Clutching at straws: the UK straw shortage

Clutching at straws: the UK straw shortage

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The RSPCA’s pig welfare expert Kate Parkes provides advice on what to do if you’re having difficulties sourcing straw.

The UK is currently experiencing one of the hottest summers in recent history, so you’d be forgiven for forgetting that much of the country was experiencing a very different scenario this time last year: rain, and plenty of it.

Perfect storm

Combined with an increase in the number of straw-burning power stations, this has created 

the current ‘perfect storm’ leading to a shortage of straw.

And if you have to buy in straw and you’re lucky enough to get hold of any, prices are reaching record highs.

Pig welfare

The situation is a concern for the whole livestock industry, but particularly in certain sectors of the pig industry which rely heavily on straw for bedding and as enrichment.

There’s a very real risk that, should the current crisis be prolonged and if existing stocks not carefully managed, the health and welfare of millions of pigs could be compromised.

Whilst some pig producers appear to have sufficient amounts of straw to withstand the current crisis, we are aware that others may be struggling.

So, what options are there?

AHDB Pork have produced guidance on suitable bedding material*, which includes a particularly useful section on how to make straw go further.

Similarly, APHA issued guidance earlier this year with advice on what producers can do during the current crisis.

RSPCA Assured members are likely to be particularly affected, given that the RSPCA welfare standards for pigs require that suitable and sufficient bedding and enrichment is provided.

Straw not the only option

However, straw is not the only option; the standards allow alternative types of bedding as long as the material is comfortable, absorbent, thermally comfortable and does not compromise the health or welfare of the pigs.

 

For example, sawdust and/or woodchip could be used, perhaps in conjunction with straw in order to make supplies last longer.

For farrow-to-finish operations, the needs of the farrowing house should be prioritised as the RSPCA standards are explicit in requiring that straw is provided as nesting material; a minimum of 2kg must be provided 48 hours prior to the expected farrowing date.

Hopes for a good harvest

Hopefully, the current situation will be short-lived and 2018 will see a good harvest throughout the UK.

*Please note not all suggested alternative materials in this guide would meet the RSPCA welfare standards. If in doubt, please contact the RSPCA's farm animals department.

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Why straw is important for pig welfare

  • As bedding material it’s comfortable for pigs to lie down on and it also insulates pigs from cold, bare, concrete floors.
  • Research has shown that fewer injuries and leg problems occur in such housing systems, due to a more comfortable/less abrasive surface.
  • Pig are inquisitive animals and will spend much of their day rooting and investigating their surroundings. Again, straw is a great material for this as pigs are able to get their snouts under it, and pick it up and manipulate it with their mouths.
  • The ability to carry out rooting behaviour has been shown to reduce behavioural problems such as tail biting, ear biting and aggression, whilst consumption of straw can help to prevent gastric lesions leading to improved gut health.
  • Straw is excellent as a nesting material for gilts and sows. As well as being able to absorb fluids, if straw is long enough the sow will be able to pick it up and carry it in her mouth, moving it around her pen and simulating nest building - an important behaviour she is driven to perform even in the absence of any material.

Date: 09 Jul 2018