New hoop barn helps achieve consistent sow body condition and fits with organic production standards.

Three years ago, Organic Prairie pork producer Tom Frantzen and his son, James, planned and built a breeding-gestation barn that addresses the biggest challenge with loose housing in gestation — consistent sow condition.

Frantzen is a steadfast believer in organic pork production and the standards laid out by Organic Prairie Family of Farms based in La Farge, WI. That is not to say, however, that the Alta Vista, IA, pork producer is unwilling to capitalize on modern production methods and proven technologies.

Early in 2004, he began taking a hard look at ways to improve the lagging reproductive performance of his sow herd. “My intention was to get higher production from the number of sows I can manage fairly intensively,” he explains. “My goal was to eliminate the redundant work and concentrate my management efforts on producing more pigs per litter.”

Two issues quickly rose to the top of his priority list — gaining better control of feeding sows and curbing postweaning health issues that were taking a toll.

“We had poor reproductive rates, and our feed conversion and postweaning death losses were too high,” he explains. “Both will kill your profits.”

The herd health issues were ad-dressed first by closing the herd to outside breeding stock. The move paid off. “Postweaning death loss for the year is running the lowest it's ever been,” he says. With more pigs raised, he was able to reduce the size of the sow herd. That, in turn, cut overall feed costs and improved gain per pound of feed, which is a very big deal when organic corn is selling for $9/bu.

Next, Frantzen turned his attention to getting a better handle on reproductive performance in the sow herd. More consistent sow body condition was a top priority. With the herd closed, he was ready to tackle artificial insemination (AI), but the prospects of heat detection and inseminating sows in open lots and Cargill-type facilities were not very appealing.

He called in Tracy Harper, Harper Consulting, Mindoro, WI, who provides swine reproductive consulting services to Organic Prairie producers. Harper studied reproductive physiology at North Carolina State University, while gaining a Master's degree in animal science, and held positions with Carroll's Foods in North Carolina and, more recently, Babcock Genetics. In addition to consulting, she is an agribusiness and science technology instructor at Western Technical College in La Crosse, WI.

“With Organic Prairie producers, one of the first things I have worked on is improving sow condition because it's all over the place,” Harper explains. “It's very difficult to manage when sows are fed in groups or when they are mixed in groups of different-parity sows. I could see the hoop buildings would go a long way toward resolving those concerns.”

Frantzen, his son, James, and Harper began poring over various hoop barn designs that would fit with the Organic Prairie philosophy. He toured an Iowa State University farm with hoop barn gestation.

Homemade Gate Secures Sows

Frantzen settled on a 30×60-ft. hoop barn, and on Harper's recommendation, began searching for free-access feeding stalls. “I suggested it would be desirable to be able to close the rear gate during feeding to avoid competition between sows,” she says.

The father-son duo found some used 2×7-ft. gestation stalls and set to work on designing a gate mechanism that would allow them to open and close the rear gate from the front aisle while feeding. A one-way swinging gate seemed too cumbersome, so they decided to split the rear gate in the middle and mount it with drop rods. Next, they began tinkering with a mechanism that would work much like the scissor-action of a bus door.

After considerable trial and error, they attached two flat iron pieces to the top, inside portion of the split gates. The flat iron pieces are joined and bolted to a single, longer flat iron piece that is threaded through a length of square tubing welded to the top of each stall (see photos, page 9). This latter flat iron piece is bent to form a handle.

A hole is drilled in the flat iron piece, just ahead of the square tubing when the rear gate is closed. A bolt-washer-nut combination, short enough to fit through the square tubing, is secured in the hole. When the flat iron handle is lifted slightly and pushed, the rear gate opens. Pull on the handle until the bolt drops across the front lip of the square tubing, and the rear gate is closed and secured.

Frantzen bought the used stalls for just $15 each; $20 covered the cost of materials for each rear gate mechanism. A local machine shop cut and bent the pieces for assembly.

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Built with AI in Mind

Twenty-five feeding stalls are welded in a row and secured to the 10×60-ft. concrete pad poured on the east side of the hoop barn. Stalls are positioned to allow a 2-ft. walkway at the front and a 12-in. ledge at the back.

A 5-ft. concrete pad was poured at the south end of the building where two heated automatic water fountains are secured. That leaves a 20×55-ft. deep-bedded area for sows.

Three, 2×12-ft. boards make up the east sidewall of the barn, with the top board hinged to provide summer ventilation. “When open, the air passes through the stalls, then rises to the roof vent at the top of the hoop,” says Tom Frantzen, noting this late-construction design change has proven very beneficial.

Originally, space was allocated for a boar pen at the north end of the building, but that plan was scrapped in favor of housing boars nearby, but away from sows.

“We built the barn and the stalls with artificial insemination in mind,” James Frantzen explains.

Frantzen welded 25 gestation stalls together and secured them to the concrete slab. The flat iron pieces are configured to provide the scissor-action (above) to open and close the split rear gate when the handle is pushed or pulled. Sows are locked in the stalls for feeding and heat detection, but otherwise roam freely in the deep-bedded hoop barn

Controlled Feeding, Heat Detection

The months of planning, experimenting and installation paid off.

The daily chore of feeding the sows is much easier. “I feed all of the sows the same amount going down the row as I lock them into a stall,” Tom Frantzen explains. “Then, as I come back down the aisle, I give the sows with low body scores more feed. Sows nearing their farrowing date are fed a little more, too.”

The beauty of the barn-stall design is it takes the competition for feed out of the mix, Harper says. “Take away the food aggression and the sows are more relaxed. They know they can go and eat and nobody's going to bother them. I've never seen sows fight in this building — ever,” she adds.

Heat detection is made easier, too. In the evening, Frantzen brings the heat- check boar to the area originally set aside for a breeding pen at the north end of the barn. Sows in heat come to the fenceline and are marked. The next day, after sows have eaten, the heat check boar is brought back to confirm sows in standing heat. Sows are AI'ed, then bred again 24 hours later.

Frantzen also welded a set of angle iron tracks to the top of the stalls the full length of the barn. A shallow wooden box on steel wheels carries all AI supplies and is moved along as he inseminates the sows. “I wouldn't even think about doing AI without it,” he says.

Conception rates now consistently run over 90%. “We're raising more pigs from fewer sows,” he says.

Another benefit of the stall configuration — it's very easy to sort sows. If a sow needs to be moved to the farrowing facility, Frantzen simply opens the front stall gate and follows the sow down the aisle.

He also ran all electrical lines through conduit to make repairs or updating easier. “I tried to eliminate all of the little things that have been driving me crazy the last 30 years,” he says.

The tab for the building and equipment ran about $12,000, not including labor. With improved production from the sow herd, he figures the building will pay for itself in four years.

Plans are to hold the sow herd at 75-100 sows. The 380-acre farm is on a fixed, crop rotation program. “I don't sell any grain. It all goes into cattle or hogs — and hogs get the majority of it,” he explains. “It's a sustainable farm. The crops support the livestock and the livestock support the crops.”

Editor's Note: The trend away from housing gestating sows in individual stalls raises many questions. With this issue, we are kicking off a year-long series on various sow gestation housing options, including large and small pen designs, various feeding systems and the strengths and weaknesses associated with each. Some are relatively new. Others are more proven. All will add to the growing knowledge base needed to identify which best serves individual preferences and management styles.