Becoming believers in group sow housing

Thomas Livestock Co.’s production manager and sow farms supervisor needed to be convinced that group housing would actually be good for the reproductive females, as the public perceives.

December 29, 2017

10 Min Read
Becoming believers in group sow housing
Tim Friedel (left) and Steve Horton of Thomas Livestock Co. doubted the success of group sow housing from past experience, but they have become believers after seeing it in action in Canada. After building the first group housing unit in 2013, TLC is renovating one facility to become group housing and adding another startup group housing facility.National Hog Farmer/Kevin Schulz

Public perception has crept into dictating livestock production practices, and one needs to look no further than progressive swine operations to see that producers are adapting. Accurate or not, the consuming public has spoken loudly that they believe the use of gestation stalls is detrimental to good gilt and sow care.

Consumer push-back has created an evolution in the swine industry to rethink how gestating gilts and sows are housed.

Thomas Livestock Co., based in Broken Bow, Neb., is one of the systems that has ventured into the world of gestation pens, where sows and gilts are housed for 112 days after breeding, before being moved into farrowing crates to deliver their piglets.

Tim Friedel, TLC production manager, says the company’s move to group sow housing is not caving in to public pressure, but rather a move that is good for production and good for the animals. Actually, Friedel and Steve Horton, TLC sow farms supervisor, needed to be convinced that group housing would actually be good for the reproductive females, as the public perceives.

“We were not in favor of going to group housing,” Friedel says of both himself and Horton. Friedel and Horton had both worked in the hog industry for quite a few years, each working in group housing systems where “there was a lot of sow fighting,” Friedel says. Establishing the sows’ social pecking order was not only dangerous for the animals, but the caregivers as well.

The TLC team found a system that they believed in as they were planning their Georgetown farrowing site in 2013; a Nedap electronic feeding system that allows 280 sows to be in a pen together. Having that many sows or gilts in a pen removes the majority of the social hierarchy that occurs when sows are mixed together. The TLC group sow setup has six feeding stations that sows go through to get their daily allotment of feed. After leaving the feeding station, the sows need to walk quite a distance before they can re-enter the feeder, “so the dominant sow is distracted along the way,” Friedel says.

If the sows are stressed in the Thomas group housing, it is hard to tell. Even as one enters the pen to walk among the sows, there is nary a rustle from the sows.

So it has been established that sows are more at ease in group housing, but does that show up in the sows’ performance? Friedel says the Georgetown facility hit the ground running upon its 2013 completion, “we were getting over 34 PSY from the start.”

Even with that top-notch performance of pigs per sow per year, the Thomas barn crews did have a learning curve, one of the biggest lessons was in proper mixing of the animals. “We’ve learned a lot about how to mix the animals,” Horton says.

“Steve did a lot of work to find the best way to mix animals to have the least amount of stress on the animals. There is an art to it. There is a right way and a wrong way,” Friedel says. “Much to the credit of Steve and the crew out here, even through the growing pains and doing some things wrong we still managed to hold productivity at a very high level, even through the growing phases.”

Horton credits the crew from New Standard Ag (the building contractor) for coming in to assist the Thomas crew with the learning curve. “As we thought about those philosophies on how can we keep the gilt calm, when you’re able to keep her calm and get her through the feed system, then the system works very well.”


Steve Horton believes pig care is job No. 1 for all Thomas Livestock Co. employees, and it starts with the first day of piglet care. Low-stressedanimals, starting with the sows, make for healthy pigs in the entire production chain.

Time spent with the sows after mixing in the group pen is a change the Thomas crew made about a year ago; a move that appears to have made an easier transition for sows being introduced to a group pen. “Mixing can cause big problems if done wrong,” Friedel says. One thing Thomas crews learned was to introduce newly bred females with late-term sows, as the late-term sows are more concerned about their own well-being rather than picking fights with the newcomers.

When a new group of 10 to 15 sows joins a group pen, a herdsman stays with the new group, taking them through the feeding station and staying with the sows until each one finds a place to lie down and gets settled in. “Then you’re pretty much home free,” Friedel says. “Once they’re fed and they lay down, then you don’t have too many issues with them.”

Even though the sows may get settled in, Friedel and Horton agree that Day 2 of introduction into a new group is important. “It takes a special technician that will think, thinking about how she (the sow) is handling the situation and what we can do to make it better,” Friedel says. Of course, sometimes the best technicians in the best facility cannot make every single sow cooperate and adapt. “You’re going to have one once in a while that just doesn’t want to play nice, they’re just troublemakers, and those are sorted out of the system.”

Horton says some of the “bad” girls seem to learn, “at Georgetown we had some that would fight, and then we pull them out for a day, and put them back in and they are better the next day.” Friedel says gestation crate space is available for the few sows (less than 1% ) who just do not want to get along with the pen mates, “so we’ll put her in there to get a litter out of her and then cull her out.”

