With over 50 years of hog-raising experience under his belt, Dale Keesecker has seen and tried any number of new products and management practices.

In those five decades, the Washington, KS, producer has also tested numerous products and management philosophies under the cooperative guidance of the Kansas State University (KSU) swine Extension staff.

Keesecker began moving sows to confinement in the mid '90s, devoting one gestation barn to sows in stalls, another to gilts housed 10-12/pen. Roughly 75% of the sows were housed in stalls, with 25% of sows and gilts in pens.

In the mid-'90s, he also began transitioning to multi-site production. “We moved nurseries and finishers off site and converted those barns to pen gestation,” Keesecker explains. “That was about 13 years ago. It was not an animal welfare decision.”

Today, the split between sow stalls and group housing of sows and gilts is about 50:50.

Still, as concerns about gestation stalls mounted, this forward-thinking Kansan once again joined forces with the KSU staff to study group size and feeding options for gestating sows.

Keesecker had plenty of experience with hand-feeding sows in pens, but he wanted to learn more about automated drop feeding and whether the number of feedings per day mattered.

“We were starting to read about various gestation housing alternatives and feeding regimes, so we were interested in learning if there was a better way to manage the pens. We had done countless studies with the KSU researchers at Manhattan, so they knew we were open to new ideas,” Keesecker explains.

Feeding Frequency Trial

In the field trial, 208 sows and 288 gilts were fed either twice a day (7:00 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.) or six times a day (7:00, 7:30, 8:00 a.m. and 3:30, 4:00 and 4:30 p.m.). Sows received 5.5 lb. of feed daily, while gilts received 4.5 lb. Thirteen replicates of eight sows/pen and 12 replicates of 12 gilts/pen were included in the trial.

Weight, backfat, and standard measures of reproductive performance were recorded. In addition, various measures of animal well-being were collected, such as body lesions and vulva lesions scores (1 to 4), visual scores for structural integrity — front and rear legs and hooves.

The eight-month study did not yield remarkable differences in the two feeding regimes. Weight gain, backfat change and variation of body weights of the groups were similar. Reproductive performance was also similar.

Sows fed six times a day were noisier than those fed twice, but the latter groups had more body and vulva lesions. Sows fed twice a day also had slightly more feet, leg and hoof problems. (See p. 12 for complete details and results of the study.)

Pros and Cons

Although sows and gilts on the two feeding regimes performed similarly, Keesecker and his long-time breeding-gestation manager, Rick Richard, recounted some of the day-to-day advantages and disadvantages they saw with the drop-feeding systems.

Advantages:

  1. “More consistent feeding levels than hand-feeding. When feed is metered, you actually know what sows are getting. If a herdsman is feeding with a scoop, the amount of feed given per sow could vary, depending how full the scoop was and how big of a hurry he was in.

  2. “Better sow condition than hand-feeding, overall;

  3. “It's quieter; sows don't associate the feeding with the herdsman being in the barn. You don't have all of the noise and commotion and excitement going on that you did with hand-feeding.

  4. “It's much, much easier to adjust the feeding levels, because you just adjust the feed drop rather than trying to tell a person that we need to increase feed per sow by two or three tenths of a pound per day.

  5. “Sows were calmer and quieter the more drops we did. When the study was over, we went to the three in the morning, three in the afternoon feed drops. Sows are more consistently calm. Although the research might not bear this out, from visual observation, it looks like (there are) less problems with pecking order and boss sows when we drop feed more times per day.”

Disadvantages:

  1. “Compared to stalls, one thing you lose with the drop-feeding system is individual control. If you need to treat an animal or you want to read a tattoo, you can't just walk through and get it at a glance (in group housing). You'll have to figure out how to contain her.

  2. “We had a very small percentage of sows that would get aggressive, and we'd have to remove them and put them in stalls. That can mess you up, logistically.

  3. “A very small percentage of really timid sows just wouldn't adapt to floor feeding - even with six-times-a-day feeding. When they start to lose condition, you have to pull them.

  4. “One of the things that always bothers me about pens vs. stalls, is what could happen if someone were in a pen of sows and got knocked down, and knocked unconscious; they probably wouldn't come out of there alive,” Keesecker adds. “I know that's an extremely remote possibility. Pigs generally won't hurt you on purpose, but accidents do happen.”

Managing Pens

Keesecker and Richard feel they have learned a few things that could help other pork producers manage sows in pen gestation.

Newly weaned sows are moved to stalls in a wing of the breeding-gestation barn. Once found in heat, sows are inseminated twice. The gradual move to more pen gestation has left them so tight on individual stalls that they now must move recently bred sows out of the breeding area the next week.

“Pen gestation requires a different style of management, and there are more things that you need to do to make pens work right,” states the veteran manager who has been at Keesecker Farms for over 17 years.

One of the bigger challenges with sows in groups is “feeding to the averages,” says Keesecker.

“Basically, you have to pre-organize the sows,” says Richard. “Sort them by weight, backfat and condition and set the feed drops accordingly.”

Although their field trial found no real advantages to feeding six times a day vs. twice, Richard prefers the more frequent feeding. “Even with the twice-a-day feeding, sows still tend to associate the herdsman with feeding,” he explains. “The sows fed six times are just calmer.”

“If you get a really aggressive animal - one that just won't quit - you have to pull her out,” Keesecker says. “They're like the bully that just never quits.”

At the opposite extreme are the timid sows. “We still get individual sows that are timid and don't want to eat with the group. They, too, must be pulled and moved to an individual stall,” Richard adds.

“On a day-to-day basis, it is harder to check for sows that are recycling in pens. It takes more skill to find those sows,” he says. “It also makes preg-checking a little more difficult, but we don't seem to miss many.”

Building New — Pens or Stalls?

Keesecker doesn't hesitate when asked which sow housing option he likes best. “I prefer stalls,” he says plainly.

Richard admits if someone had asked that question before they conducted the trial, he'd have opted for stalls, too. “No way would I have wanted pens,” he says. “But I feel a little more comfortable now that we have some experience with the feed drops and floor feeding. I like the consistency of the automatic drop feeders. You don't have to worry whether someone is feeding the sows the same way every day.

“When we were hand-feeding, people tended to give each pen the same number of scoops without regard to the number of sows in the pen or the condition they were in. It's one of those jobs that people do without paying attention. If you have 40 pens to feed, and you have a barn full of squealing sows, one of your objectives is to get to the other end of the barn as quickly as you can.”

If he were making plans to build a new gestation barn today, Keesecker says, “I'd still have to look at stalls. We've got some projects that we're going to tackle in the near future and I'm really struggling with that. It costs less to go to pens and they're faster to build, but you lose control of the individual animals — their care and treatment. And there's more risk to the herdspeople.”

Richard agrees, but if you're sold on pens, he advises: “Think ahead about how you will manage it. I would go with smaller pens. Shoot for as much individual control as you can get.” And he prefers to house replacement gilts in pens because it's easier to check heat and gilts tend to grow better. “It helps their leg structure,” he says. “Remember, they're still developing; they're like a juvenile.”