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Enrichment: Novelty or Necessity?

Jennifer Jackson | July 26, 2017 | Better Pork - June 2017

“Some like to spend their time on the computer and some like to spend their time in the pig barn,” says David Linton, a pork producer from Blyth, Ont. “I am one of the guys who would rather spend their time in the pig barn – I like working with the pigs.”

For this reason, Linton enjoys providing different types of enrichment to his pigs on his farrow-to-finish farm.

“Pigs are intelligent animals and they need something to keep them occupied,” he says. “They are too smart an animal to only need feed and fresh air.” Linton has experimented with different types of enrichment in his barns to keep behavioural vices at bay and to keep pigs of all ages content.

Although he has used a range of items, Linton finds straw to be the most successful material for keeping the pigs occupied.

“We built a finishing barn about four years ago that has straw in it and there is nothing that compares,” he says. “Anyone who has been a pig farmer long enough (to remember) when straw was (more commonly used), they will tell you pigs love straw.”

Linton also uses straw in his dry sow barn. He finds that the sows enjoy rooting through the straw as well as eating it.

Linton and his son have experimented with how to best supply the straw, including lining square bales up against the back of the pens. This year, Linton purchased a round baler and has tried giving the pigs increased amounts of straw. Linton says the sows’ enjoyment of the straw has made the extra work worth it.

More recently, Kathy Zurbrigg, industry outreach coordinator at Ontario Pork, dropped off a commercially available pig toy for Linton’s weaner barn, called the Porkyplay.

U.K.-based East Riding Farm Services Ltd. developed the toy, which is distributed in Canada by Ketchum Manufacturing Inc. Producers can choose between eight toy flavours and colours, including green apple and orange caramel, according to a company statement.

“We were having (some) tail-biting problems in the weaner barn,” says Linton. “When Kathy brought us one of the toys to try, I have never seen pigs go at something like they did – they love those things. I bought some more for the whole barn.”

Linton has found the most success with these hanging toys in the weaner barn, he says.

Linton’s enrichment initiatives align with the current Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pigs.

“Pigs must be provided with multiple forms of enrichment that aim to improve the welfare of the animals through the enhancement of their physical and social environments,” according to the code.

Although these requirements may seem vague, the Canadian Pork Council (CPC) will release an updated version of the Animal Care Program in 2018 to reflect the code’s enrichment requirements, according to an emailed statement from the CPC.

Based on current requirements and the multiple forms of enrichment, most producers can comply with the code without making any significant changes, according to Jennifer Brown, research scientist at the Prairie Swine Centre. Brown is confident that, once producers start introducing different forms of enrichment into their operations, they will not look back.

Purpose of Enrichment

All types of enrichment for pigs should have the same ultimate goal: to improve the biological functioning of the animal, according to Yolande Seddon, assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine and researcher at the Prairie Swine Centre.

“When we say ‘enrichment,’ we are actually referring to a modification of the environment that will benefit the animal,” she says.

The Code of Practice outlines many types of modifications, including audible enrichment, physical changes to the pen, nutritional enrichment, social enrichment and enrichment with objects.

“One of the negative (consumer) perceptions of modern farming is the fact that we raise the pigs in environments that are fairly barren – (we know), obviously, this is for hygiene and cost,” she says. “However, for an animal that is growing and developing, a barren environment can sometimes produce behavioural responses that are undesirable, such as greater fear, (aggression) and excitability. When we add enrichment, we help in the development of the pig.”

Most commonly, researchers have studied providing enrichment to grow-finish pigs. These animals can often resort to tail biting and other injurious behaviours because of their high levels of activity, according to Brown.

Now that producers are shifting towards managing sows in groups, she also sees increasing producer interest in enrichment for sows.

Although the age of the pig may alter their preference in the type of enrichment, there are benefits for all ages.

“When piglets are weaned, they are mixed with other piglets which can cause some aggression. This period is also a very stressful time for them – they are changing
their diet, leaving the sow and are in a new environment,” says Brown. “Certainly providing enrichment can help to reduce the stress of some of (these changes) by giving (the pigs) something to explore and (interact with) in the environment, and
(reducing the time they) manipulate their pen mates.

“Enrichment is known to help reduce social tension. Instead of a dominant animal being aggressive to other subordinate animals, the (enrichment) gives them something else to interact with and manipulate – kind of like it’s their resource that they want to protect.”

Aggression and resulting injuries can lead to disruptions in production, says Laura Eastwood, swine specialist for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. “If you have less aggression and fewer injuries, you are not having to treat the pigs as often,” she says. “Less injury treatment will reduce your overall production costs – injuries can also depress your animal’s growth progress. Animals that are injured will perform poorly and will cost more.

“Not only can enrichment increase animal welfare, it can also (protect) your bottom line.”

Selecting Approaches

There are numerous approaches producers can take when determining which enrichment objects will best suit their operations.

“Introducing enrichment is simple – you just have to decide what you are going to do,” says Brown. “This does not necessarily mean you have to spend a lot of money.”

Brown recommends that producers follow the Code of Practice’s Six Ss for determining if a material is suitable for pigs. The product must be safe to pigs, sanitary, soft and malleable, simple, suspended, and situated in a place where the pigs have space to interact with it.

Most Ontario producers already supply hanging chain to their pigs, according to Zurbrigg.

“Most pigs do play with the chain and will manipulate it quite a bit,” she says. To make the chain more novel, she suggests attaching different materials or objects to it.

