Before a farm transitions to group housing it is best for all employees to mentally prepare that it will be different

Before a farm transitions to group housing, it is best for all employees to mentally prepare that it will be different.

Transitioning staff to pen gestation

When making the transition from individual stalls to group housing, communication and preparation are quintessential to success.

Iowa Select Farms, the largest pork producer in Iowa, converted all of its sow farms to group housing, starting in 2014, as response to customer feedback. Speaking at Iowa Swine Day in June, Noel Williams, chief operating officer for Iowa Select Farms, told the audience that “it was the clear message that was shared with us.”

When making the transition from individual stalls to group housing, communication and preparation are quintessential to success. Williams says the first place to start when mentally preparing a team for the transition is make sure everyone accepts it is going to be different than stalls — aggression happens, and fighting will occur.

Prior to putting animals in the pen together for the first time, Williams recommends managing the actual pen first and utilizing the feed as a tool.

At first, employees will place feed on the floor before the animals are moved in. The sows are overfed to keep them focused on feed rather than on aggression.

It is important to get the mixture of animals correct. For the Iowa Select team, one essential lesson learned from the process was to evaluate animals before moving them to the pen. Any sow or gilt with swollen ankles, long toenails, torn up vulvas or not in ideal body condition probably should not be placed in a pen situation. Also, it is important to check treatment cards. If an animal was treated the week prior, then do not send them to a pen. In general, Williams says, “you need to ask yourself if the animal can make it in a pen situation.”

From the beginning, team members need to be observant on an everyday basis. Williams explains that any time an animal is at risk from a body condition, lameness, animal health or aggression standpoint, it needs to be pulled out. In addition, all animals identified as “at risk” need to be clearly documented.

Walking the pens is not a once-a-day activity at Iowa Select Farms. It is a continuous task throughout the day, with team members trained to listen for sow fighting and knowing when to pull an animal as needed. The farm has a two-day rule for fighting in general. He says, “It is not just a once-a-day walkthrough. It is every day, all day — looking to see if there is aggression, checking it out and taking care of the sow if needed.”

Williams says an animal needs to be pulled from the pen if she has been marked up for two days, the animal is identified as the bully sow, she isn’t going to be successful in the pen or if the animal is standing in the middle of the pen at feeding time. The employees are determining if the sows can make it in a pen environment versus individual gestation crates.

Williams offers these overall tips for selecting and managing groups.
■ Since open sows cause havoc, ensure all sows are pregnant going into the pens.
■ The team needs to be diligent about feeding schedules and levels.
■ It is important to know which sows not to put into pens.
■ No exception: Gilts go with gilts.
■ Group the animals by body condition, and keep younger parity sows together.
■ It is necessary to take into consideration breed dates and gestation lengths.
■ Watch older parity sows that are going into pens for the first time carefully, because you cannot backfill pens or remix pens.

Based on Iowa Select Farms experience, the following differences were observed between pen and stall gestation.
■ Crates make it easier to tell if a sow is not eating; in an open pen you need to watch behaviors.
■ Identifying some treatments is harder; you are not always seeing who is having the issue.
■ Identification of aborts mid-gestation is harder.
■ You need to always be thinking about managing space. 

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