Pen gestation appears to be the future of sow housing, and helping pork producers pick an option that suits their operation is the goal of Innovative Swine Solutions (ISS), says Laura Greiner, director of research and swine nutrition.

ISS is the research arm of Carthage (IL) Veterinary Service (CVS), Ltd., studying sow and pig feeding and production systems from conception to slaughter.

To help producers define their choices on sow housing, ISS has begun studies of two very different pen arrangements.

Complete results of this comparative study will be presented by Greiner at the CVS Annual Swine Conference on Sept. 1 at Western Illinois University in Macomb, IL. Go to www.hogvet.com or call (217) 357-2811 for more details about the conference.

Following is a glimpse of some preliminary findings and observations.

Drop Feeding System

At Bluff Road Genetics, a Newsham Choice Genetics daughter nucleus farm located in northeast Missouri, pens are equipped with 10 individual feeding stations. Tubes that extend down close to the concrete floor provide feed three times a day, 4-5 lb. total. The individual stations are designed to reduce boss sows' activity.

“If you put 4-5 lb. in front of all 10 sows, all at once, each sow has the opportunity to eat at the same time. However, you may still have one sow that may eat faster than another, and go over to the next station and push out that neighboring sow,” Greiner explains.

Penning sows in groups of 10 simplifies management and identifying sows for treatment. The small pen configuration also makes it easier to confine small groups of gilts of similar size. Both sows and gilts are provided 18.4 sq. ft each.

“When sows are placed in small groups, they must be grouped by similar body condition, because you can't individually feed a sow with this system — every drop box has to be set with the same amount of feed,” she says.

Stocking a pen coincides with turning the feeding system on. With the feeding system running, it distracts sows to eat rather than fight, Greiner says. “Sows eat and become more comfortable when they are full, and there is less aggressive behavior as a result,” she explains.

A modification of this system would be to make it into a trickle-feeding system. The trickle-feeding system requires no training as sows quickly figure out where to get feed and the slow release would further reduce competition and improve nutrient digestibility, she says.

Performance in the individual feeding stations has been quite good. Conception rate has been 97%, with farrowing rate at 92%. Total pigs born have exceeded 13, with a born-alive average at 12.2 pigs. Sow replacement rate has been 52% as this herd completes its third parity.

ESF Approach

The electronic sow feeding (ESF) system at High Power Farms, Augusta, IL, features 56 sows/pen, also providing 18.4 sq. ft./sow.

Electronic ear tags are linked to the Nedap sow feeding stations. Sows enter one end of the feeding “tunnel;” a back gate locks them in until they finish eating, then releases them. Sows in queue nudge out the departing sow to take her place in the feeding vestibule.

Nedap features a computer-based system called Velos, which provides feeding flexibility. Diets can be changed by pen and for individuals.

“The individual electronic ear tag ‘talks’ to Velos, so when the sow enters the Nedap station, it reads the tag and tells how much feed that sow is to get that day, how much it has already eaten, and provides the diet that sow is supposed to get,” Greiner says.

The Nedap system also gives farm manager Mike Root daily reports of feeding activity, identifying animals that have not eaten their allotment. When that happens, Root finds those sows, physically runs them through the station or, when necessary, places them in a hospital pen for treatment.

“This is a very useful sow recordkeeping system in that it helps us identify problems that might be a little hard to see in a group of 56 sows,” Greiner observes.

The Velos computer links to an AgroSoft software program. Using a handheld PDA (personal digital assistant), a scanner is waved over a sow's ear to retrieve production data. “The wand reads the sow's ear tag and the data is transferred to the PDA, telling me her ID, when she was bred and her farrowing performance. We also use this technology once a week to manage body condition at High Power,” she adds.

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Future Promise for ESF

Greiner says this technology provides a big edge over the feeding station system. “I can go into my PDA as I am looking at a sow, and if I think she is too thin, then I can change her body condition score; that automatically communicates to Velos that the next time she goes in the feeding tunnel, she gets more feed,” she explains.

The High Power sow farm also has two feed lines per pen feeding station, providing the means to change gestation diets and perform side-by-side comparisons.

One of the biggest challenges to the ESF system was training gilts, because all of the gilts in the start-up farm had to be taught how to eat over a tight timeframe.

“Now that the herd is established, we've learned to include a few ESF stations in the gilt developer for pre-training,” Greiner says. “As the gilts are exposed to the boars, they are moved into these pens with the ESF stations so they are trained as they are exposed.”

The pretraining has reduced fallout rates because gilts understand how the system works when they're moved to gestation pens. “We used to have a rather high number of animals that refused to use the feeding system. I think some of them were shy and afraid of entering the tunnel,” Greiner surmises.

Future Promise for ESF

“The focus on sow feeding in gestation has been on the pounds of feed sows need and the appropriate energy levels. Now it's time to become more precise in our sow feeding programs, even as we move from the controlled environment of the stall to the more variable confines of the pen,” Greiner says.

The sophistication of the ESF system will help provide answers to sow feeding questions, such as:

  • Should sows be fed differently at different times during gestation?

  • Should different parities be fed different diets?

  • Which is better — a static or dynamic group of sows? To date, both types of sow housing studied are dynamic groups.

Yet, Greiner says the lack of aggression with the ESF system is very noticeable and may be due to staff utilizing the computerized systems to maintain uniformity and sow condition and identifying and quickly treating sick sows.

Production averages at High Power, which is not yet a mature parity farm, include 94% conception rate and a slightly lower farrowing rate than Bluff Road Genetics' 92%, 12.3 total pigs born, 11.8 pigs born alive and a replacement rate of 42%.

In both the small-pen and ESF systems, sows are placed in individual stalls to be bred and held for 30 days to confirm pregnancy. Once pregnancy is confirmed, sows move to pens. Sows stay in pens until Day 112 of gestation, when they move to farrowing.

Greiner says so far, one system isn't better than the other for sow housing.

“I don't think there is a right or wrong answer. Both farms do very well. It comes down to established protocol that we understand and whether we know how to feed these animals,” she says.”