A review of sow and piglet behaviour and performance in group housing systems for lactating sows

Nieuwamerongen, S.E. van; Bolhuis, J.E.; Peet-Schwering, C.M.C. van der; Soede, N.M.


Commercial use of group housing systems for lactating sows is limited, but the recent transition to group housing during gestation in the EU may result in a renewed interest in such systems. Therefore, this review aims to identify key factors that may contribute to the success or failure of group housing of lactating sows in comparison with individual housing by describing the variety in group housing systems and discussing animal behaviour and performance compared with individual housing. Group housing systems can be divided in multi-suckling (MS) systems, in which sows are grouped with their litters, and get-away (GA) systems, which include a separate communal area accessible to sows only. These systems differ in many aspects regarding management and layout but, compared with individual housing, generally provide more environmental complexity, more freedom of movement for the sows and more freedom to express behaviours related to, for example, maternal care and social interactions. Group housing poses several risks, such as disrupted nursing and an increased level of crushing during the MS phase, and in the GA systems there is a risk for early cessation of nursing. On the other hand, pre-weaning mingling of litters clearly benefits piglet social development and may improve adaptation to the post-weaning situation. In addition, group-housed sows may show lactational ovulation, which provides opportunities for insemination during an extended lactation period, which benefits the piglets. Gradual transitions in social and physical environment around gestation, farrowing, grouping and weaning seem to be key success factors for group housing systems during lactation. In addition, selection of suitable sows and quality of stockmanship seem important.