Posts Tagged ‘enrichment’

Both the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pigs, and the new Canadian Pork Excellence program require that pigs of all production stages be provided with enrichment. In 2018 we included two different articles on enrichment for pigs in Pork News & Views; the first in August 2018 called “Environmental Enrichment to Improve Pig Health and Performance” and the second in December 2018 called “Enrichment for Nursery Pigs”. I highly recommend reading these previous articles if you have not yet done so!

As producers and industry representatives have become more aware of enrichment requirements, and more commercial products have become available as ‘pig toys’, we began receiving questions such as “what is the best enrichment option for my pigs?”, “can I use commercial pig toys with group housed sows?” and “how long do commercial pig toys last?”.

Every barn is different, and what works for one may not be the best option for another. Producers need to evaluate all possible options and determine what they would prefer to use. For example, natural items such as wood blocks can make great enrichment items for sows, but they can also cause some splintering and could potentially end up in the manure pit or caught in the sows’ mouth. Many producers use wood successfully, whereas others have had issues. Other natural options include rope or burlap, which pigs of all ages love! However, as pigs can be quite destructive, they do not last very long (although they are much cheaper than commercial toys). Since natural items tend to not last very long, many producers are considering the use of commercial toys. They cost more but may last longer.

We couldn’t find a lot of information on commercial toys for group housed sows, so we decided to test a few different ones out on farm. With the help of a South Western Ontario producer, and donated toys from several different companies, we installed commercial toys into a sow barn with electronic sow feeding and monitored how long the toys lasted, general interest levels in the toys, and if there were any challenges encountered with the different toys. Table 1 shows the different toys that were installed in the barn.

Table 1: different commercial toys that were installed in the group housed sow barn

Toy NameToy DescriptionDonated
Price *
Bite- Rite BlueHanging plastic cone
with replaceable rubber
chew sticks. Blue size
designed for finisher
Glass-pac Toy- $44
Sticks- $6.21
Porky PlayHanging plastic toy with
in different sizes.
Tri-StarHanging plastic disc
with replaceable chew
Toy- $21.95
Sticks- $1.75
MS Schippers
Yellow Ball
30cm polyethylene
plastic ball which can
be hung or filled with
and used on the ground.
MS Schippers
AntiBite Ball
Small polyurethane
rubber ball that can
be hung or mounted.
Easyfix AstroNatural rubber
suspended toy
designed for finishing
pigs and sows.
Easyfix $31
Easyfix Luna 142Natural rubber spiked
ball designed to go on
the floor of the pen.
Green size for finishing
pigs and sows.
Easyfix $51
Future Cow
Calf Ball
Extra strength vinyl
suspended ball designed
for group housed sows.
Easyfix $120

*Prices may vary from those listed in tabs

The barn had 2 large group pens. 150 gilts in one pen, and 240 sows in another. In addition to that, we also used a few smaller pens containing 10 gilts or sows located beside the large group pens. The farm has Topigs sows and DNA semen and a Nedap ESF system.  Three toys were suspended in the large sow pen, and 2 toys were suspended in the smaller gilt pen, all in open areas of the pens away from feeders and drinkers. Single toys were suspended in the small pens, with 2 toys suspended in the gilt training pen (one on each side of the ESF training system).

Toys were suspended from ceiling trusses using ¼ inch zinc chain, 4” eye screws (5/15”) and ¼” quick links. Toys were attached to 2’ of chain using a quick link. This was then attached to 5’ of chain hanging from the ceiling. By using a quick link 2’ above toy height, the toys could easily be adjusted up or down, and removed if needed, without having to reach the ceiling. Shortly after the trial began, quick links at toy level and mid-chain were replace with carabiner style clips, as sows were able to loosen the quick links easily. Approximate cost for the hanging set up (chain, eye hook and links) was $28 per toy, which is reusable long-term. Barn staff were asked to observe interactions with the toys daily and keep records of how long the toys lasted. They were also asked to record any challenges they came across with the toys.


