Tail docking and teeth clipping are very common practices in the commercial pig industry but it is not necessary to perform these husbandry procedures unless you mimic the same living conditions that cause the problem. Not using farrowing crates and keeping your piglets in a stimulating environment will prevent abnormal behaviours that lead to the need to tail dock or clip teeth.
Boredom is the major cause of tail biting. When piglets are kept in cramped and barren housing or tiny yards they can resort to this behaviour to amuse themselves. The tip of the tail is not as sensitive as the rest of it therefore the first few nibbles are not as painful and the piglet is not quick to avoid being bitten. Once there is blood flow the aggressor finds the behaviour more rewarding and continues to bite, sometimes until there is no tail left. Cutting off their tails will solve one problem but will not resolve the piglet’s frustration.
Tail biting tends to happen in 'outbreaks' and if you take the time to assess your operation, you will be able to pinpoint possible causes. These could include:
Environmental issues that may contribute to the extended restlessness of the piglets:
Be aware that if tail docking is performed incorrectly, it can result in serious problems for the piglets that could be much worse than having their tails bitten.
Prevention of Tail Biting
The best defence against tail biting is providing an environment that the piglets will thrive in. This would include:
Tail biting in a free range environment is rarely a problem. If it does occur pig management should be investigated rather than resorting to an unnecessary surgical procedure. If tail docking is practiced, the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals – Pigs states that it be carried out before pigs are 7 days of age.
Clipping teeth should not be a routine procedure. Damage to a sow’s udders from piglet’s teeth is generally the result of environmental issues. The use of farrowing crates renders the sow unable to control the behaviour of her offspring. In a natural environment, if a piglet were to bite her it would be dealt with by a sharp reprimand from its mother’s snout or refusal by the sow to feed. A farrowing crate prevents the sow from dealing with such a problem and allows the piglets unrestrained access to her. If the sow is kept in a crate for her entire lactation, this serves to exacerbate the problem.
There will be the occasions were fighting for teats by littermates will result in facial lacerations. There is a much higher risk of these injuries becoming infected in a heavily stocked, indoor environment. These are isolated incidences and should be dealt with individually.
These problems are rare when sows are allowed to farrow without the use of crates and piglets are not confined to small pens. A stimulating environment means they are too busy exploring to be bothered with causing injury to one another.
Castration has historically been performed to prevent boar taint. As male pigs start to reach the age of sexual maturity the risk of taint becomes high. Generally, castration is no longer a common practice in the commercial industry as modern breeds of pigs receiving optimal nutrition will reach market weight before they become sexually active. However, pigs that are raised under free range conditions or those that are not fed optimal nutrition to maximise growth rates, can be at risk of developing boar taint as they take longer to grow than their commercial counterparts. Small producers are also less likely to have access to modern, fast growing genetics so slower growth is usually inevitable. Heritage breeds take even longer to grow but they do mature later than other breeds.
If you do choose to castrate it must be performed before the age of 21 days. Ideally this should be done in conjunction with pain relief. As your vet to show you the right procedure and ask their advice about the use of local or topical anaesthetic.
Castrated males will lay down a lot more fat, and may fall outside the requirements of your market. If you are having problems with sexually active males, it would be advisable to separate the grower herd into males and females or look into the use of Improvac, a vaccine to prevent boar taint.