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April 25, 2022

Economic purposes determine the life of pigs in agriculture, from breeding and birth to death through slaughter.

Since the Second World War, there has been a rapid intensification of industrial pig farming in Europe. This is characterized by significantly increased production figures, highly technical and profit-oriented methods in husbandry, and a stronger focus on economic aspects in breeding (1).

Breeding goals based on certain characteristics such as rapid growth or increased fertility lead to over-breeding with corresponding health consequences for the animals. For the production of meat of pigs, pigs are kept in different stages of production: male and female pigs for fattening ("fattening pigs"), sows ("breeding sows") and boars for breeding purposes (2).

The various production steps often take place in separate farms, each of which specializes in breeding or fattening. As a result, the animals usually have to be transported several times under stressful conditions and finally, at the end of their short life, also to the slaughterhouse (3).

According to the Swedish researchers Ingvar Ekesbo and Stefan Gunnarsson (4), the general needs and behaviors of domesticated pigs are very similar to those of wild boars, even after years of intensive breeding. Husbandry conditions largely disregard the integrity and welfare of the animals. Instead, the pigs are even adapted to the farming systems by means of invasive interventions. Painful illnesses, injuries, and behavioral disorders result from these living conditions (5).

(1) Ekesbo, I., & Gunnarsson, S. (2018). Farm animal behaviour: characteristics for assessment of health and welfare. CABI.

(2) Weiß, J. W., Pabst, W., & Granz, S. (Eds.). (2011). Tierproduktion. Georg Thieme Verlag.

(3) Weiß, J. W., Pabst, W., & Granz, S. (Eds.). (2011). Tierproduktion. Georg Thieme Verlag.

(4) Ekesbo, I., & Gunnarsson, S. (2018). Farm animal behaviour: characteristics for assessment of health and welfare. CABI.

(5) Fraser, D., Duncan, I. J., Edwards, S. A., Grandin, T., Gregory, N. G., Guyonnet, V., ... & Whay, H. R. (2013). General principles for the welfare of animals in production systems: the underlying science and its application. The Veterinary Journal, 198(1), 19-27.

Current numbers and data

Almost 24 million pigs currently live in Germany, with only a very slight decline in recent years.

Eleven million, just under half, are so-called “fattening pigs” slaughtered for meat production. In order to maintain this production, some of the future fattening pigs are bred and born in Germany. The majority of the seven million piglets are fattened. More than one third of the pigs are kept on holdings with 1000 to 1999 animals (6). Only 0.6 % of pigs live on organic farms (7).

(6) Federal Statistical Office of Germany. (2021). Viehbestand - Fachserie 3 Reihe 4.1.

(7) Federal Statistical Office of Germany, 2021. Viehbestand in Betrieben mit konventionellem und ökologischem Landbau 2020.

Selected animal welfare topics

Piglet castration

Male piglets were routinely castrated in their first week of life until early 2021. After a long transitional period, the ban on anaesthetic piglet castration, which was already recorded in the German Animal Welfare Act in 2013, is now in force. Different alternatives are available to the farms and are distributed in different ways: boar fattening, immunocastration, injection anesthesia, and inhalation anesthesia. Scientific consensus is that local anesthesia, the so-called 4th way, is not compliant with the law and therefore not a viable alternative (8).

Read more about this topic here!

Zootechnical interventions

Although the routine tail docking is already prohibited by an EU directive, it is still common practice in most farms. This is made possible by exemptions, which the majority of farms make use of. The piglets are cut without anesthesia removing part of the tail to prevent tail biting.

Tail biting is a behavioral disorder that occurs in animal husbandry and can have different causes. According to studies, the low-stimulation environment seems to be a decisive trigger. However, tail shortening is only a symptom of the problem and not the root cause (9).

The same can be said about the anaesthetic clipping of teeth of piglets during the first week of life. It is intended to prevent the piglets from hurting the mother’s suckling or each other during fights. The procedure entails health risks for piglets and is merely an adaptation to poorly adapted husbandry systems (10), (11).

As already mentioned, piglets were usually castrated without anesthesia until 2021. Castrations are still allowed, but only under anesthesia.

Sow crate

Despite years of criticism and scientific advice proving animal welfare violations, sows are confined in so-called gestation and farrowing crates. To protect and facilitate the work of animal owners, sows are repeatedly locked individually in the crates. In it they are artificially fertilized or give birth to their piglets. During this time, they can make a maximum of one step forward, the width is not sufficient to turn around.

The permanent restriction of movement and the hard slatted floor cause behavioral disorders and painful diseases such as shoulder injuries and hoof diseases in sows. In addition, they can not freely contact their piglets (12).

