Research results on pig enrichmentThe research project "New innovations for environmental enrichment on pig farms"
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In the research project, sisal rope was found to be a well-functioning enrichment material for suckling piglets. The chewing force of piglets at this age is not yet sufficient to break almost any fibres off the rope. Thanks to that, the ropes last for a long time and there are no pieces falling to the manure removal system.
Weaned piglets, finishing pigs and breeder pigs also liked to chew on sisal rope. However, they wear the rope down rather soon, and it needs to be replaced. For this reason, the cost-benefit ratio of sisal rope is not that good for these older animals, even though it otherwise is a feasible material for them too. If one does use sisal rope with pigs past weaning age, and if the floor is partly or fully slatted, it is important to attach the ropes in the pens so that a maximum of 20 cm of the rope end hangs loose. This decreases risk that long pieces of rope would get chewn off, fall through the slats and cause trouble in the manure removal system.
In addition to sisal rope, hemp rope also is safe for pigs, as it too is made of natural fibre. However, as hemp rope is more expensive, it was not tested in this study.
For suckling piglets, a sufficient diameter of the rope is approximately 1cm. Ropes are suspended on the pen wall, on both the solid resting area and on the slatted area. On the resting area, it is recommended that the ropes are long enough to have the end of the rope lying horizontally on the floor. This increases the usefulness to piglets, as they also like to root on the rope ends before settling to sleep, as if they were nest material. In the slatted area, shorter pieces of rope are needed (with the end of the rope approximately 10 cm above the floor), so that they will not get stained in feed, urine or manure.
All ropes that touch the floor need to be attached at a distance of at least 40 cm from the nearest corner of the pen. If a rope is too close to a corner the piglets may perceive them as part of the toilet. When placed correctly, the ropes remain clean, including those on the floor in the resting area.
There are several ways to attach the ropes. One option is a horizontal rope on the upper part of the pen wall, to which the vertical ropes are tied, as in the photo on the top right. Another option is to replace the horizontal rope with a lightweight (2 mm or 3 mm), reusable metal chain. When using a horizontal rope or chain, it is necessary to attach the vertical ropes so that they will not slide sideways, to prevent the long ropes of ther resting area from ending up on the slatted floor. Yet another option is to drill holes in the upper part of the pen wall. The vertical ropes are pulled through these holes, and a knot is tied at the end that is outside the wall. This way the ropes stay in place when piglets are pulling them from the inside of the pen, but are yet quick to remove later from the outside.
It is possible to wash the ropes between litters and re-use them. For the sake of hygiene, the decision depends on the current situation with transmissible diseases in the farm. If there are diseases for which the microbes are known to remain active for a long period outside pigs, it is better to use new ropes for each litter. If the ropes are suspended on a metal chain, the chain can however be washed with a pressure washer at the same time as the rest of the pen.