In just a few years, Finland has become a pioneer in movement pens for farrowing sows, says Timo Heikkilä. The agricultural entrepreneur from Rusko, 200 kilometres west of Helsinki, is among the agricultural pioneers in the country. Heikkilä is Finland’s largest producer of piglets and has long been a customer and partner of WEDA Dammann & Westerkamp, the house equipment supplier from Lower Saxony. With WEDA technology, the farmer has successfully converted their operation to free farrowing – with wide-ranging benefits for both the animals and the people.
Supported right from the start
About five years ago, the first pig farming operations converted their farrowing units to movement pens, Heikkilä reports. In this, WEDA Dammann & Westerkamp actively supported their customers in Finland right from the start: various visits took place at WEDA and to reference farms in Germany, pilot pens were presented on-site for further discussion. At first, some in the industry considered this to be a utopian, expensive idea. However, ever since the successes of the interested farms began to show, WEDA’s competitors have also transitioned to technologies for this type of husbandry.
Suitable pen concept was developed jointly with WEDA
In 2020, Timo Heikkilä himself decided to expand his farrowing units by 384 movement pens. Over the course of several months, a pen concept that was a good fit for them was developed jointly with WEDA: Pens made of hygienic TRESPA solid material – effective hygiene, prevention of infections with salmonella –, the pen floor with a lower perforated share to reduce emissions; a generously sized piglet nest for optimal environmental conditions in case of high numbers of piglets as well as a triangular movement area for the sow to decisively reduce crushing losses.
Opportunity to move around increases the sow’s well-being
The result of this months-long collaboration between WEDA and Timo Heikkilä is something to be proud of. As a result, the farmer can even improve on the hitherto very successful results of his fellow farmers in Finland. For example, the production performance in case of movement pens is on par with that of conventional farms (piglet losses) or has even fewer of them in some cases: Finnish customers with WEDA movement pens talk about piglet losses of 7 to 10 percent. In addition, the opportunity to move around increases the sow’s well-being, which ultimately also benefits the piglets.
State Secretary dedicates new movement pens with a ceremony
On 4 and 5 November 2021, open house days were held at Timo Heikkilä’s farm, where Jaana Husu-Kallio, State Secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and a veterinarian, dedicated the new exercise pens with a ceremony. With these new units, the farm now has a total of 12 rooms with 32 movement bays each. In her speech, the politician recalled that there was a lot of discussion about gestation and farrowing pens during the years of reform of the Animal Welfare Act. According to Husu-Kallio, this debate must still be carried on and be taken seriously.
Finns promote more animal well-being
A Finnish government programme intensively promotes forms of husbandry with more animal well-being with subsidies, so that between 2023 and 2027 farms can also choose movement pens as a farm-specific measure for animal welfare offsetting. As a veterinarian, the State Secretary is pleased that farms are increasingly investing and thereby creating the prerequisites for species-appropriate husbandry. For keeper Timo Heikkilä, it is elementary to promote the welfare of the animals on a voluntary basis rather than through coercion. “If we had been forced to switch to movement pens, we would not be at this point now,” he stresses, referring to the good financial support.
Greater safety for piglets
Furthermore, the use of farrowing pens is justified by the safety of the piglets. A sow weighing several hundred pounds gently crushes nearby piglets to death. On Heikkilä’s farm, attempts were made to minimise this risk through temperature differences: The sow itself, which produces a lot of heat, needs a cool surface, while the piglets seek warmth. The piglets are housed in pens where heat lamps keep the temperature at 35 degrees. At the grate, the temperature is well below 20 degrees and the conditions are favourable for a cool sow. The temperature differences keep sow and piglets in the pen the majority of the time.Lower piglet mortality
But the new pens are also justified in terms of safety for people. It is possible, for example, to reconfigure the pens into a temporary cage, if necessary. That way, the sow can be confined for the cleaning of the pens or for treatment. The space available to the animals in the pen has been carefully thought out as well; the sow’s space is triangular. Experience has shown that this shape is best suited to minimise piglet mortality.
Less labour intensive, higher productivity
In addition to innovations that have the welfare of the pigs in mind, solutions must be efficient to improve productivity and reduce required human labour. Especially those that make the animal behave naturally the way the house staff wants it to behave. That is, for example, why the straw dispensers are placed in the pen in such a way that the manure lands on the grid and not on the concrete floor. “This significantly reduces the amount of human labour required to keep the house clean,” Timo Heikkilä sums up.