In 2020, the German Federal Council adopted legislative changes to the confinement of sows. The crates were not completely abolished, only the time of the sows in it somewhat shortened. There are also long transitional periods until these regulations apply. The former specifications were even softened, as the sows may not encounter "structural obstacles" while lying down. The much bigger problem, that they encounter neighboring sows due to the tightness of the crates, was thus declared legal (13).

Frontal view of a sow in a crate. Next to her are other sows in crates.
©Stefano Belacchi / Essere Animali / We Animals Media

(8) Blaha, T., Knees, M., Müller, K. & Verhaagh, M. (2020). Alternativen zur betäubungslosen Ferkelkastration. Bonn: Bundesanstalt für Landwirtschaft und Ernährung (BLE)

(9) EFSA Panel on Animal Health and Welfare (AHAW). (2014). Scientific Opinion concerning a Multifactorial approach on the use of animal and non‐animal‐based measures to assess the welfare of pigs. EFSA Journal, 12(5), 3702.

(10) Appleby, M. C., Olsson, A. S., & Galindo, F. (Eds.). (2018). Animal welfare. Cabi.

(11) Weiß, J. W., Pabst, W., & Granz, S. (Eds.). (2011). Tierproduktion. Georg Thieme Verlag.

(12) Ekesbo, I., & Gunnarsson, S. (2018). Farm animal behaviour: characteristics for assessment of health and welfare. CABI.

(13) DJGT (2020, 11.07). Pressemitteilung der Deutschen Juristischen Gesellschaft für Tierschutzrecht e.V. (DJGT) zur 992. Plenarsitzung des Bundesrates zur Siebten Verordnung zur Änderung der Tierschutz-Nutztierhaltungsverordnung (7. ÄVO).

German Animal Welfare Act and legal regulations

The current regulations on the protection of pigs primarily regulate housing conditions. It is not further questioned whether and to what extent pigs may be used by humans at all - their industrial use is simply assumed. The regulations are determined primarily by economic, and not animal welfare-related, aspects. This creates the basis for today’s pig farming, which is only restricted to the basic needs of the animals (14).

Legal gaps and imprecise information leave the production facilities room for manoeuvre and thus enable many animals to be kept in a confined space, and allow non-species-appropriate feeding and breeding practices, which are associated with health damage to the animals. The husbandry requirements contradict the idea of § 2 of the Animal Protection Act. According to this, animals must be adequately fed, cared for, and accommodated according to their species and needs.

(14) Von Gall, P. (2016). Tierschutz als Agrarpolitik: Wie das deutsche Tierschutzgesetz der industriellen Tierhaltung den Weg bereitete (Vol. 11). transcript Verlag.

Life in production

Sows in "piglet production"

Sows kept for breeding give birth to future pigs for fattening. The life rhythm of the sows is subjected to the operational "production rhythm" and artificially adapted. In many plants, the young sows are already treated with medication in order to adjust their cycle accordingly (15), (16).

They go through different stations in the stable: the “insemination center” with crates, in which the sows are artificially fertilized, the waiting stable during the advanced pregnancy and the “farrowing stable” with individual farrowing crates, in which they give birth to piglets (17).

Piglets

The piglets have to endure painful interventions already in their first days of life. In order to adapt them better to the housing conditions, they are castrated, tail-docked and teeth are clipped (18).

Separation from the mother just a few weeks after birth is traumatic for the piglets and associated with a great deal of stress (19).

Pigs in the fattening

”Fattening pigs” are fattened for about six months and slaughtered at a young age regardless of whether they are on a conventional or organic farm. During this time they reach a weight of about 100 kilograms due to the high-performance breeding and the energy-rich feed. In order to achieve this body weight, wild boars grow for three to four years. The procedure is called "intensive fattening" (20).

In the meantime, more and more pigs are kept in fewer farms, and the animals usually spend their lives in small, barren pens. They lack the possibility of dividing different areas of life, employment and, in most cases, access to the outdoors. The animals suffer from the spatial narrowness without structuring, high stocking densities, and the low-stimulation environment (21).

Boars for breeding

Since most sows are artificially inseminated, there are only a few adult male pigs. There they are held individually and semen is taken from them by employees. Some of the boars also live in the breeding farms in order to stimulate the sows as "control” or “search boar" and/or to indicate the willingness of the sows to mate (22).

Slatted Floor

Both in fattening and breeding, often the animals must walk and lie on slatted floors without litter. The hard soil is particularly problematic for the animals that naturally live on soft ground in forest areas and it leads not only to diseases and injuries but also to behavioral disorders (23).

Illegal killings

Although the German Animal Welfare Act stipulates that vertebrates must be stunned before they are killed, photographs from stables are repeatedly published showing how suckling pigs are illegally killed under the pretext of "emergency killing". They are not stunned, but thrown against walls or stable floors (24).

