5 things you need to know about converting to group housing

November 22, 2017

4 Min Read
What you should know before converting to group sow housing
National Pork Board

Hyatt Frobose, Swine Nutrition specialist for JYGA Technologies, has seen the good, bad and ugly on the job helping hog farmers making the conversion to group sow housing for over 100,000 sows. Drawing from this experience, he shares essential lessons learned from retrofitting and new construction of loose sow housing facilities at the recent Kansas State University Swine Day. “Properly implemented and managed, I am confident we can achieve equivalent performance in group housing as we do in stalls.”

Every decision of the swine business should be about the animal or, in this case, the sow. So planning and communication will go a long way and be the difference between success and failure. He shares these takeaway messages.

It takes stockmanship. Early research and hog producers report more performance variation in group housing. However, Frobose says it really comes down to people and their stockmanship skills. Converting to group housing, quoting the British code of welfare for livestock farms, Frobose says, “No matter how acceptable a system is in principle, without competent, diligent stockmanship, the welfare of animal cannot adequately be catered for.”

The cheapest investment may not be the cheapest long-term. Converting to group housing is a big investment. Frobose says hog farmers need to weigh out the best investment for the long-term — retrofitting a barn or building a new facility, which may not necessarily be the cheapest options. In economic analysis, the University of Minnesota calculates if a barn is 21 years or older it is more economically feasible to build new.

Design is everything. Converting to group housing requires many decisions such as feeding systems, waterer placement, hospital areas, floor type and nesting walls. For retrofits, accurate barn measurements and blueprints are essential.

One key determination is the optimal stocking density. The Canadian Code of Practice mandates a minimum of 19 square feet for sows and 15 square feet for gilts. The European Union guidelines are 24 square feet for sows and 18 square feet for gilts. Frobose says his observation aligns with a review by Bench et al. that additional space above 20.5 square feet did not affect sow productivity. Nevertheless, Frobose says do not forget to figure the cost of additional square footage. Figure 1 illustrates the costs. Overall, he says “When determining optimal group sizing, think about finding sows that do not eat in the large group pen.”

Do not forget nesting walls or hospital areas. Research reveals nesting walls can reduce aggression during group formation and provide a getaway area for sows. Frobose says the normal recommendation for nesting walls is 10 feet wide and 6 or 7 feet deep. In placement of the nesting wall, it is important to not create a choking area. Also, it is necessary to have an area to isolate sick or injured sows. Therefore he stresses not to forget a hospital area in the plans in a location that workers walk by frequently.

People should also be considered in the design. Frobose says it is important that workers get every sow up every day. Man gates need to be installed to prevent workers from having to climb over pens all time. Make sure the man gate is designed to prevent the sow from getting stuck or injured.

Transition is ugly. Change can be hard for sows and people. Frobose stresses, “The transition needs to be carefully planned, and producers need to manage their expectations of staff and existing sows.”

He advises leadership to bring staff into the discussion in the early planning stages. The input from the people working in the barns every day is invaluable. It also gives them ownership and makes the change less stressful if they have an opportunity to voice opinions. Happy people lead to happy sows.

Moreover, he says it takes the “right” person to lead the group during the transition and manage a group gestation system. So, management should select wisely.

The transition will also not be easy on the existing sow herds. Mixing sows is an art. Old sows will show the most aggression initially. Frobose warns the first mixing cycle will be loud and the sows will fight. He recommends having extra labor on hand when converting sows normally housed in stalls to group gestations.

Evaluate every sow’s feet and legs. Any sow identified for feet or leg issues or overgrown toes should be placed in a hospital area and culled after farrowing. While each farming operation is different, Frobose says the best time to mix sows to avoid aborting embryos is one week after breeding or after pregnancy is confirmed.

Conversion creates opportunities. In summary, Frobose notes, “Opportunities exist to reduce feed cost, minimize aggression and increase performance through the use of new technologies and production strategies.”

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