Group housing solutions

by Dr. Temple Grandin
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Necessity is the mother of invention. Innovative pork producers have created group sow housing systems that will have equal production performance to gestation stalls. The new systems are also not as unaffordable as many might think. The increase in the space per sow and the cost of electronics is offset by a huge reduction in the pounds of fabricated steel for building individual stalls. 

Dr. Temple Grandin
Dr. Temple Grandin
(Photo: Rosalie Winard)

This topic was addressed recently during a presentation at the Banff Pork Seminar, held in Banff, Alberta, Canada. Larry Coleman, a veterinarian from Broken Bow, Nebraska, described a new system for 5,000 sows that was recently built in Nebraska. Everybody at this farm was reluctant to switch to group housing. After they did it, they really liked it. The employees were skeptical at first, but now they prefer the group housing system. The first impression most people have when they enter the barn is how quiet the sows are.

Secrets to success

The first step is having animals with the right genetics. The breeding companies have made great progress on breeding calmer sows that are less aggressive. Don Butler at Smithfield Foods has been supervising his company’s conversions to group housing and he told me some of their sows’ genetics had to be changed.

Dr. Coleman explained that when an electronic feeding system is used in the new systems, it is essential to have more than one feeding station in a group of sows. Each sow has an electronic tag that allows her to get a preset amount of feed. Attempting to put 80 sows at a single feeding station is a bad idea. In his system, they have large groups of 150 to 300 sows and multiple feeding stations. The ratio is 45 sows per station. This reduces the problem of some sows being forced to eat in the middle of the night. Another design feature to reduce conflict around the feeder is a long exit lane. This prevents a sow from immediately returning to the entrance of the feeder. Electronic feeding stations are expensive but prices are dropping. Gestall, a Quebec company, has developed electronic units that cost only $450 per station. They are using one station per 15 sows.

Behavior matters

An understanding of sow behavior is essential to both train the animals to use the feeding stations and to prevent conflicts between animals. The Nebraska barn is divided into alcoves that are approximately 10 ft. by 12 ft. with an 8-ft. corridor down the middle. Each alcove forms a room with three solid walls and an open front. The animals set up social groups and an alcove becomes their home.

Two producers at the Banff event explained that to successfully train sows to use the electronic feeding stations they had to find a “Hog Whisperer.” Out of eight of their employees, there was one calm, laid back guy who had a connection with animals. At another facility, it was a worker covered with tattoos who loved animals who became their “Hog Whisperer.” He became extremely proud of his work and when he had to give a presentation to important visitors, he shaved off his beard and cut his long hair. He was proud of his job and wanted to make a good impression. Training young gilts to enter the feed stations starts young. There is further information in the Banff Pork Seminar Proceedings, which will soon be available online. The title of the paper is “Achieving High Productivity in Group Housed Sows.” The secret to mixing pigs is using large groups. They never add single animals. New sows are introduced in groups of 15.

Quantifying

New ideas are evolving all the time. Recently, I found an advertisement for an inexpensive group housing system being made by HogSlat. This is one of the largest builders of pork farms. Sows are housed in groups of 20 and they line up at a feed trough with 20 sows in a pen. Partial partitions between the sows help prevent aggression. Everybody I talked to at the Banff conference agreed that you had to find the right patient stockperson to work with the young sows.

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