Funder and dates: Defra, April 2008 - April 2015
Collaborators/partners: SRUC, Newcastle University

Abstract/brief outline

Designing suitable farrowing and lactation environments that maximise both sow and piglet welfare, whilst maintaining economically efficient and sustainable enterprises, is a continuing challenge. Despite numerous attempts to develop an alternative indoor system to the farrowing crate, there is as yet no wide scale implementation of such a system at the commercial level. Preventing uptake are the valid concerns by farmers about piglet survival, ease of management and cost. Consequently the PigSAFE project (Piglet and Sow Alternative Farrowing Environment) developed an alternative to the farrowing crate that provides for the maximal sow and piglet welfare that can be achieved under commercial conditions. The project was a SRUC/Newcastle University collaboration funded by Defra, with industry levy boards and NGOs as part of the steering group. The PigSAFE system reconciles the ‘triangle of needs’ belonging to the farmer, the sow and her litter. The project undertook an extensive literature review aiming to define the biological principles which underlie sow-piglet interactions appropriate for non-crate systems and to determine design criteria that might meet those biological needs. In addition a large database of information on existing non-crate farrowing systems was collated. The physical and financial performance of these systems was summarised and the welfare attributes were evaluated based on how well they met the biological needs of the sow and her piglets as determined by the first objective. Economic modelling techniques were used to synthesise this knowledge and consultation with international experts and stakeholder groups on optimal design features assisted with designing a prototype that could be developed, refined and tested at experimental and commercial levels.

Project outcomes

The PigSAFE design intends to meet biological needs of sows and piglets, as well as requirements for stockperson safety and management ease. The system has a basic nest area, with solid flooring to allow provision of nesting material and sloping walls against which the sow can slide more slowly to ground level for suckling, to lower the risk of piglets being trapped and killed. A heated creep area has easy access from the nest. A separate slatted dunging area is bounded by walls with barred panels to adjacent pens to discourage farrowing outside the nest. A feeding crate for the sow is included at one side of the pen, where the sow can be locked in to allow safe inspection or treatment of the piglets. In trials PigSAFE performs as well as conventional systems in terms of piglet survival (avg. live-born mortality 8%). Piglets from PigSAFE wean heavier than in conventional systems. The project demonstrated that design details are key to its success. 

Engagement with industry was prioritised throughout the project and there continues to be momentum within the industry to trial alternative systems. However there is a lack of reliable, evidence-based information available to those in the supply chain. Therefore we developed our website: The website centralises information on all aspects of free farrowing and is constantly being updated as interest in this area is increasing. Please visit the site for more information about PigSAFE and other alternatives as well as information about many other aspects of free farrowing.



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