The influence of sow behaviour on piglet mortality due to crushing in an open farrowing system


The objectives of this study were to establish what changes in posture by sows carried a high risk of piglet crushing in a group farrowing system during early lactation and also to determine what factors influenced the risk of crushing during lying down. A total of 24 Large White × Landrace sows were studied during the first 7 days of lactation in a group farrowing system. Cross-fostering was not carried out so as not to influence behaviour. Dead piglets were removed and cause of death ascertained from external observation and post-mortem examination. Sow and piglet behaviour was video-recorded continuously. A total of 268 piglets were born alive, with 67 liveborn piglets subsequently dying during the 7-day experimental period, 50 as a result of crushing. A total of 7425 posture changes were analysed and 11 types of posture change were identified, the most dangerous being lying down from standing and those involving swapping sides, or rolling over, whilst lying. Dangerous events during lying down were more likely to occur (1) in the first 24 h after farrowing, (2) when the sow lay down in the middle of the pen, (3) when the sow lay down without carrying out much piglet-directed pre-lying behaviour and (4) when the piglets were spread out but near to the sow. The amount of pre-lying behaviour decreased over time and crushing mortality also decreased. The results confirm that the piglets are most vulnerable to crushing during the first 24 h of life, when they are spending much of their time near the udder and have relatively poor mobility. Co-ordination of behaviour between the sow and her litter is important to reduce the risk of crushing. It is also important that the design of open farrowing systems incorporates knowledge about how crushing deaths occur in order to improve piglet welfare.