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Research leads to improved conditions for cull sows

Each year, more than half a million Danish sows are sent for slaughter, but only limited research exists as to the welfare of these animals upon arrival at the slaughterhouse. Now, results from a Master thesis have led to improved conditions for cull sows at Danish Crown slaughterhouse in Skærbæk.

[Translate to English:] Billede 1 (øverst): Søer går fra lastbilen Når søerne forlader lastbilen ved slagteriet kan det let komme til stop, fordi de bliver nervøse over de nye omgivelser. Billede 2 (nederst): Den nye rampe: Ny gangbro ved siden af søernes rampe, så medarbejderne ikke forstyrrer søerne ved at gå mellem dem – imod søernes retning. Foto: Mette S. Herskin.

Each week more than 5,000 sows are slaughtered at Danish Crown’s sow slaughterhouse in Skærbæk, corresponding to  about half of the sows slaughtered in Denmark per week. After arrival, entering the slaughterhouse may be stressful to animals and to cull sows in particular, as they are more sensitive to transport stress than finisher pigs. Recently,  results from a recent study have led to  changes at the slaughterhouse, ensuring that arrival and moving of sows towards the lairage pens are easier and calmer for both animals and personnel. 

Veterinary surgeon Sanne Weinreich Christensen carried out the study when pursuing her Master degree in  ”Animal Welfare in Primary Production” at Department of Animal Science, Aarhus University.

Sanne Weinreich Christensen works at Danish Crown in Randers and is responsible for animal welfare at their slaughterhouses. In relation to her Master thesis, she wanted to examine how sows are handled when they arrive at the slaughterhouse and are moved from the truck to the lairage pens – and how challenges along the way may affect animal behavior.

”As a result of my research, it was possible – with a few changes – to improve the conditions when the sows arrive at the slaughterhouse Having implemented the changes, I visited the company  and the personnel told me that the changes had a very positive impact – for the animals as well as the personnel handling the sows. Moving the sows has become so much easier”, says Sanne Weinreich Christensen.

In Skærbæk, the  changes begin at the 12 meter ramp on which the driver moves the sows from the truck towards the entrance of the slaughterhouse and into the lairage pens. The ramp used to have side protections with open barriers, meaning that the sows were able to see other animals. When walking towards the pens, this would often create blocking and agitation when the sows noticed new animals. The barriers have now been replaced by solid fencing,  only allowing the sows to see animals from their own truck load. 

Walking the aisle towards the lairage pens, the sows had to pass a 90o corner, and they were unable to see what was waiting behind the corner. This would often lead to blocking and signs of fear , increasing the risk of  sows turning around and walking back towards to truck. Now, the corner has been altered and adjusted, allowing the sows to look ahead.

One final change is in relation to the slaughterhouse personnel. Once a handler has walked a load of sows along the aisle towards the lairage pens, his/her only way back to the truck is via the sows heading for the pens, but in the opposite direction. This might disturb the sows and reduce the ease of movement. Now, the slaughterhouse has constructed a platform/gangway allowing handlers to walk back without disturbing the ease of movement.

Sanne Weinreich Christensen further explains that both personnel and drivers at Skærbæk slaughterhouse consider the changes very positive. They do not have to guide the sows as strictly as before and arrival at the slaughterhouse is easier for both animals and personnel.

”The management and personnel at slaughterhouses are generally highly interested in implementing better solutions. It is a prerequisite that the personnel knows why the sows behave the way they do. My research  have contributed to this, which is very positive”, Sanne Weinreich Christensen details. She further adds that the construction of new lairage facilities at the Danish Crown slaughterhouse in Blans will implement her research as well. These facilities are built with due consideration to animal welfare, when pigs are walked from the truck via the aisle to the lairage pens.

Senior Researcher Mette S. Herskin is Sanne’s supervisor, and she is delighted  with the results. “Not all our studies have this major impact. When we can improve conditions for both animals and personnel at the same time, we call it OneWelfare. In addition,  it is great that we have enthusiastic  students attending our Master course. The fact that the project focused on cull animals, a group that do not usually attract attention, is just the icing on the cake”, she adds. 

Project facts
The Master programme resulting in the studyThe ”Master degree in the Assessment of Animal Welfare in Primary Production” is a two-year postgraduate education to be completed while working in your line of business. The course is relevant for e.g. veterinarians and animal welfare supervisors, but also for students taking a general interest in animals as well as for employees in various organizations dealing with animal welfare in relation to e.g. politics, education or administration. The Master course was established by Department of Animal Science in 2012, based on a need for professionals who are able to assess as well as provide advice and guidance about animal welfare. Because of the Covid-19 situation, the course will not be offered in 2021, but it will be in the Spring of 2022. Read more about the degree here (in Danish only).
Further informationAs mentioned, the article is based on a thesis submitted by Veterinary Surgeon Sanne Weinreich Christensen as part of her Master education in assessment of animal welfare in primary production. Senior Researcher Mette S. Herskin was supervisor, and Senior Researcher Tine Rousing acted as co-supervisor, both are from Department of Animal Science. Sanne Weinreich Christensen is employed at Danish Crown and company data are implemented in the thesis. Therefore, the company has reviewed the present article; a fact that resulted in a few linguistic clarifications, however no changes as to the context of the article.
Read moreThe thesis also resulted in an article for a scientific journal: Handling and moving cull sows upon arrival at the slaughterhouse—Effects of small versus larger groups of sows. Applided Aimal Behaviour Science, 2020. 
ContactSanne Weinreich Christensen. E-mail: SAWC@danishcrown.com