Expansion: It’s all about the sows

Expansion: It’s all about the sows

As new construction is taking place across the nation on America’s pig farms, pork producers are considering alternative sow housing models. How to house the sow is a major decision.

A healthier balance sheet with a solid working capital level may have producers considering investing in the operation’s facilities by expanding or improving existing barns. As new construction is taking place across the nation on America’s pig farms, pork producers are considering alternative sow housing models. How to house the sow is a major decision.

That is exactly what the Prestage and Boerboom families were deciphering when embarking on new expansion projects. Each family shares their current expansion project and discusses the major decisions along the way as they enter a new phase of their operations.

Pig farming in the Magnolia State
Mississippi is not the first state that comes to mind when you think hog farms. However, the location works well for Prestage Farms’ farrow-to-wean facilities and multiplication farms, especially with the very low hog population density. The location is not the only thing distinct about the Mississippi farm. It was converted from finishing barns in seven different locations into a sow farm after a local processing plant shut its doors unexpectedly. However, repurposing the existing buildings did create some challenges that the Prestage family and employees have had to sort out through the years.

“I came up with this idea of converting them to a unique type of sow farm system. It is not perfect. It works well,” says Ron Prestage, DVM and president of Prestage Farms. “It has a logistic challenge of having to move sows back and forth between breeding sites and gestation/farrowing sites. It admittedly was an experiment, but I would do it again.”

This once-finishing operation is now serving as Prestage Farms’ 12,000-sow farrow-to-weaning operation, supplying weaned pigs to finishing units in Iowa.

Currently, 500 sows farrow per week on five sow farm sites within the Mississippi location. Prestage explains the family’s hog farm has both pen gestation and gestation stalls. He says, “I have always said this: Some sows are better suited for group housing, and some are not. The debate tends to leave that point out. You have aggressive sows that just do not do well and they are going to beat their sisters up.”The basic layout design of Prestage Farms’ existing group housing facilities.The basic layout design of Prestage Farms’ existing group housing facilities.

Experimenting with facility design is a normal part of the Prestage farm operation. These converted farms serve as a good setting for real pig farming application, especially when it comes to group sow housing.

During the height of the group housing debate, the farm took the gates off between the breeding pen and the gestation stall to see what the sow would do. Honestly, Prestage says the sows remained in the gestation stall versus the open area. In fact, even with the converted design of group housing and stanchions installed to separate feeding stations, sows can be found resting within the dividers.

The Prestage family selected longer stanchions to keep dominant sows from intimidating others from eating.

“I think the part that got left out of the debate a little bit is we have an ethical responsibility for protecting vulnerable animals,” Prestage says. “If we let the animal choose, it is very obvious to me they prefer the protection.”

The existing barns on the Mississippi farm at this point are retrofitted for pen gestation. Sows and gilts are bred in individual stalls and then moved to group pens. Prior to farrowing, the sows are moved to the farrowing buildings with individual stalls.

Converting from individual gestation stalls to pen gestation did not happen overnight, and it took adjustment for both animal and employee. Russ Goss, Prestage Farms swine production manager, says you shouldn’t fool yourself; the transition will not be peaceful at first. Despite expectations, the gilts take the transition easier with less fighting. For the sows, adjusting to the group can be rough. In fact, Prestage and Goss frankly state it is not pretty. It is loud, and fighting is going to happen. Goss says the number of injuries is double compared to sows housed in individual gestation stalls.

Many decisions need to be made in order to find the right design for each farm’s operation. Square footage per sow is a big consideration. The current recommendation for space allowance ranges from 19 to 24 square feet per sow. For Prestage, in converted barns each 16-by-18-foot pen houses 15 sows (19 square feet per sow), with individual stalls available for animals that need special attention or safe haven.

Selecting a feeding system is also equally important. Prestage chose feeding stanchions with a traditional drop feed system outlining two walls of the pen and water drop-downs in the middle of the pen. For the Prestage team, feeding stanchions were a way to keep things simple in comparison to an electronic sow feeding system, explains Goss. Stanchion systems offer moderate cost for installation, require no gilt training and use less labor on maintaining electronics.

“The benefit of the ESF system is that you can individually feed each sow, but it is certainly not a foolproof system either,” says Prestage. “It is relatively expensive. It needs to be really well managed, and you actually end up with a large number of animals in large spaces. I was concerned with the size of the spaces. You have one big alpha girl in there, and she is exposed to lot more animals.”

The actual length of the stanchion divider was up for debate and requires further investigation. Typically, stanchions are 18 inches long. However, with the assistance of the Hog Slat team, additional length was added to inhibit dominant sows from intimidating others. Longer dividers (48 inches) made it impossible for aggressive animals to fully access others while eating, causing the female to back out.

Experimenting with existing barns serves as good research for making decisions as the Prestage family constructs new buildings on three other permitted sites in the area not being utilized yet. Prestage says they bulldozed the existing buildings and are now erecting new sow barns. The purpose of these new facilities is to send weaned pigs to Iowa.

New construction means utilizing state-of-the-art equipment. In general, the same pen layout is used. However, feeding stanchions are placed along the middle aisle and walk-through posts are added, making access to pens easier for employees.

Still, Prestage points out it is all about the sow when selecting the right sow housing for your farm. He says, “The reality is these sows are larger today, and whatever we are doing today will evolve down the road. At the end of the day, you need to do the right thing for the sow, and you don’t need to let a bunch of animal rights activists try to tell you what the right thing to do is.”