“Some producers will (thread) pipe or a garden hose over the chain – the pigs seem to prefer this and use the object more,” she says. The cost-effective sourcing options for these types of materials make them easy to incorporate into a barn.

In addition to – and sometimes with – chains, producers can use other malleable items such as cloth strips or wood, Eastwood says.

“Wood is a great tool, especially for some of the older pigs such as sows or finishers,” she says.

“Although you have to be careful that the wood is not treated.

“What we have seen is that the best items are malleable. Also, anything that (pigs) can eat without damaging or affecting their health (is a must).”

Not all enrichment, however, needs to be in the form of objects or toys, according to Eastwood.

“Enrichment could be as simple as turning on a radio for the pigs,” she says. “Producers can also increase the amount of positive experiences (the pigs have) with people, such as going into the pens – as long as it’s not scaring the (animals).”

This contact and experience will  help pigs manage how they react to new environments and stimuli, says Brown.

“Pigs are highly sensitive to noises and novel things – anything that can increase the variety they can experience will make them less fearful of novel things,” she says. “We consider enrichment (to be) different flooring types and panels that sows can lie against, or other changes to the environment. (Enrichment isn’t simply) providing what some people call toys. Producers should also consider the pen’s environment and how it’s designed.”

Straw, for example, is stimulating on various levels, Seddon says.

“When we’re putting enrichment (items) into pens … we know there are certain properties that pigs highly value. The item has to be chewable (ideally, they can ingest it and destroy it) and malleable in their mouth. (It should also) encourage foraging and exploratory behaviour,” she says. “Straw is at the top of the list as one of the most effective forms of enrichment because it has all of these properties.”

Producers with a fully slatted system can put small flakes of straw into racks to help prevent straw from falling into the manure system, according to Seddon. Sows, in particular, will largely consume the straw as opposed to putting it through the slats.

Brown echoes the usefulness of straw, especially for sows.

“Sows are less motivated to explore the environment as they are motivated to get food, being feed restricted. Using a fibre enrichment (such as straw) can increase their sense of satiety,” which in turn can reduce aggression, she says. “Sows do not get a lot of roughage with their concentrated diets. With fibre, you are not really increasing the calories or energy the pig gets, but you are increasing gut fill and their satisfaction of eating something.”

Group Housing Benefits

The effectiveness of enrichment may become more apparent to producers as they transition to group housing to comply with the updated Code of Practice, according to Brown.

“We are most concerned with aggression amongst sows,” she says. “With electronic feeders, for example, there can be more competition (in determining) who gets to go to the feeder first.

“Having an enrichment (product) gives the dominant sows something else to control and therefore can take the pressure off of the subordinate animals (at the feeder).”

Although producers may not see the same type of behaviours with sows as they would with younger pigs, recent literature suggests sows obtain immense health benefits if they’re given enrichment products.

“It’s subtle, but you could see better fitness in the sows due to the increase in activity,” says Brown. “The increased muscle tone and (health benefits) carry over for birthing – (we can see) improved sow intervals, fewer stillborns and improved bone strength.”

The increase in activity is not to be confused with negative activity, such as sows aggressively chasing each other, which can cause falling, lameness and injury.

An increasing number of producers are introducing enrichment for sows and gilts in their farrowing crates, says Brown. Hanging burlap, for example, allows the pigs to exude some of their instinctual nesting behaviours.

“Some studies have shown that providing enrichment at farrowing can increase the sows’ oxytocin levels,” she says. “These (increased levels can equate to) a better birthing and quicker bonding to their piglets. This is especially important for gilts as they are often very stressed at farrowing – without the proper oxytocin surge, they can resort to savaging their piglets.”

Seddon also sees the importance of using enrichment to prepare gilts for group housing systems.

“For producers shifting into group housing, it’s important to improve the social development of gilts and to prepare them for future life in a group system,” says Seddon. “Providing environmental enrichment as (gilts) mature can help reduce their aggression in groups, and improve their cognition which could prove useful for training gilts using electronic sow feeder (ESF) feeding systems.”

Future Changes

Producers can follow the current Code of Practice’s requirements and recommendations to introduce themselves to enrichment. These recommendations may hint at what producers can expect in future regulations, according to Seddon.

“The code is introducing enrichment to producers, hence why it (allows producers to) choose between social or sensory (types of enrichment),” she says. “What is encouraging is that … (producers are) trying to go further than the basic requirements and are implementing manipulative material in their operations.”

The code may become stricter on the forms of enrichment producers are required to provide for their pigs as more research is conducted, says Seddon.

“We know so much already (about different methods) – what’s important is growing sustainable methods,” she says. “(For example), what can we do when we know straw is the best enrichment (material) but some producers simply can’t use straw.”

Brown also believes the Code of Practice may one day reflect stricter enrichment requirements and that producers not already on board with the idea will see benefits.

“I have had some producers believe enrichment is surplus to the pigs’ requirements and that we are spoiling the pigs by giving them toys,” says Brown. “Once producers start to try (different types of enrichment) and see how much the pigs enjoy manipulating (objects), I expect more (producers) to (continue to) try more things.”

The concept of enrichment “is much the same as group housing – those that were originally against the changes now (are supportive) and see the difference in the pigs.”

As for Linton, he will continue to use enrichment in his operation. He is always interested in trying new products and new methods for keeping the pigs interested in their pens.

“Enrichment helps with all kinds of (behavioural vices) – there is no question,” he says. “The extra labour that is required with providing enrichment is nothing outrageous, but (then again) I would rather spend time in the barn anyways.” BP

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