Well, who would have guessed it!
This is, genuinely, the result of a study at the “Research Farm” at Futterkamp in northern Germany and reported in the Dutch journal “Boerderij”. The farm is doing various trials how to find the silver bullet in order to control tail biting. Many have focussed on nutrition to reduce the risk of tail biting such as increasing the amount of crude fibre to about 8%. The idea behind this is that a sense of satiety will calm the pigs and make them less aggressive. You don’t feel like picking a fight after a big meal do you?
But what they found was that giving pigs straw in their pen was the most cost effective way to reduce tail biting better than providing “enrichment material” or more space. Supplying straw for the pigs from the beginning of the grower phase until late finishing does reduce the risk though ‘accidents’ can still happen.
Tails are important to pigs. They act as signalers of mood to other pigs and humans. Harm Krusehe, manager of the farm, knows this. He is quoted as saying:
In case there’s a nice curl in the tail, and the pigs wave with it, the animals are doing well. Should the tail hang, I’m getting worried something might happen – or perhaps has already happened.
I wish my German was as good as good as his English, but you get the point. Every stockman knows that a straight tail on a pig is a sign of an unhappy pig. As someone once said:
Aslan the Great gave me this tail and no one, repeat, no one, touches the tail. Period, exclamation mark!
In fact Krusehe’s interest is financial. Tail-docking is time-consuming and hence expensive. It is especially expensive if you use an anesthetic – most industrial farmers do not – or the stump becomes infected and requires antibiotics. Which brings me to the photograph that accompanied the article in “Boerderij”. It was taken by Henk Riswick and, I assume, shows an interior shot of the research farm at Futterkamp .
Here it is:
And here are things to notice. Eight pigs crammed into a grey painted pen of about 3 metres by 3 metres with walls high enough that they can’t see out. The sound of nearby pigs that they cannot see will be stressful. The lack of visual stimulus will lead to boredom. The small size of the pen means that submissive pigs cannot escape persecution by dominant pigs.
I think that five of pigs are eating/ignoring the stockman, two are looking up at him, and the one in the corner is sick. Any pig which is not doing what other pigs are doing, particularly lying, isolated, when food is available, is a sick pig.
The size of the pigs is difficult to estimate but I guess at about 80kg which, for us, is about slaughter weight. The seven tails on show have all been docked.
Notice too the slatted floor which is designed to allow the pig shit to drop through to the slurry pit below. Notice that it doesn’t work. The slats are covered in shit. Pressure washing them is time-consuming/expensive. The pigs are forced to lie in their own shit – a process that they will find distressing. No nice dry bedding for these poor animals.
Notice the pig closest to the camera. It has shit all down it’s flank where it has been lying on it’s side. Notice the line of shit along the wall at flank height. The pen at Grey Sage Towers would get scrubbed down if the walls were that dirty.
So I looked at the picture and thought that these pigs were the control group. These were the pigs who didn’t get warm, clean, dry straw to root around in and build nests to sleep in. And I looked at the stockman. And I looked at the feed that he was flinging down on that shit-covered floor. And I realised that it was chopped straw. And I realised that, translating from the German, “Supplying straw for the pigs from the beginning of the grower phase until ……..” didn’t mean “Supplying straw for the pigs to sleep on/stay clean”. It meant feeding them chopped straw so they would feel less hungry.
So this is the answer that they have found to tail-biting. You do nothing to improve the living conditions of the pigs. You still have stressed/bored pigs prone to tail biting, but you fill them up with a (cheap) agricultural waste product which is excellent for bedding but has no nutritional value beyond providing fibre.