Credit: Farm Transparency Project
mother pigs looks through bars of a farrowing crate

‘Farrowing crates’: a cycle of suffering for mother pigs.

It's her natural maternal instincts, compassion and wisdom that make her one of the most incredible mothers around. It's also what makes the 'farrowing crate' one of the cruellest farming devices of all time.

Animals Australia

Animals Australia team

Last updated September 15, 2022

You’d be forgiven for thinking a device to prevent a mother pig from accidentally crushing her newborn piglets is a good idea. But take a closer look and you’ll discover that the farrowing crate is not just cruel – it causes more problems than it solves.

Introduced in the 1960s, the farrowing crate was designed to drive down piglet mortality rates to maximise profits for the ‘pork’ industry. But the standard use of farrowing crates doesn’t work to stop piglet deaths. Instead, they force these naturally doting, nurturing mother pigs – and her piglets – to endure a never-ending cycle of suffering that impacts every generation.

Read on to discover more and how your actions can help set her free.

What is a farrowing crate?

Farrowing crates are cold, hard metal cages with steel or concrete floors. In factory farms around the world, it’s standard practice to transfer mother pigs to a farrowing crate 7-14 days before she gives birth to her new piglets. After birthing (in a process known as ‘farrowing’), she remains confined in these metal ‘maternity’ crates for 3-4 weeks until her piglets are weaned.

Farrowing crates are so small a mother pig can barely move – she can only sit, stand or lay down slowly, and with difficulty. Pigs are naturally very clean animals, and when given the choice, never toilet where they eat, sleep or play. Instead, they will often travel far away to relieve themselves.  But trapped in a farrowing crate, she can only take one step forward or back and is forced to urinate and defecate right where she stands. For mother pigs, this unhygienic behaviour causes her extreme stress, discomfort and heightens her risk of disease.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

mother pig confined in cage in factory farming, piglets nuzzling her nose
Farrowing crates are meant to stop a mother pig from accidentally laying on top of her piglets. But piglets are still able to wander in and out of the crate – and underneath her - to access her milk. Barely able to move herself, piglet crushing is actually quite common in factory farms that use these devices.
Image credit: Compassion in World Farming

A ‘life’ of confinement and frustration.

Confined and forced into unnatural behaviours, she becomes so stressed and frustrated in farrowing crates that it impacts how she delivers her litter and the health of her piglets.

The denial of a mother to fulfil her maternal instincts can also cause depression in mother pigs. Coupled with the frustration of her confinement, all of this can cause a raft of problems, including:

  • Shorter suckling periods and less milk production
  • Lower responsivity to piglet calls
  • Increased risk of mismothering, including aggression towards her piglets
  • Savaging behaviour
  • Psychological stress in her piglets.

She can’t be the mum she craves to be.

Mother pigs are some of the most loving, doting, nurturing and protective mums around. And just like many humans, they have strong maternal instincts that are heightened when pregnant. In normal conditions, days to hours before birth, a pregnant pig will break away from her social group and find a safe, quiet place to build a soft, cosy, and protective nest using leaves and branches for her soon-to-arrive piglets.

Nest building is a vital behavioural need for an expecting mother pig. It prepares her to relax and stay calm during labour, helping her to give birth to healthy piglets, and provides a positive effect on her maternal hormones and behaviour. It also helps her body make the right amount of nutritious milk for each piglet.

Nest building in pigs is well researched and considered a ‘functional’ behaviour meaning it has an important purpose. Her maternal instinct to build a nest is so strong, that generations of selective breeding in factory farms, hasn’t altered her intrinsic desire – or need – to do it.

The video below shows how a free mother pig builds her nest, whilst the other mum – who’s desperately attempting to build one – is continuously hampered by the farrowing crate.

Even when given straw or hay, the confines of the crate deprive her from nesting. Nest building is proven to increase the natural 'happy' hormone oxytocin, helping her to be a calmer, more relaxed mum. Mothers who can't build nests have altered hormone levels which can impact her piglets' health.

