Called a Sortall, the (82 × 200 ft.) grower-finisher facility features two rooms with two, 550-head pens per room. At the center of each room is a scale and gating system that creates configurations of holding pens limited only by the imagination.
The patent-pending design does two important things, says its engineer and inventor, Paul Schick: it takes the guesswork out of sorting pigs by size/weight, resulting in minimal sort loss, and it lowers the labor needed to do it.
That and the fact there is no pecking order with the large pens and little competition at the feeders also improves pig uniformity, adds Schick, a partner in a family hog operation near Kutztown, PA. The Schicks have expanded to include turnkey construction of livestock housing.
Schick built the first double-wide Sortall two years ago. Today, there are about 20,000 head housed in the design, and business is booming.
It's suitable too, as a remodel. Contract grower Mark Leinbach of Loysville, PA, had a farrowing house converted to a Sortall. The building is located next to his conventional finisher. Labor is the saving grace, says Leinbach. “The Sortall takes the labor out when it comes time to market, especially with the first sort. Plus, we know what pigs weigh, which makes it a lot easier to hit a target weight,” he adds.
Leinbach's pigs get a minimal sort discount and often are in the bonus box of his packer's weight range. A closeout comparison between his Sortall barn and other contract growers selling to Hatfield Quality Meats showed Leinbach had an average sort loss of $0.29 in his first two groups (2,600 pigs). The non-Sortall growers (representing 36,000 pigs) averaged a discount of $1.23, or a difference of $0.94/pig.
The centerpiece of the building's design is the scale and feeding area. Adapted from a Canadian model, the stainless-steel, digital scale is not turned on until pigs are big enough to handle the gates — about 135 lb. At first, pigs are given a choice to either step through the scale or bypass it. “We never force them,” notes Schick. “The whole concept is geared around pig behavior. We just use a pig's natural curiosity to make them do what we want.”
A simple gate adjustment can direct every pig across the scale to capture an average weight for the pen or identify pigs at market weights. The scale is the gateway into the central feeding area, which Schick refers to as the “food court.” One-way exit gates prevent pigs from entering the food court without going onto, or next to, the scale.
Pigs are never trapped on the scale, explains Schick. One door is always open. If the back door closes, the front door opens to maintain pig flow and the pigs' mindset to eat.
Programmed target weights or set points direct the scale's swing gate. For example, if weight is set at 245 lb., the gate will divert pigs at that weight into a holding area to get ready for the next shipment. If 100 pigs are needed for a load at a certain weight, the scale will sort off 100 pigs, and then divert the rest back into the feeding area.
Three-way posts and 10-ft. gates configuring the pens can be manipulated many ways. An alleyway can be converted by moving a gate, or different pen sizes formed for a staging area for loading. Culls can easily be diverted into a separate holding pen, all with feed and water access.
Less Labor, Less Stress
Producer Elvin Martin of Myerstown, PA, the first to build a Sortall, constantly shuffles pigs around using the scale's set points. As pigs get heavier, they are moved progressively closer to the loading chute. Slower-growing pigs are channeled into another area to catch up. Rather than manage the two large pens separately, Martin manipulates the two pens together.
“The Sortall still takes some management to program the set points,” says Martin. “But it's the only way to raise hogs. I can use my brain instead of my back.” He and his wife load a semi-trailer for shipment in 30 to 45 minutes.
Leinbach's pigs come from sow units owned by Country View Family Farms, an integrator affiliated with Hatfield. Operations manager Bryan Preston says more of their growers are opting for the Sortall building for its labor and marketing advantages. “When growers are selecting pigs to put on the truck, this does it for them,” he says. “It takes the ability-to-sort variable out of the picture. There's less risk to the grower who may not be as good at sorting as someone else, and there is much less stress on the animals.”
Preston adds that not only is sort loss minimized with the automatic sorting barn, but the percentage of lightweights can be significantly less. In the comparison used earlier, only 1.4% of Leinbach's pigs were discounted as too light, while 3.5% of pigs from the non-sorter barns were discounted for that reason.
The Sortall is new enough that its use as a management tool has yet to reach its full potential, states Preston. He predicts they will eventually receive data from the scale to track feed conversion and daily gain, allowing them to match diets to growth curves.
“Instead of standing at the scale, we could access through a modem how many pigs were sorted through that pen, and what the weight of those pigs were,” says Preston. “It's a management tool that will evolve and narrow the communication gap.”
Another benefit of the system is the ease for withholding feed before shipment. “An animal off-feed for 24 hours has two advantages,” continues Preston. “By not feeding for a day, a grower can save maybe 12,000 lb. of feed in a 2,000-head lot. On the packer end, we're finding improved carcass traits on pigs withheld feed. Some preliminary testing has shown the pH increases, which improves meat tenderness. And, another benefit is the packers don't have to deal with gut waste.”
A separate watering system in the holding area also allows treatment with electrolytes before shipment, which may offer benefits with shrinkage and heat stress, adds Schick.
The Sortall building has a package price of $265,000 to $268,000 for a 2,200-head grower-finisher, about the same cost as a standard finisher, he says.
Handling, Welfare Aspects
Sorting hogs is no longer the laborious task it used to be, says Dan Sensenig of Fredericksburg, PA, who suffers from a bad back. “The only time we're pushing pigs around is when we're chasing them out to the truck,” he says. “Pigs load much easier and we're told they walk into the packing plant easier. They're getting more exercise in these large pens.”
Sensenig notes that much less liquid manure is generated with the Sortall because pigs aren't playing with waterers out of boredom. Pens are clean and dry. “Pigs are content in this environment. They can go to whatever part of the pen they want for their comfort zone,” he says.
The Pennsylvania producer also likes how easy it is to segregate sick pigs, administer treatment and put them back into the general population when they recover.
Does he think it's the wave of the future? “I don't think it is. I know it is. There's no reason to build a conventional barn anymore.”