October 19, 2015

9 Min Read
Blueprint: Who let the  sows out?
<p>Once sows are acclimated to the group housing dynamics, the herd hierarchy disappears, and competition is gone.</p>

With last year’s stronger pig prices, the need to upgrade aging barn infrastructure and an added push from the latest Canadian code of practice for pigs, many Canadian producers are considering converting their existing stall barns to group gestation housing. With increasing market demands for “stall-free” pork, some producers may also see this as a way to earn additional income by producing a niche product, or as part of a longer-term plan to secure and expand market share going forward.

However, the costs of barn conversion are high (estimates range from $500 to more than $1,000 per sow), and not all group housing systems are the same. Producers are faced with multiple options in terms of feeding systems, pen layout, space allowance, group size and mixing time. There are few reliable sources for this information.

One obvious source is the European Union, where group housing has been in use for decades and became a legal requirement in January 2013. However, the herd sizes, barn designs and equipment available in the EU are different from those found in North America, and adapting this information to North American facilities, conditions and costs can be challenging. This article describes Canada’s solution to this problem: the National Sow Housing Conversion Project.

National Sow Housing Conversion Project

The NSHCP is a four-year project, jointly funded by government and industry, designed to document barn conversions and existing group housing systems across the country. The objective is to provide comprehensive examples of barn designs and management options for group-housed sows to give producers the resources needed to make this transition with confidence. Ultimately, the goal is to smooth the transition to groups, helping to maintain production levels and profitability as both pigs and barn staff adjust to the new system.

In a financial analysis of gestation barn conversions, Brian Buhr, an agricultural economist at the University of Minnesota, determined that the greatest cost in converting to groups is not necessarily related to construction. Buhr’s analysis found that if the renovation is done poorly and does not provide animals with adequate space or feed, or the sows are managed poorly under the new system, the cost in lost production can soon outstrip the cost of new infrastructure. However, as many farms have already shown, when planned and executed well, group sow housing can result in production levels equivalent to or greater than those of sows in stalls.

With this in mind, the NSHCP brought together industry leaders and scientific expertise to produce a comprehensive national strategy involving demonstration farms and technology transfer to support and educate Canadian pork producers on the options and hurdles for conversion. The NSHCP is led by Jennifer Brown, a research scientist, and Lee Whittington, president of the Saskatoon-based Prairie Swine Centre. Other team members include University of Manitoba researchers Laurie Connor and Quiang Zhang; industry representatives Mark Fynn, Manitoba Pork, and Sebastien Turcotte, Quebec Center for Pork Development; and agricultural building specialist Murray Elliott from Ontario.

The NSHCP is following four barns from planning to completion, documenting construction plans, costs, management decisions and staff training. Researchers also monitor production levels before and after the conversion process, and document any management problems that arise. This process will provide a well-documented approach to describing the challenges involving facility, people and pigs in redesigning the existing stall barn to meet the needs of the sow and the farm management to create a successful conversion experience. Some of the outcomes that will benefit future farm conversions will include tips for management and maintaining productivity, as well as documenting producers’ perspectives on the pros and cons of different group housing options.

In addition to the four barn conversions, an additional 10 farms across the country that are already using group housing have been identified. These farms have also agreed to participate in the study by being documented. This second group of farms includes both new barns and renovated sites. These operations will demonstrate group housing in a greater diversity of locations, herd sizes and housing systems, giving a broader sense of the housing and management options available.

Results from the project will be communicated through the project website, groupsowhousing.com, to be launched later this fall, and through newsletters distributed at producer meetings and provincial pork associations. The website will be central to sharing the study results and will include detailed examples, including barn plans and video interviews with producers.

The barns

Two barn conversions have been documented so far. The first is the Van Engelen family, owner-operators of Hog-Tied Farms Ltd., a 250-sow farrow-to-finish operation located in Thedford, Ontario. This well-kept operation is run by father and son John and Mitch Van Engelen and includes multiple innovations, including a state-of-the-art ventilation system, hydraulic sow platforms in farrowing, a precision-feeding area, and auto-sort feeders in grow-finish. The original barn was built in 1983, and renovations for group housing began in 2013.

The Van Engelens did most of the construction work themselves, and the existing breeding and gestation room was converted from stalls in a three-stage process. All sows were kept on-site, and while some minor reductions in herd size took place during the transition, the same numbers can be housed in the renovated group section as in the previous stall design. Sows in the group pens have roughly 20 square feet per sow, due to the efficient use of alley space around stalls and by implementing the use of a large group dynamic electronic sow feeder system. Doing the work in stages allowed the barn to remain in full operation, with little impact on the number of hogs shipped during the transition.