Though the group of 10 to 12 sows is entered into a much larger grouping of 280 sows, the Thomas team has found it interesting that this smaller social group of 10 to 12 hangs together. “It’s interesting how they will congregate throughout the whole gestation,” Horton says. “You will find that some of the nesting area is empty, because these groups will nest together. … I tell my guys that when they’re looking for a sow, to take the list of all the new sows, not just the one because they’ll likely all be together.”

The transition for Horton and Friedel becoming believers in the group sow housing movement has taken TLC to the next phase, as work began in September to convert the Pigeon Ranch sow barn from a crate facility to a group housing gestation facility.

Some of the changes being implemented in the retro-fit of the Pigeon Ranch are walk-throughs between pens so that barn staff does not have to climb over partitions all the time. Friedel says swinging gates were also added at the back side of the pen to create a back alleyway to eliminate potential congestion in the normal alleyway, if sows need to be moved from pen to pen.

Prior to building the Georgetown facility, the Thomas crew heard complaints from others using an ESF system was that it was hard to train the females to use the feeding system. “So we thought if that’s the case, there’s a fear factor (of the gilts apprehensive about entering the feeding system), so why not implement things ahead of time to address that fear so they are not afraid to enter,” Friedel says. In that vein, TLC relies on Juan, a worker who Friedel refers to as the “hog whisperer” who is able to train the gilts how to use the feeding system with hardly speaking, and definitely no aggression when handling the animals. “We learned that training gilts was much easier when one person was working with them rather than several people creating chaos and anxiety within the group. Gilts learn to use the system and increase their feed consumption much quicker when kept calm,” Friedel says.

Even before the “hog whisperer” gets involved, gates with rollers similar to what gilts will encounter when entering the feeding system have been installed in the gilt development pens, so the gilts’ general curiosity will familiarize them with the gates’ workings before their next meal depends upon it.

Since it takes a special person to work with the gilts to train them in an ESF system, Juan was brought from the Georgetown facility to work with the gilts at the new Dove Farm startup. “Patience is the No. 1 virtue for this person,” Horton says.

“You have to have the gilts totally at ease with him in that pen,” Friedel continues. “If there’s any fear, the gilts won’t train as easily. You need them to be comfortable with him to perform the way that you want with no fear.”

Since Juan cannot be at every TLC sow farm, Friedel and Horton look for similar, low-key qualities in other workers to fill that spot where needed. “The guy who is easy going and doesn’t get worked up, is the guy who can work great in this position,” Horton says.

Finding the right people can be difficult, but possibly more so for operations such as TLC, given their location in sparsely populated cattle country of central Nebraska.

“It might be different in Iowa or Minnesota,” Friedel says, “than it is in Broken Bow, Neb. In Broken Bow, Neb., we don’t bring these animal science students out of Iowa State or K-State. They just don’t come to Broken Bow, Neb. … we have to pretty much hire, train, and work within.” Friedel and Horton seem to be doing just fine finding diamonds in the rough of the local talent pool.

Becoming believers
“This is still a new concept, even though we’ve been doing it for four years,” Friedel says. “That’s not a lot of time, and I think we’ve learned a lot just in the last year and will continue to learn as we go.”

With that learning has come betterment for the pigs and the people working in the barns, but not necessarily in improved production. That being said, production has not lagged with the TLC group sow housing. “I think we’re right at 35 PSY since we started at Georgetown, even as we’ve learned different things along the way,” Friedel says. “Production has remained consistent, but we’ve made things that are easier on the animals and easier for the people, so it comes back to the care and the well-being. … Maybe you don’t always get a payback. Maybe it’s just the right thing to do.”

Horton says he feels that there is potential to grow, it just has not yet been realized in the TLC system. Friedel says some potential production growth can occur with technologies that will be coming down the road. Though production has stayed strong with the group housing, Friedel admits that it may have been held back because TLC has doubled its footprint in the last four years. “You can’t expect to greatly improve productivity while your herd size is growing that much at the same time,” he says.

Don’t be afraid
Change can be difficult and scary, so Horton and Friedel are well aware of the apprehension that producers may have when contemplating a move to group housing. “Don’t be afraid of change,” Friedel says. “We were not in favor of group housing, but we went to a site in Canada that was using this system, and we saw that it was working. You just have to accept that it’s different, and you have to manage it differently, it’s not as forgiving, so you have to stay on top of things. The mixing can cause big problems if you don’t do it in the least stressful way.”

Horton says, “We’re not trying to sell it (the system), we just really like it. We were dead set against it, but we saw it working. Seeing is believing. We saw low-stress animals. And thought, ‘if they can do it, we can do it’.”

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