Thirty years ago, Mel Gerber of Versailles, Mo., swore if group sow housing ever came back into popular use, he’d quit raising hogs. Today, Gerber says his new group gestation pen is the best housing option he’s used in his 60-plus-year career.
So, what changed?
In 2017, Gerber remodeled his sow barn, replacing individual gestation stalls with one large group pen for 120 sows using individual electronic sow feeding and automated management.
The change has helped Gerber stay in business and provide the best care possible for his sows.
“There were some things I just couldn’t do anymore,” Gerber says. “I couldn’t attend my animals 24/7. And with a herd of 200 sows, I couldn’t take advantage of opportunities of scale. This remodel allowed me to turn an old barn into a barn I like. And it’s helping me stay in business and be competitive — even at my age and on a small operation,” says Gerber, who is in his late 60s.
Gerber’s barn was built in 1996 with four rows of stalls and two central rows of floor slats. The rest of the 40-by-80-foot barn floor was solid. The new group gestation pen was designed and built over the existing flooring. The remodel required zero concrete removal and minimal pouring of fresh concrete.
In with the new
In addition to ESF with forward-exit feeders, the new pen includes automated heat detection and a separation unit that moves sows needing attention from the group into a small pen for easy access.
Switching to group sow housing did not affect production. Gerber weans pigs at 21 days, and 10% of his litters are heavier than 200 pounds without supplemental feeding.
Gerber was 12 when his dad put him in charge of raising the family’s pigs. Chores included throwing corn over the fence and trying to stay out of the sows’ way.
“I remember how much they rushed to get feed. You had to hope you didn’t get hurt,” he says. “It was a messy situation, but we did the best we could.”
In the 1980s, Gerber moved the sow groups outdoors on concrete, experimenting with group sizes to help prevent sows from fighting. Nothing seemed to work.
In 1996, Gerber moved his sows into individual gestation stalls. “Our experience at the time was that individual stalls were a better solution than the group pens we had been using. I thought, ‘If we ever have to go back to groups, no way I’ll do it.’”
Rich Lepper is the group sow housing application manager with Nedap Livestock Management, who worked with Gerber before, during and after the transition into his new system.
“Mel isn’t the only producer who’s changed his mind when he saw how calm sows can be in groups,” Lepper says. “Whether an operation has a few hundred sows or several thousand, when you design pens with the sows’ needs in mind, the animals will be comfortable and relaxed.”
Successful group pen design minimizes potential obstacles between the sows and what they want — feed, water and space.
“If a sow perceives a threat to her feed source, she will guard the feeder,” Lepper says. “As long as she thinks her feed is at risk, she won’t stop.”
Dropping their guard
Gerber’s pen has two features to prevent feed-guarding behavior:
• The feeders are designed to prevent a sow from being harassed while eating. Gates lock behind her and create space on either side, so no other sow can touch her while she’s eating.
• The feeders have separate entrances and exits. When a sow leaves the feeder, she walks forward, away from the entrance. When she re-enters the pen, a long wall separates her from the feeder entrance and unfed sows.
If she wants to get back to the feeder, she must walk the length of the 70-foot pen and back. In almost all cases, that walk deters a sow from guarding the feeder, Lepper says.
“As the sow walks the length of the pen, she will come across her small social group,” Lepper says. “Since they’re all napping, and she has a full belly, she’s likely to roll in next to them and forget about the feeder.”
Changes in behavior
While the pen design keeps Gerber’s sows calm, the open spaces play an important role, too.
“The group pen allows a higher level of observation than stalls did,” Gerber says. “In stalls, the animals don’t move, so they don’t demonstrate their behavior. When I can watch my sows, I can see changes in behavior, and I have a chance to prevent problems before they start.”
Last summer Gerber noticed his barn was cooler and the air was fresher compared to when his sows were in stalls. In the stalled system, Gerber used individual drippers on the sows. When he remodeled, he installed four spray nozzles on timers, thinking the sows would walk under them whenever they wanted.
“I never saw sows under the foggers,” Gerber says. “Air circulation is better. The barn is much more comfortable, and the sows are never wet.”
Gerber transitioned his stalled sows into the new group pen, and their behavior has changed for the better.
His sows are not aggressive to each other and are not skittish the way individually stalled sows tend to be, he says. Because his sows are content, he feels he is providing the best care possible.
“As a herdsman, you want to take care of your animals in the way that is best for them,” he says. “My sows seem to like the environment they’re in, and they can control their comfort. It’s just what I wanted.”
Remodeling ideas to consider
Converting the farm to group sow housing isn’t easy. Many decisions must be made before construction begins. Some farmers will build new, while others will remodel existing facilities.
With no perfect blueprint for remodeling, producers should invest a sizable amount of time in planning, consulting with experts along the way.
Resources from the University of Minnesota, Iowa State University and Michigan State University Extension outline factors hog farmers should consider before any construction begins.
Here are some questions you need to answer.
• Will the farm use the current gestation footprint or add space?
• What will be the square feet per sow?
• How will the pens be configured to reduce aggression in group sows?
• What flooring type best supports sow movement and prevents lameness?
• Between a competitive or non-competitive feeding system, what works best for sows and people?
• Is the ventilation system adequate, or does it need to be upgraded?
• How many hospital pens?
• What is your staff’s husbandry skills? Does the design support the workers’ skills? Or does employee training match your remodel design?
No barn is the same. Many decisions must be made to fit your barn and farm’s situation. However, Brad Carson, vice president, Nedap Livestock Management, stresses what is right for the sow should be the priority.
“The most important thing to consider when remodeling is the environment you want to create for your sows when the remodel is over,” he says. “When you choose a barn management system with your sows’ needs in mind, your sows will be productive.”
Consider these three areas to effectively remodel your facility’s system and make it easy to use.
1. Above all else, the sow. When deciding to remodel your barn, think like a sow. What keeps her calm so she can be productive? Minimizing aggression, providing adequate resting areas and eliminating congestion at the feeder entrance are keys to peaceful, productive sows.
From the slat and pen configurations to the feeder design, each part of your barn plays a role in sow care and her success. Sows can develop feed-guarding habits if given the chance, so carefully evaluate feeder designs.
What about when she is done? A feeder designed with front exits encourages one-way traffic through pens to eliminate negative interaction.
This kind of design also prevents sows from returning to the entrance immediately after eating to guard the feeder or aggressively disrupt another sow trying to eat. Giving every sow the opportunity to eat without interruption will allow her to maximize productivity.
In addition to reduced aggression, sows using forward-exiting feeders are more comfortable exiting both breeding stalls and farrowing stalls. The forward-exit motion is familiar, making exiting from the stalls easier on both the sows and the employees.
2. Do the sow math. To meet square-foot requirements in group pens, be flexible with your sow math. You might need to change the number of sows in your barn. Or you might need to develop group sizes slightly differently than in a new barn. To find the perfect fit, surround yourself with a team who has experience in all sizes and styles of group sow management.
3. Sow strategy during and after the remodel. It’s possible for production to continue during the remodel. The first step is to adjust breeding targets to reduce sow inventory. This gives you room to pull out stalls and begin building new pens. Another strategy is to find an alternative location to house your sows during the remodel.
You certainly may choose to populate the new space with gilts not previously crated. However, you don’t have to. Sows have strong feed drives and are accustomed to eating enthusiastically when feed drops in front of them. Producers who are feeding formerly stalled sows in group pens say sows learn quickly to use individual electronic feeding systems because they have strong feed drives and know what to do when feed drops.
When you put your sows’ needs first, remodeling a barn from gestation stalls to group gestation pens can give new life to your barn for years to come.