Durban - In the wake of concern about pigs spending their lives in the confines of cages, people want to know more about the life of the pigs that provide them with their sausages, polony and bacon.

This has prompted pig farmers to give the animals more spacious confines, following a trend set in Europe and the United States a decade ago.

The Independent on Saturday visited two piggeries this week which already keep many of their animals in spacious sties, or have plans to do so.

Both were scenes of transition, one in the direction of market trends, the other edging back to confinement after exploring something closer to free-range pig farming.

“We are very happy about the change,” said Kamberg farmer Rob Butt, a member of Butt Farming outside their 2 000-sow piggery under the gaze of Giant’s Castle. They were spearheading transformation in KwaZulu-Natal, in line with market trends.

“I quite enjoy seeing the sows lying next to each other, keeping each other warm,” Butt said. “There’s no real difference in their behaviour, but in the long term it will be better for their legs. They’ll have better exercise.”

When it came to rands and cents, he believed there was not much difference between the crate and the group house system. However, profits would be come losses were they to try free-range pig farming, he said. That’s more or less what Peter Rolland tried when he started farming at Baynesfield 25 years ago, fresh from agricultural college in England.

“I thought I knew all the answers,” he said, pointing at his cabbage field once used for pigs to roam free, with puddles dotted about and a rondavel in the middle for shelter.

“It seemed a lovely system. They seemed as happy as Larry as they would wallow in the water and feed from the ground. But in practice the ground became hard. We had a lot going lame. They’re a swampy type of animal. They need a nice surface.”

Sunburn also caused sows to abort their young.

So, Rolland began moving the pigs indoors, but not into a 100 percent caged environment. His pigs still have the chance to move around for much of their lives in a pen partly sheltered, partly open air, in a building that was once a milking dairy.

There were advantages to being caged at various times, for both pig and farmer, Rolland said. In the farrowing house – the “maternity ward” – caged mothers could not lie on top of their offspring and squash or smother them. They also had underfloor heating, and they ate better because there was no fighting and stronger pigs could not “hog the lot”.

Back in the shadow of Giant’s Castle, Butt’s piggery manager Colin Heyman emphasised the danger of pigs being exposed to the sun.

“They are not bred for the outdoors. If you don’t put shade cloth on a lorry travelling 120km to the abattoir, they’ll be burnt red and the abattoir won’t want them. The consumer would not want sunburnt rind.”

Butt Farming’s operation will be the second in South Africa to fully use the group-house system, which has six sows sharing an area of 15m2 rather than four sharing 12m2. There are also 462m2 pens holding 550 smaller pigs.

Early next year, construction at Butt Farming piggery – a large family concern – is scheduled to start changing to this system. Before then, environmental impact assessments need to run their course for new buildings to go up, and the farmers will have to “maak ‘n plan” to renovate existing buildings to suit their new requirements.

Butt Farming also plans to bump up their present herd of 2 000 sows to 3 000 by the time the group-house system is fully in place.

“The only crates will be in farrowing houses.”

Their pig venture is divided into three piggeries set far from one another on their 1 400ha property.

The reason: to limit the spread of diseases, a threat that is posed not only by domestic pigs but by wild pigs. A layer of concrete lies beneath the outer fences to prevent these wild cousins from entering.

“More of them have come in the past 10 years because there’s more food around. They’re after the maize that we grow for our pigs,” said Butt.

Feeding is a specialised process with each age group receiving a specific ration, calculated by computer and available to it 24 hours a day.

“Most people have the perception of pigs being fed rubbish. It’s so far from the truth in modern piggeries.”

Also aided by computers is the process of temperature control, that involves flaps on the outer edges of the pig houses automatically lifting or lowering when necessary to help keep the sties at about 21°C and 22°C.

While Butt Farming is happy to adapt to the changes, they believe smaller farmers will battle with increased competition.

“Ten years ago, a dairy farm could have 200 head. Now they can have nothing less than 800. Exactly the same applies to pigs,” said Butt.

“It’s all about economies of scale. If you have a big unit, you can make use of the modern technology available. If you have a small unit, you can’t.”

Joos Solm, who designs piggeries all over South Africa, said the trend towards group housing started in 1995.

“The biggest farms are under group housing. It works wonderfully. The sows are much stronger with the exercise they get.

“It’s costly, so you’ve got to do it in stages, but it’s happening on all the new farms.”