Prestage offers the following tips for selecting the ideal sow housing for all hog producers.

■ Genetics. Consider the genetic package of the sows on the farm. Different genetics have different temperaments, which makes some housing designs more difficult to manage.

■ Size of the farm and available labor. On large farms, the animals do not go unmonitored for long periods of time.

■ Protection. It is the pig farmers’ responsibility to protect vulnerable animals even if that means utilizing individual gestation stalls.

■ Return on investment. Prior to converting, think carefully if anyone is going to pay you more for making the investment in a system that actually may prove to be slightly less efficient.

Seizing technology
It is clear that consumer demand is the reason the Boerboom family is moving away from gestations stalls as new barns are being constructed on their farm. The family is expanding its Minnesota hog farm in a way to keep another generation of the family on the farm. Currently, Mike Boerboom and his siblings — Laurie Kesteloot and Matt Boerboom — alongside their parents, Greg and Paula, operate the hog farm with 1,600 sows. The new construction project will allow the family to add 3,400 additional sows on a new site in southwest Minnesota that is set to open in October. The expansion project also eliminates the purchasing of weaned pigs for finishing, with essentially all the pigs being raised in the operation.

Expanding the sow base was not a spur-of-the-moment whim for the family. Their research included many discussions with other hog farmers, equipment companies and, most importantly, their veterinarian. While the existing farm houses sows in individual gestation stalls, the new facilities will not. Boerboom says it was not a decision the family took lightly.

“Ultimately, the decision came down to what consumers are demanding. There has been an epic push toward having open-pen gestation pens or moving away from gestation stalls. Looking down the road in making this type of capital investment, we decided it was best to go with open-pen gestations.”The blueprint design of the Boerbooms’ new construction project.

The blueprint design of the Boerbooms’ new construction project.

Boerboom further explains his research shows there is no real advantage to gestation stalls over group housing. It really just comes down to how you manage the production system.

After extensive research, including a trip to the Netherlands, the Boerboom family decided to install an electronic sow feeding system from Nedap Livestock Management with static and dynamic pens. Boerboom says the technology the ESF brings to the operation was the most appealing factor for the family. Individual feeding for sows and opening up pen size are big advantages over other feeding systems. He says, “The ability to use technology to improve production drove our decisions.”

For the Boerbooms’ 20 employees, ESF and open-pen gestation pens will take an adjustment and training. Boerboom also acknowledges that additional workers will need to be hired to handle not only a new site, but also a new production style.

Boerboom explains that only gilts will be started in the new facility site. This way the team will not spin its wheels trying to train sows to an entire new system. Still, one thing that was obvious to Boerboom is gilts could not be trained too much. So, the family has plans for extra time for gilt training.

“The biggest message I heard is you cannot overtrain,” says Boerboom. “Allow for enough training time in development phase to get gilts trained well. We allowed for more training space than other farms we looked at.”

Boerboom acknowledges that the training phase will be a work in progress at first. However, with the right people in the right position, he does not see it being a challenge in the long term. Typically, two to three weeks are scheduled for training a group after a pretraining program. The Boerboom family is planning five weeks for gilt development.

Finding the right person for each task to be conducted on the farm is crucial to the success of any farm. One significant person to identify is the individual responsible for gilt training, especially in an ESF system. Boerboom explains, “The right person has patience and good animal husbandry skills. In our system today, they are excellent at loading pigs and moving sows. That is the type of person that would go into that role.”

For the Boerboom operation, the plan is to move some of the current employees over to the site with the ESF system. He says the new production style will give existing employees the chance to grow and be leaders as they train new employees.

Another key take-home message for the Boerboom family was to have extra stalls built in. Similar to Prestage, the facility will have individual stalls for animals that need additional care from an animal health and/or welfare standpoint. Boerboom says, “You do not want to get into a situation where you run out of stalls.”

Attention to detail was the name of the game when designing the facility and overall pen layout. The Boerboom family is using a u-shaped design in order to reduce the boss sow syndrome. Boerboom says how the sow enters and exits the ESF system is important. In their plan, the sow has to basically walk around the entire pen before returning to the feeder. In addition, the sows also have plenty of resting bays, which is also a suggestion from others currently operating an ESF system.

Looking at the blueprint, the gilts will be housed in large, dynamic pens where animals will be constantly moved in and out. The bred sows will be in smaller, static pens with no removal of animals unless necessary.

Overall, once the kinks are straightened out, Boerboom strongly believes the open-pen gestation ESF system will be more efficient than the family’s current sow farm with gestation stalls. The one advantage the family has over other ESF farms researched is brand-new construction planned from lessons learned in the industry. He says, “A lot of ESF systems were added on to barns or retrofitted. We feel our farm will have a fairly simple footprint and fairly simple design that allows for efficiency.”

An ESF sow farm offers advantages to hog farmers. Boerboom says the individualized feeding is the biggest advantage of ESF. From the time a sow is weaned through breeding, she will be housed in individual stalls with individual feeding. The individual feeding will not stop once the animal is transitioned to a group pen setting. This system provides the hog producer the chance to achieve the same level of care in a group setting as in individual gestation stalls.

Boerboom offers this final advice to fellow pig farmers: “Do your research and understand all your options. I would be very open to what others are suggesting.”

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