Marc Gascoigne: Farrowing crates are saving lives

The use of farrowing crates is far and away the best option for survival of a litter of piglets.

The use of farrowing crates is far and away the best option for survival of a litter of piglets.

OPINION: Does anyone ever stop and think, "Maybe there is a reason farmers do it that way"?

Last week I sat through a TVNZ Seven Sharp "investigation" that was very critical of pig farmers and their continued use of farrowing crates. Of course SAFE were all over it and had supplied the footage obtained from illegally trespassing and sneaking around with their hidden cameras on private property. Again.

The criticism was levelled at farmers' use of their PigCare brand when, according to the programme, they can't possibly care for their pigs while they are using these terribly cruel farrowing crates.

Well hang on a minute. Why did no-one point out that while it may not be ideal for the sow, the use of farrowing crates is far and away the best option for survival of the litter of piglets. 

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It's pretty simple physics. The sow weighs 200kg. The piglets weigh 1-2kg, and don't stand any chance of survival if the mother sow decides to sit down and they are caught underneath. Which happens more regularly if a farrowing crate is not used.

Piglet survival is much lower on a free range farm than on a farm that uses farrowing crates. That is a fact.

I can't help but wonder that if farrowing crates had never been invented, whether animal activists would be running round pig farms filming squashed and suffocated piglets, screaming, "Why aren't these cruel farmers doing something to save the little piggies?"

As more and more pressure and regulatory constraints come onto pig farmers, more of them leave the industry. Pork imports into New Zealand now make up a whopping 56 per cent of the pork consumed. It's a far cry from the 1980s when New Zealand was a pork exporter, albeit on a small scale.

The crazy thing is, almost all of the imported pork is produced in conditions that would be illegal here.

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Still think your free range bacon is kinder?

A few years ago I heard about a primary school trip to a free range pig farm that didn't go so well. The kids were enjoying seeing all of the pigs and were lucky enough to be there while one of the sows started farrowing. The teacher excitedly called all them together to witness the miracle of birth – what a great opportunity to see the baby piglets being born.

The sow pushed all of her healthy piglets out, and then proceeded to stand up, turned around and ate the lot of them. Right in front of the group of stunned school children and their teacher.

And that, dear children, is why Mr Farmer puts Miss Piggy into the farrowing crate to have her litter.

The lesson for today is: Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind.

Meanwhile, I don't like to blow my own trumpet but….

On our farm this winter we've been busy fencing off some wetland areas and planting native trees, flaxes and grasses. By the time we are finished there will be 3000 more native plants growing and soaking up nitrates to prevent them getting into our waterways, and absorbing carbon out of the atmosphere. They will in time also look great.

We've had help and expert advice from the Waikato Regional Council and the planting and spraying has been done by our local contractors Cambrilea Weedsprayers. Fonterra also helped out with some free flaxes and cabbage trees. Big thanks to all three.

This winter this one contractor will be planting over 100,000 natives on farms around the Waikato. They have their own nursery and grow 50,000 plants a year as well as planting trees from other nurseries.

That is a bloody good effort when you think about it. There are many more contractors around the Waikato and of course around New Zealand, and then there are many more farmers who do their own planting. It all adds up to millions of trees going into the ground each and every winter.

It's good to know despite all the criticism and bagging of farmers that behind the scenes they are just getting on with it, planting and fencing and putting in the hard yards to improve water quality.

I'm looking forward to the next Greenpeace and Forest & Bird TV ads acknowledging farmers' and contractors' efforts. I might be waiting a while.

Marc Gascoigne is a Cambridge dairy farmer and welcomes feedback at

 - Stuff


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