The Van Engelen story

Stage 1: To gain experience with the use of ESF, including radio-frequency identification tags and new production software, a single feeder was installed, capable of feeding up to 60 sows. The original gestation room contained 128 stalls for breeding and gestating sows. An end wall was opened, and stalls were removed from half of the room, creating a single 40-by-40-foot gestation pen, and the remaining 64 stalls were kept in service. The initial renovation took place over two weeks and involved tearing out stalls, removing the raised walkways and pouring sloped concrete pads to create lying areas for sows. Plastic paneling and stainless-steel gate posts were added around the pen and lying areas, and a Nedap ESF system was installed.

The original slatted flooring was kept, with patches made to any broken slats or rough areas, with the plan of eventually replacing them. The solid lying areas were sloped to reduce manure buildup. A Nedap boar station was also installed adjacent to the group pen, allowing any open sows to be identified electronically. The ESF system also includes a marking and sorting function, which can be programmed to sort sows to a holding area for transfer to farrowing, or to spray mark sows to be vaccinated, or those that come into heat.

When training the first group of sows, the Van Engelens realized that a dedicated training area was needed before gilts entered the breeding herd. An existing gilt development pen was modified to create two pens, separated by ESF feeder gates. A boar exposure area was included beside the gilt training area and includes a Nedap boar station with a radio frequency detector to aid in heat detection.

Stage 2: In the fall of 2014, the Van Engelens expanded their group gestation area with the removal of 37 more sow stalls. The original ESF and sorter were moved approximately 10 feet, and an additional ESF feeder was added to increase the capacity of the dynamic gestation pen from 60 to 120 sows. A separate pen was also constructed for gilts, with a single ESF station. Both the sow and gilt gestation areas have access to a boar station for automated heat detection.

Stage 3: This stage was completed in 2015, with additional penning and flooring improvements. One added benefit the Van Engelens have noticed is an improvement in sow hoof condition. When kept in stalls, a number of the older sows developed long toes, especially on hind claws. Now with sows spending more time active, they are showing better hoof condition.

The second producer on the project is Adam Schlegel of Schlegelhome Farms, near Shakespeare, Ontario. The Schlegel sow barn accommodates 2,000 sows, farrow-to-wean. The barn conversion involved gutting an existing farrowing area and converting it to two large dynamic group pens for 500 sows, with some sows remaining in gestation stalls. A new farrowing wing was completed in 2014. It includes side-loading farrowing crates, in-floor heating and a robotic power washer. The new gestation area was completed in the spring of 2015. Gestating sows are fed using four ESF feeders per pen, with a sorting alley. The ESF feeders are Sow Choice feeders, made by Ontario firm CanArm Ltd. The documentation of both sites is ongoing, with periodic updates until December 2017.

In addition to these two conversion examples, five existing barns with group sow housing have been identified across the country, with site locations from the East Coast (New Brunswick) to Alberta in the West. The herd sizes range from 275 to 1,600 sows, and include a variety of new barns, renovations and barn additions. In terms of renovation costs, smaller herds that have completed owner-built conversions indicate material costs as low as $300 per sow for basic conversion including existing manure pits and some floor improvements (new slats and/or solid bedroom areas).

Group housing in Canada

Looking across the country, the province of Quebec has seen the greatest number of group housing renovations, followed by Ontario and Manitoba. The western provinces have seen fewer renovations for group housing. In general, western herds are larger and the corresponding investment is greater. Integrated production groups, such as Maple Leaf Farms in Manitoba, are beginning to renovate sites and gain experience with managing sows in groups.

In terms of feeding systems, ESF systems have been the most popular, both for new builds and renovations. Feeders include EU-based manufacturers like Nedap, Schauer and Weda, as well as two Canadian-made systems — CanArm (Sow Choice ESF) and JYGA (Gestal free-access ESF).

Available resources

So far the NSHCP team has developed a number of resources, including the “Science of Ethology” series, available at prairieswine.com. The series focuses on sow behavior and management tips for feeding systems, grouping practices and the timing of mixing and dynamic versus static grouping strategies. The team has also produced factsheets on the pros and cons of different feeding and training systems for gilts and sows. A biannual newsletter gives updates on the project, and new and ongoing farm site examples. Producers, barn builders and suppliers can all access these and other resources, such as video footage of the barns and interviews with producers and specialists, at no charge.

Further information
For more information on the NSHCP, partners and progress, visit prairieswine.com, or contact Jennifer Brown, [email protected].

The NSHCP project is funded by Swine Innovation Porc within the Swine Cluster 2: Driving Results Through Innovation research program. Funding is provided by Agriculture and Agri‐Food Canada through the AgriInnovation Program, provincial producer organizations and industry partners. 

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