Producers say: ‘Pens Just Don’t Feel Right’

 For many, particularly those in the 45- to 60-year-old age range, the relentless push to move gestating sows out of stalls and into pens “just doesn’t feel right,” explains Tim Loula, DVM, with the Swine Vet Center (SVC), St. Peter, MN.

November 15, 2012

7 Min Read
Producers say:   ‘Pens Just Don’t Feel Right’

For many, particularly those in the 45- to 60-year-old age range, the relentless push to move gestating sows out of stalls and into pens “just doesn’t feel right,” explains Tim Loula, DVM, with the Swine Vet Center (SVC), St. Peter, MN.


“Time after time, producers have been willing to spend money for the betterment of the pigs. I don’t see them wavering on that at all. If it truly is better for the pig, they will spend the money,” he told those attending the Sow Housing Workshop during the Leman Swine Conference in St. Paul, MN, in September.

Loula’s 30-plus years of swine veterinary work has carried him and cohorts from the clinic to five continents in the last 4-5 months. This broad exposure arms him with a wealth of information and experiences to draw on.

In the early years of his veterinary practice, many producers ran their sows in pasture lots or open-fronted buildings with extreme environmental conditions, he reflects. That can be a harsh reality for pigs and people during the winter, especially in Minnesota.

“Our producers have continually looked for better ways to manage sows. From the early ’80s, when many of the sows were first moved inside, until just before the turn of the century, many producers have upgraded sow facilities with cool cells, computer-controlled environmental technologies, and they conduct regular assessments of sow body condition while adopting rigorous feed and water management. These ongoing management upgrades have given them the best sow performance they have ever had,” he explains.

Consequences and Concerns

“Our producers don’t want to give up managing sows individually,” Loula relates. “They are concerned with the cuts and abrasions, lameness, severe vulva biting and other severe injuries that occur when sows are grouped. These are big animals and those cuts and abrasions hurt, and we don’t have the approved pain medications that even Europe has. Producers are concerned about loss of pregnancies the first 30 days (after breeding), concerned about smaller litters and elevated sow death losses when sows are mixed. They are looking for a system where these things don’t happen. They don’t feel comfortable going back to pens if those are the consequences.”

These producers are also concerned about properly feeding sows according to their body condition, stage of pregnancy, parity, litter size and genetics.

Finally, they are concerned about the safety of family members and employees when they are moving, vaccinating, pregnancy checking and treating sows in group housing.


While producers on the SVC client list have pulled back on the modest expansion plans they had for 2012, over half of that expansion was planned with gestation stalls vs. pens, Loula explains.

“Many producers believe that if a move to pen gestation is mandated, new facilities would be a better option than remodeling. Many believe there will be too many compromises that will lead to sow welfare issues and decreased production,” he says.

SVC clients generally build the best facility, with the best equipment to maximize sow comfort and quality of environment to get the best production. “They have never subscribed to the philosophy of ‘making it work’ or ‘it’s good enough,” he stresses.

Loula capsulized his discussions with producers about sow housing alternatives and compiled a list of non-negotiables:

Individual sow feeding is a must. Drop feeding on center pads creates fights and problems with sow body condition. Whether feeding sows on solid floors or in individual stations, solid dividers are a must.

“We don’t like individual feeders along two walls because it leads to confusion, fighting and more vulva biting. And we don’t like big pens because the sows move around too much. It seems like they get injured more in big pens,” he continues.

Forty days in pregnancy stalls. “We do not want to lose embryos; we do not want to lose pregnancies. We want the first 40 days — the implantation period — to be stress-free,” he emphasizes.

Many SVC clients have consistently achieved more than 90% farrowing rates. To do so, they have eliminated fighting at weaning by utilizing individual stalls, which also provided a stress-free lactation recovery period.

“These sows are nursing and weaning 13-14 pigs, so they need a recovery period,” Loula explains.

They’ve also learned to skip feeding sows in farrowing crates the day they are weaned because they don’t have time to eat it. But sows are hungry when they arrive in the breeding area, so they full-feed them 15 to 20 lb./day to help them regain body condition. “We allow them to eat as much as they want between weaning and breeding. You can only do that with individual feeding,” he reminds.

“They also need to rest, which means a limited amount of movement. The more you move them around, the more likely they are to have different neighbors, and that causes stress,” he adds.

High farrowing rates. “The death spiral of a hog unit begins with low farrowing rates,” Loula says. “Therefore, any pen gestation system must achieve high farrowing rates.”

With static pen management, if you have to remove a sow, you can’t mix sows back in or replace her.

“If you are running 75-80% farrowing rates, it is not good utilization of space. There is not enough room in the facility, so you have to build extra space,” he relates.

Rethink workforce allocation.  “We’ve gotten very good at managing a 2,500-sow unit with just 2-3 people in gestation and 4-5 people in farrowing. But we may need to shift some people back to gestation if we move back to pens, which adds cost,” he suggests.

Slat quality is very important. The slotted floors in gestation stall housing were designed for efficient removal of manure and urine — often with 1¼- to 1½-in. slots. “Those floors are not the best for loose sow housing when they are walking, running or fighting. Foot injuries, twisted pasterns and knees, broken toes and dew claws, and various other sprains and strains are more prevalent in group housing,” he says.

And, old slotted floors often have nicks and chunks broken away. That is why producers who have made a commitment to change to pen gestation often opt to build new facilities rather than remodel — and when they do, they often double the size of the sow herd.

Computer literacy. Electronic sow feeding (ESF) is a common retrofit in Europe and Australia. You must be computer savvy to operate them. And the cost can be prohibitive in small operations, Loula adds.

Lessons Learned

Loula and SVC’s clients have compiled a list of helpful hints for anyone considering pen gestation:

•  Feed multiple times a day. It reduces fighting over feed. (Not applicable to electronic sow feeding).

•  Full-feed sows the first two days after mixing. “We like to get them full so they want to take a nap,” he explains. (10-15 lb./day).

•  Maternity pens or stalls required. Move injured sows, boss sows, skinny sows or heavy sows to these accommodations. “That’s another reason why we want them to spend 40 days in maternity stalls,” he notes.

•  Smaller pens are better. “Some say you have to have lots of room so they can spread out, avoid conflict. But even with large pens, sows like to lie together; it’s part of their social behavior,” he says.

•  Group size — Try to match sow size, body condition and parity as much as possible so they can be fed to condition. Loula recommends six to 10 sows/group.

 Focus on feet and legs. In the past 8-10 years, many genetic suppliers have placed more emphasis on soundness of feet and legs, which has helped reduce sow mortalities.

 Feed more fiber. High-fiber diets are beneficial because it gives sows a “full feeling,” so they are more contented and have less intestinal issues, which reduces death losses, too.

•  Don’t do drugs. “I don’t believe we should design systems that require drugs to reduce aggression or help the system work better,” he stresses.

•  Don’t allow animals to be on dirt and outside. The industry doesn’t need to be concerned about parasites, such as roundworms, Toxoplasmosis and trichinosis because these are not present in pigs housed inside.

The Biggest Issue

“Gestation housing is as big of an issue as I have ever seen for our producers,” Loula says. “They don’t know where to go, what to do. They don’t want to slip backward. They are told a certain technology is more welfare-friendly, but what they see in the barn is not better for the well-being of the pig. There are more injuries, more damage. It just doesn’t feel right to them. Our pig farms are generally run and owned by people who like pigs, so this is a tough decision for them,” he reinforces.   

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