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Before oink was dry … Kenton Shaw said Rivalea decided in 2007 to phase out stalls to avoid being ''left behind''. Photo: John Russell/Border Mail

A THIRD of pregnant sows are no longer confined to steel pens, almost 18 months after pork producers agreed to ban the controversial practice, but animal welfare activists say some farmers are dragging the chain on the use of sow stalls.

In late 2010, pork producers agreed to commit to a voluntary ban of sow stall use by 2017. The latest figures from the peak pork industry group, Australian Pork Limited, show that one in three sows spend their pregnancies outside gestation crates.

A sow stall is a metal-barred crate, two metres long and 60 centimetres wide, that houses a sow for all of, or part of, her 16-week pregnancy.

Last week Australian Pork Limited released the latest findings from a survey of pork producers throughout the country, which showed that 67 per cent of pregnant sows were still in stalls one to four weeks after mating; 33 per cent of pregnant sows were never in stalls.

The campaign director at Animals Australia, Lyn White, said it was ''pleasing'' that some pig producers had responded to people's concerns by stopping sow stall use but there was no reason why the 2017 deadline could not be brought forward.

''The two-thirds of pigs who remain subjected to the cruelty of sow stalls won't be alive to receive the benefits in 2017,'' Ms White said. ''It is clearly within the ability of the pig industry to alleviate their suffering now.''

Ean Pollard, the chairman of the NSW Farmers' Association's pork committee, said it was very expensive for producers to move to group housing for sows. Fast-tracking the ban would not be possible for many farmers, he said.

Britain banned sow stalls in 1999 and the European Union will ban them in 2013, except for the first four weeks of pregnancy.

The general manager of farming operations at Rivalea Australia, Kenton Shaw, said the piggery had replaced about 75 per cent of its 18,000 sow stalls and expected to use none by next year.

Mr Shaw said Rivalea, the country's biggest producer of fresh pork meat, had decided in 2007 to phase out sow stalls.

''We knew that, in terms of perceptions, it was going to be very difficult to defend [the use of sow stalls], so we did not want to end up in the situation in 10 years that we were left behind,'' Mr Shaw said.

Coles has said that by 2014 it will only stock fresh pork meat supplied by producers who have abandoned sow stalls. Woolworths estimates that 52 per cent of its fresh pork meat is produced in sow stall-free conditions.