Bite-Rite Blue: This toy was installed in the large sow pen, as well as in one side of the gilt training pen. The sows liked this toy and groups were observed interacting with it multiple times daily. When it was first installed, the chew sticks lasted about 3 weeks, at which point they were replaced. When replaced, they lasted only 2 days, as the sows had figured out they could easily destroy them. The cone itself held up well throughout this time, but barn staff were worried if there were no chew sticks left, the cone wouldn’t hold up for long.

Figure 1a: New Bite-Rite toy
Figure 1b: Bite-Rite toy, two weeks after being added to the group sow pen

Porky Play: This toy was originally installed in a small pens with approximately 10 sows, as well as in the gilt training pen. Barn staff noted that the pigs were not interacting with this toy very often but was likely due to lack of space in the pens for pigs to play properly. The toy was then moved to the large sow pen where it held up well; however, barn staff reported it was used less frequently than some of the other toys available to them. The sows liked to play with the chain hanging below (attached to) the toy.

Figure 2a: New Porky Play
Figure 2b: Porky Play toy after 4 weeks of use in a large group pen

Tri-Star: This toy was installed in the large gilt pen. Within the first hour of putting the toy in the pen the gilts were able to remove all of the chew sticks from the central disc. The barn staff decided to leave the chew sticks off of the toy as they didn’t want them ending up in the manure pit. The gilts regularly interacted with the disc portion of the toy and the chains hanging from it. Sows can chew and bite the toy, and at the time of writing this article it has held up for 3.5 months and is still in good condition.

Figure 3a: New Tri-Star with chew sticks
Figure 3b: Tri-Star toy (without chew sticks) 14 days after being added to the large gilt pen

Yellow Ball: This toy was hung in the large sow pen. The toy comes with a plug at the top, but we drilled a small hole in the bottom and then used airplane cable to create a hanging system through both of the holes, which was attached to the chain above. For the first week or so the sows were very interested in the ball, as they could toss it up in the air and play with it as a group. Over time interest levels decreased, likely because they could not chew or bite it. However, there were always some pigs that still played with it. At the time this article was written the ball was in great shape, 3.5 months after it was added to the pen. 

Figure 4a: New Yellow Ball
Figure 4b: Sows crowded around the Yellow Ball when it was first added to the pen

Small Ball (Anti-Bite Ball): This toy was hung in the large gilt pen, and it came detached from the chain within the first hour of hanging. The staff re-tightened it and it has remained in place ever since (3.5 months so far). The usage for this toy is about the same as the yellow ball and tri-star toys, used moderately by the gilts. The gilts are able to put the entire ball into their mouth and chew it. The rubber has gradually decreased in size, but there is no signs of cracking or destruction, and there is still plenty of ball left.

Figure 5a: New Anti-Bite ball
Figure 5b: Small (Anti-Bite) ball 14 days after being added to the gilt pen.

Easyfix Astro: This toy was hung in the large sow pen. According to the barn staff, this was the toy that got used the most. The toy lasted about 1.5 months before the sows has completely chewed off the rubber projections (Easyfix has recently improved the durability of the Astro toy by using the same material as the Luna 142). The eye hook that the toy came with needed to be bigger and longer with a lock nut in order to successfully hang it without it coming off, something that was easily fixed on farm.

Figure 6a: New Astro toy
Figure 6b: Sows playing with the Astro 142 days after being added to the pen.

Easyfix Luna 142: This is the only toy that we tried that wasn’t suspended from the ceiling. We put one in with a boar located in the boar station, and the other went into the large sow pen. The sows and boar all enjoyed playing with it, however in the group pen only one sow could play with it at a time, so the barn staff preferred the hanging options as more sows could interact with the toys. The Luna lasted for about 3 months in the sow pen. There were two challenges that occurred with the Luna. First, the toy would occasionally get stuck at the window of the boar station, and when sows went to play with it they were being detected as in heat due to their heads being in the RFID zone. Second, sows figured out that they could put the toy in the door of the ESF feeder to keep it open, creating issues with the ESF feeding system.

