The Laut brothers still remember how excited they were on the ride back to Missouri from Thomas Livestock in Broken Bow, Neb. They had just witnessed group gestation pens in action at Thomas Livestock and asked dozens of questions about managing the transition from gestation crates. Talking with another producer was making them confident in their plans for a new group gestation facility at home on Jayce Mountain in southeast Missouri.
Two years later, the Lauts are still excited about their group pens, and now, after more than a year in operation, they have gained wisdom to pass on to other producers. At World Pork Expo in June, representatives from Jayce Mountain Pork and Thomas Livestock worked together to answer questions about group housing during a producer-to-producer event hosted by Nedap U.S.
Many of the questions had a familiar ring, says Walter Laut.
“We were in your shoes once, and we asked all of the same questions you’re asking,” says Laut. “Many of the things we were worried about didn’t turn out to be a challenge once we started operating.”
The following questions and answers are from the World Pork Expo producer-to-producer event.
About the experts
Tim Friedel and Steve Horton are the production manager and sow service manager at Thomas Livestock of Broken Bow, Neb. Thomas Livestock populated the group gestation pens at its 5,500-sow Georgetown facility in 2013.
Brothers Don, Walter and Doug Laut own Jayce Mountain Pork, a 3,500-sow farrow-to-wean facility in southeast Missouri. In 2015 they moved from an older facility with gestation crates to their start-up operation with group gestation pens. Walter Laut represented the family at the group housing producer-to-producer event.
Brad Carson is the sales manager for Nedap U.S., which provides technology for feeding and management to commercial pork producers and genetics companies in North America. Carson and his team support producers in all facets of production including feeding, housing and herd health.
Q: Does production drop when you switch to group housing?
Friedel: We have not experienced a decline in production. In our group pens, our sows are averaging 36 pigs per sow per year.
Many factors come into play to make these performance numbers. These include the pen design and the type of feeders we have selected, as well as our ability to maintain good herd health. We have great employees, which is a key factor in our success.
Success didn’t happen overnight; we’ve done our research to get here. One of the reasons we selected the group housing system we have is we think it is the best system for our sows. We chose a feeding system and style of large group pens designed to minimize aggression, and it is working well. The more we work with our system, the more ways we find the reduction in stress is benefiting our sows.
We often hear comments about how docile our sows are. They are unafraid of people and respond easily during handling. It is easier to move sows and interact with them. We think the reduced stress in the gestation pens is helping in every other aspect of production. For example, it contributes to a lower pre-wean mortality than we see from litters farrowed by crate sows. Calmer sows tend not to lie on their babies as often as stressed sows do.
Q: How do you care for sows in large pens?
Laut: When we first looked at transitioning to group housing, this was one of the big questions we had. It turned out to be much less of a challenge than we expected. We have learned group sows are different than crate sows; it’s like working with a different animal. An animal in a crate works hard to keep its personal space or distance. If you approach a crate sow, she will move away from you. But in a group pen, the sows don’t move away. They seem to consider you to be a part of their living space.
Also, our sows no longer associate people with feed because we use an electronic sow feeding system. When people enter the building, the sows don’t get restless, thinking it’s feeding time. We can get in the pens and walk through the group without disrupting the resting sows. We have found we can work with the sows in the groups to administer vaccinations, do pregnancy checks or any other tasks we need to do.
Q: How do you prevent sow aggression?
Carson: Lots of factors contribute to aggression in sows, which means we have lots of options to minimize those factors and the aggression. Pen design plays a huge role in preventing aggression. Well-designed pens create opportunities to break up the lines of sight between sows. An aggressive sow is likely to stop chasing another sow once she can no longer see her.
In our experience, the most aggressive sows are not the oldest or biggest sows, rather the ones in the group the longest. When resting areas are correctly designed with enough depth and wall height, new sows in the group can use these features to put space between themselves and aggressive sows.
Another crucial factor is the size of the groups. In our experience, large groups work better than small groups to minimize aggression. We design pens for large groups of about 275 sows. In groups of this size, new sows can avoid confrontation quicker than in small groups with nowhere to hide.
Finally, research shows feeder design plays a part in reducing sow aggression. Look for designs that prevent sows from immediately re-entering feeders when they finish eating. Pens designed in this way have been shown to have measurably fewer injuries from fighting sows.
Q:. What’s the best way to divide sows into groups?
Friedel: Dividing groups by parity is working for us. We will put the gilts in a pen together, and then the first and second parity sows will go together. Beyond that, we find we can put all sows in parity three or higher in groups together.
We’ve experimented with different combinations. For example, we’ve tried putting the gilts in with the P1s, but we find separating them by parity works the best.
Q: Do static or dynamic groups work better?
Friedel: We have experimented with static and dynamic set-ups in our large groups. What works well for us is a dynamic/static combination.
Specifically, we keep the pen dynamic while we’re filling it and then turn it static when it’s full. Then, when the first sows in the group start moving into the farrowing facility, we make the pen dynamic again and bring in new sows. In this way, we are introducing newly bred animals to those in late-term gestation.
In our experience, those two groups seem to get along the best. They show the least amount of negative interaction and fighting. It seems like the ones in late-term gestation don’t want to bother the new ones, and the new ones don’t want to bother the late-term ones.
We have found the most trouble when we introduce new sows into pens of sows in their second trimesters. I can’t explain exactly why this is the case, but we have found we have a higher success rate when we introduce new sows into groups in late-gestation rather than mid-gestation.
Q: Can you keep sows from robbing feed from each other in group pens?
Carson: You can if you choose the right kind of feeding system. In gestation crates and some group housing systems, we know bigger, assertive sows will rob feed from their neighbors. Solutions are available to prevent feed robbing in groups, and picking the right solution for your operation can have a measurable impact.
One operation I work with is saving $40,000 per year in feed costs in its group pens compared to when they were feeding in crates. On a 5,500-sow operation, this savings adds up.
Ann Marie Ames writes for Filament Marketing LLC.