of the SOP