Tasty straw pellets – Exploration of flavoured rooting material by pigs

Tail biting is a common problem in pigs kept in conventional fully slatted pens. Suitable enrichment materials can help to prevent the occurrence of this behavioural disorder by encouraging pigs to increase exploration behaviour. We investigated whether additional flavours can increase exploration behaviour in undocked pigs. Therefore, we offered straw pellets flavoured with either fried onion (FO), strawberry (SB), ginger, almond (AL), vanilla or without flavour (control) during rearing (eight groups in total) and fattening (16 groups in total). Flavoured pellets were offered in an altering order during intervals of 1 week in material dispensers. Exploration duration at the material dispensers was continuously recorded via an ultra-high-frequency radio-frequency identification system. Pigs were weighed weekly and their tail lengths and tail injuries were scored in four categories. For analysis, changes in tail length scores compared to the previous week were calculated as Δ-tail length. The different flavours affected pigs’ exploration durations in both rearing (factor flavour, P < 0.0001) and fattening (factor flavour, P < 0.0001). Highest exploration durations during rearing were recorded when straw pellets were flavoured with FO and AL compared to all others. During fattening, exploration duration was highest towards controls without significant difference to SB. Exploration durations additionally were affected by temporal effects, i.e. week and day during rearing (both factors: P < 0.0001) and fattening (both factors: P < 0.0001). During rearing, highest exploration durations were recorded in the first week and on the first day within week after changing the flavour of the straw pellets. During fattening, exploration durations varied between weeks and within weeks. The highest durations were recorded at the end of weeks, i.e. on the fifth and seventh days after material change. During rearing, tail injuries were affected by week (P < 0.0001). From the fourth week of rearing, the prevalence of tail injuries significantly increased. During the fattening period, tail injuries were affected by flavour (P < 0.05). Fattening pigs had fewest tail injuries after straw pellets flavoured with AL were offered. Altogether, based on the exploration durations, rearing pigs showed different preferences for the flavoured straw pellets but highly explored flavours differed between rearing and fattening pigs. Despite a weekly change of the flavour of straw pellets, exploration durations decreased during rearing but increased again in the transition between rearing and fattening. Thus, straw pellets with alternating flavours are a suitable possibility to provide environmental enrichment to pigs but will not prevent tail biting.

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