German Breed-to-Wean Facility Managed with a Woman’s Touch

A typical day for Julia and Dirk Tewes begins well before sunrise as they rustle their four young children out of bed and send them off to school. Nestled nearby is a 100-sow farm on the edge of the small village of Zelle, Germany

A typical day for Julia and Dirk Tewes begins well before sunrise as they rustle their four young children out of bed and send them off to school. Nestled nearby is a 100-sow farm on the edge of the small village of Zelle, Germany — roughly a 45-minute bus ride southeast of Hanover. But this original hog facility is a mere 10% of the Tewes’ 1,000-sow, farrow-to-feeder pig operation managed by Julia.

Her workday at the modern, 900-sow facility located several kilometers outside of Zelle begins at 7:30 a.m. when she meets with a staff of three fulltime workers and two student interns to set the plan of work for the day. The students are enrolled in a two-year Bachelor of Farming program, which requires hands-on training.

This newer facility built in two phases — the first in 2004, the next in 2008 — presents several novel design features focused on energy conservation and greater production efficiency.

Litters in the two, 50-crate farrowing rooms are weaned between 3-4 weeks of age; 21 days of age is the minimum age that pigs can be weaned in Germany, one of the 27 countries making up the European Union (EU). Maternal-line females are provided by Hermitage Pedigree Pigs, Ltd. (Ireland), while BHZP/Hypor (Netherlands) provides boar semen from their stress-negative, Pietrain-based Line 77 terminal sire line. The Teweses consistently wean 10 pigs/litter.

Unique Nursery Features

At weaning, pigs are moved to a nursery room equipped with hot-water-heat radiators mounted on the underside of hovers lining the outside walls.

At stocking, room temperature is held in the mid-70s°F, while the solid-floor area under the hovers is set for the high 80s°F. During a tour of the facilities, the nursery controller registered 22.3°C (72.1°F) in the open room, while under the hovers, pigs lounged in 31°C (87.8°F) warmth.

Hover temperatures are slowly reduced as pigs grow. As the room-hover temperatures reach a balance, the hovers are tipped up and locked against the wall (see photo). At about 60 lb., pigs are sold to other producers for finishing.

The primary heat source for the Tewes operation is a centrally located, wood pellet-burning boiler. Natural gas serves as a backup fuel source. In the dead of winter, small supplemental heaters are used in the nursery rooms as newly weaned pigs are placed.

Tewes’ various means of keeping heating bills in check are driven by energy costs. “Energy is very expensive in Germany,” she explains.

Sow Herd Management

When the sows exit the farrowing rooms, they are first grouped in a dirt lot between the buildings, where they spend a day “getting reacquainted.” They are then moved to individual stalls in one of two breeding barns. Daily heat checks identify sows and gilts ready for artificial insemination.

Unique to the breeding barns are fluorescent lights positioned over the front of each row of stalls. The lights are turned on for 12 hours a day during the sows’ four-week stay in the stalls. The added illumination helps overcome the shortage of daylight — especially during the winter months, Tewes explains.

Each of the two breeding barns houses 200-250 sows. EU regulations specify that sows cannot be held in breeding stalls for longer than four weeks. After being confirmed pregnant, sows are grouped in rooms equipped with the PigTek FitMix Mac feeding system, which delivers a mash/paste-like feed through a nozzle directly into the sow’s mouth. Computer software recognizes a transponder in each sow’s eartag, which triggers a daily feed allowance.

A producer-inspired feature was added to the original PigTek feeder to minimize sow-to-sow confrontation at the feeding station. As a sow eats, she usually dribbles small amounts of feed onto a chute that diverts the spilled feed to the side of the feeding station. The sow waiting for her turn generally eats the spilled feed, thus minimizing the boss-sow tendency of impatience (see photos below, right).

As with all electronic-sow-feeding systems in a group-housed setting, the more aggressive sows generally eat first as the feeding cycle is reset each day. Once fed, sows generally lounge around in an area of their choice.

Newly emptied farrowing rooms are washed and disinfected. Near-term sows are moved through a sow shower where they are washed and disinfected before entering the farrowing rooms. “It makes no sense to move a dirty sow into a clean farrowing room,” Tewes says earnestly.