Figure 7a: New Luna 142
Figure 7b: Boar playing with the Luna 142

Future Cow Calf Ball: This toy was hung in the large sow pen. There was very little interest at all in the toy, and thus the barn staff removed it and hung one of the other toys in its place. The sows were also able to remove the toy from the chain (which also happened when we hung this toy in a finisher pen on another farm).

Figure 8: New Cow Calf Ball

General Observations:

When the toys were first installed the sows couldn’t leave them alone. With multiple different toys in each pen, we watched sows go from one to another to check them all out. Over time interest levels decreased slightly in the toys, but each time a member of the OMAFRA swine team visited the farm there was at least 1 sow playing with each toy. In general, we found that sows and gilts preferred toys with chewable projections over balls or discs, but the balls and discs were also used regularly. The sows liked to be able to get their mouth around the toy to chew it. The barn staff and farm owner were happy with the reaction of the sows to the toys and will continue to monitor durability on the toys that were still in tact after 3.5 months.

So, which toy is best? That is a tough question to answer! We found that sows played with all of the toys offered to them. Some lasted longer than others, which could be due to the level of interaction and the nature of the shape of the toy. Some of the toys are designed to be chewed and destroyed, whereas others are meant to last longer. We recommend that if you are considering commercial toys for your sow barn, get a few different ones and give the girls some options on which they want to play with!


A huge thank to you Graham Learn from Richmar Farms for providing access to the group housed sow barn, and to barn staff Jan and Yulia for their invaluable assistance with the project. Additional thanks goes to each of the companies that donated toys for the project: Easyfix, Farmers Farmacy, Glass-Pac and Ketchum Manufacturing.

For more information, contact:
Laura Eastwood,

OMAFRA Swine Specialist laura.eastwood@ontario.ca

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Looking for information on enrichment for pigs?  Laura Eastwood, OMAFRA Swine Specialist has written a helpful article Enrichment for Pigs that summarizes  ‘Section 1.8 Enrichment’ from the Code of Practice.

penning with pig toys attachedDSCF5988

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A lot of producers stopped by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs booth at Pork Congress to share their ideas for enrichment toys. Some ideas  included pen of pigs playing with toyblocks of wood, rope, tough dog chews, straw, rubber balls and commercially manufactured toys.  Some producers hung these on chains while others let the pigs root them around in the pen.    All pigs have a need to chew and root. By providing enrichment toys this need is satisfied and tail and ear biting may be reduced.

The need to provide some form of enrichment toys is included in the new Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pigs.  What are your pigs playing with?


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Enrichment toys for pigs satisfy the pigs need to chew and root.  By providing enrichment toys this need is satisfied and tail and ear biting may be reduced. Visit the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food booth (A3/A4 in the Agriplex) at the Ontario Pork Congress forpenning with pig toys attached more information and a demonstration.


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The National Farm Animal Care Council new Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pigs, released in March, has a requirement for pigs to be provided with multiple forms of environmental enrichment to improve their welfare through the enhancement of their physical and social environments.

In an interview with Farmscape, Prairie Swine Centre president and CEO Lee Whittington says the requirement is very general acknowledging that pigs are curious animals.

“The way I would interpret this is that all kinds of aspects of enrichment become part of that, so simply pigs having access to other pigs, access to feed and feeders and some producers put toys in the pen.
On a recent trip to Denmark one of the most popular things for enrichment that they use is really just a wooden post in a sleeve in the corner of the pen that pigs chew on, pick up, knock down and it’s treated just like another piece of equipment in the pen. Enrichment is not prescriptive in any way.
It just recognizes that all pigs are curious and all pigs would benefit, their welfare would benefit by having some enrichment. Producers are open to interpret that and include the kind of enrichment that works. It is not prescriptive and doesn’t require straw, I think, is the important thing that producers need to realize, that whether it’s rubber toys, suspended ropes, in the UK I’ve seen lots of people using rubber garden hose suspended on a chain and then they simply keep replacing the garden hose as it becomes chewed up. We know that pigs are curious and they have great oral capacity to touch and move things and that’s what this enrichment area is all about.”

For information on what has been done in the UK, see the Pig Site article, Environmental Enrichment for Pigs, it identifies key things pigs need in enrichment toys.



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