If you click [SHOW SENSITIVE CONTENT], you will see a piglet having her_his tail docked.

(SHOW SENSITIVE CONTENT)

(15) Brade, W. (Ed.). (2006). Schweinezucht und Schweinefleischerzeugung: Empfehlungen für die Praxis. Federal Agricultural Research Center (FAL).

(16) Weiß, J. W., Pabst, W., & Granz, S. (Eds.). (2011). Tierproduktion. Georg Thieme Verlag.

(17) Weiß, J. W., Pabst, W., & Granz, S. (Eds.). (2011). Tierproduktion. Georg Thieme Verlag.

(18) Weiß, J. W., Pabst, W., & Granz, S. (Eds.). (2011). Tierproduktion. Georg Thieme Verlag.

(19) European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). (2007). Animal health and welfare aspects of different housing and husbandry systems for adult breeding boars, pregnant, farrowing sows and unweaned piglets‐Scientific Opinion of the Panel on Animal Health and Welfare. EFSA Journal, 5(10), 572.

(20) Demmler, D. (2011). Leistungsabhängige Gesundheitsstörungen bei Nutztieren für die Fleischerzeugung (Schweine, Rinder, Hühner, Puten) und ihre Relevanz für § 11b Tierschutzgesetz („Qualzucht “) (Doctoral dissertation Freie Universität Berlin).

(21) Fraser, D., Duncan, I. J., Edwards, S. A., Grandin, T., Gregory, N. G., Guyonnet, V., ... & Whay, H. R. (2013). General principles for the welfare of animals in production systems: the underlying science and its application. The Veterinary Journal, 198(1), 19-27.

(22) European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). (2007). Animal health and welfare aspects of different housing and husbandry systems for adult breeding boars, pregnant, farrowing sows and unweaned piglets‐Scientific Opinion of the Panel on Animal Health and Welfare. EFSA Journal, 5(10), 572.

(23) Ekesbo, I., & Gunnarsson, S. (2018). Farm animal behaviour: characteristics for assessment of health and welfare. CABI.

(24) Tierärztliche Vereinigung für Tierschutz (TVT). (2014). Stellungnahme zur Nottötung von Saugferkeln (bis 5kg KGW) durch den Tierhalter. Arbeitskreis Betäuben und Schlachten.

Overbreeding

Pig breeding is aimed at achieving maximum profit with the animals. Therefore, pigs are bred for meat production to extremely accelerated growth and a high percentage of muscle. The bodies of the young animals are overloaded by this overbreeding and they suffer from diseases that often lead to premature death (25).

The mothers of these pigs, the “breeding sows,” have for years been so influenced by breeding that they now achieve much higher "reproductive performances". The economic interest lies mainly in fertility, litter sizes, milk yield and others. This overbreeding has enormous health effects on the animals (26).

Two sows are lying next to each other in crate stalls in the barn. Piglets run and lie around them. Some drink at the sows' teats.
©Andrew Skowron / We Animals Media

(25) Fraser, D., Duncan, I. J., Edwards, S. A., Grandin, T., Gregory, N. G., Guyonnet, V., ... & Whay, H. R. (2013). General principles for the welfare of animals in production systems: the underlying science and its application. The Veterinary Journal, 198(1), 19-27.

(26) Brade, W. (Ed.). (2006). Schweinezucht und Schweinefleischerzeugung: Empfehlungen für die Praxis. Federal Agricultural Research Center (FAL).

Transport and Slaughter

Transport

Most pigs are transported several times in their lives. During transport, they are located in narrow compartments, mostly on several floors. They are exposed to the weather and are often transported for many hours (27).

It was photographed through a hatch into an animal transporter. Many pigs are standing close together. The pig in focus is looking at the camera.
©Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media

Slaughter

At slaughter, it is legally required that the animals are stunned and then killed by bleeding. Different methods are common for stunning, with gas and electric stunning being the most widespread. False stunning is not uncommon (28). In addition to the fattened pigs, the sows are also slaughtered, mostly because fertility performance decreases or they leave the production cycle due to disease (29).

(27) Rabitsch, A. (2014). Tiertransporte: Anspruch und Wirklichkeit. Veterinärspiegel Verlag.

(28) Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture. (2015). Tierschutzbericht der Bundesregierung 2015. Bericht über den Stand der Entwicklung des Tierschutzes (last accessed 02.03.2022).

(29) European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). (2007). Animal health and welfare aspects of different housing and husbandry systems for adult breeding boars, pregnant, farrowing sows and unweaned piglets‐Scientific Opinion of the Panel on Animal Health and Welfare. EFSA Journal, 5(10), 572.

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