Her piglets pay the price.

Under natural conditions, a mother pig builds strong, beautiful bonds with her piglets. She will socialise and play with them, sings to them at dinner time and sleeps nose to nose with them at night. And just like a dog or cat mum, she will also step in if her piglets get too rowdy, or exhibit poor behaviour towards her or each other. A simple nudge or walking away (if they are suckling too hard) tends to do the trick.

But trapped in a farrowing crate, she is completely deprived of the ability to interact normally with her piglets and can’t intervene if things get rough. And her piglets pay the price – Stressed without their mother’s natural guidance, some piglets develop unusual aggression toward other piglets, resulting in tail biting and fights that can cause injury or even death.

Sadly, this leads to the next stage in the cycle of suffering:  To prevent injury to the mother and her piglets, piglets have their tails cut off and their teeth ‘clipped’ – an extremely painful procedure for piglets, which is done without any pain relief.

The cycle of suffering starts again…

In natural circumstances, mother pigs will start weaning their piglets from 10-17 weeks old. But in factory farms, piglets are removed from their mothers as young as 3 weeks old. This is a stressful experience for all, causing piglets to have higher occurrences of clinical diseases and diarrhea.

After weaning, sows are repeatedly impregnated until their bodies can no longer produce enough piglets. When this happens, she is destined for the slaughterhouse. And her young don’t escape this fate either.

On average, a pig has a natural lifespan of 12-15 years, with some reported to reach 20 years old! But in factory farming, piglets not selected as ‘breeders’ are sent to slaughter when they are just 5 or 6 months old.

The cycle of suffering will start again though for young female pigs who, selected as breeders, will be forced to endure the same intense suffering their mother did when she was confined to the farrowing crate. After 3-4 years of going from farrowing crate to impregnation and back again, having many children but denied being a mum, and watching countless young have their teeth clipped and tails cut, she too will meet her end at the slaughterhouse.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

Despite having the intelligence of a 3-year old child, who can solve puzzles, and expresses empathy for humans and pigs alike, these loving animals continue to be industrialised and treated like 'products', rather than individuals who feel - and express - an enormous range of emotions.

It’s time to break the cycle.

Left to their own instincts and wisdom, mother pigs know just how to birth and raise happy, healthy, and well-behaved piglets.

So far, countries like, Switzerland, Sweden and Norway have all recognised the terrible suffering and vicious cycles caused by farrowing crates and banned them. Other countries like New Zealand, Austria and Germany have announced they too will phase out the farrowing crate.

But sadly, in Australia, parts of Europe, the United States and the UK, the use of farrowing crates is still standard practice in factory farms.

In Australia, there are over 1100 intensive pig farms. And 90 percent of these farms use the farrowing crate to confine expectant and nursing mothers for long periods of time. While some action has been taken to curb the use of ‘sow stalls’ – another cruel confinement device used during pregnancy – the cruelty of farrowing crates continues.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

Three piglets
Image credit: HMAMoane_11

All mums deserve kindness.

She has the capacity to suffer, to feel, and to express emotions like frustration, boredom, and depression. She also has the incredible capacity to nurture, to care, and to love – she feels joy, empathy, and even time passing byShe is someone, not something. And to each of her little piglets, she’s a mum.

But in intensive pig farms, it isn’t just the farrowing crates that keeps her confined – It’s an industry that chooses to see her only for what her body can produce, and values profit over compassion for another animal with whom we have so much in common. The good news is that throughout history, cycles of suffering have been broken by the compassion and kindness of people just like you.

You didn’t choose this life of suffering for her. But your choices and actions have the power to break this cycle. By making conscious, kinder food choices, you can choose to value her for the someone that she is over the products her body produce -and every compassionate choice like this, has the power to set her free.

It may seem like such a simple action, but the most powerful ones usually are! And with so many plant based alternatives to ‘pork’ products available these days, you’ll be spoiled for kinder choices. And every mum will thank you for it.

Explore more alternatives and a kinder way of eating today by ordering your FREE veg starter kit !