In a year-long, on-farm research trial, a Canadian heat pad system proved more efficient to operate than heat lamps in a comparison of two creep heating systems. The heat pads cost 45% less to operate.

It took a year to convince Terry Feldmann that heat pads could outperform heat lamps.

"I was a disbeliever, and that is why I insisted this study be done for a full year," declares the East Peoria, IL, agricultural engineer (Feldmann & Associates).

"I was a heat lamp man. I just didn't know if people could do as good a job managing the creep area and keeping the pigs comfortable with a pad as they could with a lamp."

One-Year Test The trial was performed at a 2,500-sow, farrow-to-wean, contract production farm in south-central Illinois. There were two rooms (30 crates/room) with 125-watt heat lamps. Heat output for the heat lamps was adjusted by a variable voltage controller based on room temperature. Two rooms had 120-watt heat pads (maximum of 60 watts/crate), controlled by voltage modulation based on temperature sensors in the pad. Electrical use was monitored by kilowatt meters.

In both cases, standard 5x7-ft. farrowing crates with solid PVC plank creep dividers and woven wire flooring were used.

The only difference was the type of creep heat. Half of the creep areas for the heat lamp trial had 2x4-ft. black rubber mats at the rear of the crates. Heat lamps were spotted over the center of the creep area and hung 18 in. above the mats.

The heat pads were positioned in the center of the creep area and covered the same basic area as the rubber mats.

Room temperatures ranged from 73.5F at farrowing to 70F by weaning. The heat pads and lamps were set at 99F from Day 1 to Day 5 and decreased proportionally to 90F by Day 14, explains Feldmann.

Performance, Energy Use Pig performance was virtually identical for both the heat pad and heat lamp groups. In 21 farrowing groups studied, 88.2% of the pigs in the heat lamp group were weaned; 87.6% were weaned in the heat pad group.

Pigs were weaned at 14 to 17 days of age. Average daily gain was 0.375 lb./day for the heat lamp group and 0.380 lb./day for the heat pad group. Daily gain was measured in 15 of the 21 farrowing groups.

Total annual operating cost, shown in Table 1 on page 40, was $2,936 for the heat lamp rooms and $1,628 for the heat pad rooms - roughly a 45% savings using the heat pads.

Using a simple payback approach based on capital and operating costs of 10/kilowatt-hour and propane costs of 50/gal. for supplemental room heat, payback for the heat pad system is projected at 1.7 years, says Feldmann.

"My whole premise is, if pig performance is the same with both systems, and one system is a lot more energy efficient and costs less to operate, a person really needs to look at that system," says Feldmann. The heat pad is also easier to maintain - it has no light bulbs or lamp housing to replace.

Heat Pad Details Feldmann stresses this trial is not a blanket endorsement for all heat pad systems. The unit tested was a Canadian product called the Hog Hearth, distributed in the U.S. by Automated Production Systems, Assumption, IL. It is made of carbon graphite-fiber woven into a cloth-like material that is molded into a fiberglass-reinforced plastic panel. It has R4 insulation with a double-sided foil jacket. The result is even, radiant heat throughout the pad.

Most heat pads feature an s-curved heat coil, which results in uneven heat distribution patterns, he says. Typically, other heat mats use a higher wattage than the Hog Hearth and a lot more electricity, says Feldmann.

Uneven heat is a problem with heat lamps, too. It can be too hot for piglets right under the lamp, too cold just inches away, he says.

Still, heat lamps are the most popular creep heating system because the investment is small, says Automated Production project engineer Kevin Rath. "We are willing to invest in flooring, in crates and in ventilation systems. But we rarely seem to invest in an environment for the baby piglet," he remarks.

Rath admits the Hog Hearth heat pad is a financial commitment. The standard, 2x4-ft. mat that handles two creep areas retails for $280. The mat features a five-year, pro-rated warranty. That compares to the typical one-year limited warranty on most mats. Also available are 1x4-ft. single crate mats and 2x2-ft. mats for corner installation or z-type crates.

Economic analyses, conducted by the company for producers, shows a savings of 15-20/piglet in electricity (operating) costs.

Pads and Lamps Ron MacDonald, agricultural engineer from Guelph, Ontario, Canada (Agviro Inc.) assisted in the Hog Hearth study. He says installing that heat pad system is a no-brainer when building new. It has excellent performance characteristics and saves money.

But, he disagrees with those who say that the heat pad is the only creep heating system needed in a farrowing barn. He suggests using a 100-watt heat lamp at the back of the crate to help dry off newborn piglets 24 hours past farrowing. Move the heat lamp over top of the creep area to attract piglets to the mat as the sow finishes farrowing.

Get the Gun MacDonald recommends using one heat lamp for two crates during the farrowing process. He advises using an infrared gun to verify that the surface temperature (at the mat) is acceptable to piglets.

The infrared temperature guns are not new but are starting to grow in popularity, he says. You can buy one at most farm supply stores for about $100.

"We have had tremendous results with these guns," says MacDonald. "I have gone into barns where people are operating creeps with heat lamps as high as 165F (maximum should be 100F). Pigs won't lie under those lamps, will move closer to the sow and stand a good chance of getting crushed."

The gun features a laser pointer and digital read-out, explains Jim McFarlane, Animal Environment Specialists Inc., Marysville, OH. It provides a temperature reading in Fahrenheit. A toggle switch converts to Celsius.

Overall, McFarlane says producers who are monitoring the hog building environment, whether it be farrowing or another phase of production, should have two items in their pockets - a temperature-humidity pen with digital read-out ($60) and the infrared thermometer gun.

The pig should be the final guide to farrowing comfort, adds MacDonald. "If pigs seem to be doing an unusual amount of piling, getting crushed and/or dying and mortality is too high, it may be time to check out the floor heating program in your farrowing barns."

For more information, contact Feldmann at (309) 699-6962 or e-mail tlfeldmann@aol.com. Contact MacDonald at (519) 836-9727 or e-mail agviro@mgl.ca. McFarlane can be reached at (800) 969-0114 or jmcfar @bright.net.