The general manager of the country's largest pen gestation system says producers shouldn't fear group sow housing.

Bob Ivey wanted to leave the standing-room-only crowd at the Sow Housing Forum in Des Moines with a crystal clear message: “Y'all are making this too complicated.”

He's referring to anyone's plans to move away from individual gestation stalls to some type of group housing, a plan first announced by the nation's largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods, last January.

Ivey has a wealth of experience to draw on, having managed gestating sows in pens for the Maxwell Foods' production system in North Carolina since its first gestation barn was stocked in 1989. The firm's North Carolina farms house 2,000 or 4,000 sows/site, while 5,000-sow farms constructed in Indiana in 2006 used the same basic pen gestation model.

The North Carolina-based company's sow herd numbers over 80,000 — all of whom spend the majority of their gestational period in pens.

Short Stay in Stalls

Newly weaned sows are placed in individual stalls for a 35-day stay to prevent injury from fighting and to allow each sow to be individually fed to her optimum body condition, Ivey notes.

“When you group sows in North Carolina, heat is a big issue, so we're very careful not to overfeed the sows,” he continues.

“The condition of our sows is no different than sows in individual stalls, if you pay attention and do a good job during the 35-day period,” he assures.

“The stalls are safer for the sows and barn staff. It allows for proper insemination, ensures sows are in good condition, and the embryos are allowed to safely implant before sows are grouped — six gilts/pen and five sows/pen,” he explains.

The basic pen design is 8×10 ft., partially slotted concrete floors, which provides 13 sq. ft. when stocked with gilts, 16 sq. ft. for sows. Gestating animals are fed on solid floors with a single nipple drinker per pen. No bedding is provided. The occasional sick or injured sow is pulled and placed in a 5×10 ft. pen for care and treatment.

“You will find that once you get into this system, pulling sows is not an issue. It is not something that you will fight to manage everyday,” he says.

With small groups, Ivey says it is easier to match them for size and parity, which minimizes conflict at feeding. Water consumption is also better in pens, he says.

Sow Health

Vaccinations and treatments are easy to administer as the sows line up along the fenceline to eat.

“They are so interested in eating that you can go along and give the shot in the neck while standing in the aisle,” he says. “It's really pretty easy because you don't have to fight around and through the bars and the feed and water lines that you have in stall systems.

“You will have the same health issues with pens that you have with any other system,” he continues. “But one of the good things about pen gestation is if you have a TGE (Transmissible gastroenteritis) outbreak, for example, you have the flexibility to add animals. With stalls, you're limited to the number of stalls you have. With pens, you can add a sow or gilt (per pen) for a period of time to increase the population until you get the herd stabilized.

“We also believe that because there is a lot of nose-to-tail contact, that pathogens move through a farm a lot quicker, and you have a lot fewer subpopulations that allows the pathogen to creep along,” he says.

“You will also find the incidence of shoulder sores in our operation is very low,” he adds, which he attributes to group housing and managing body condition.

Proof in Performance

“Based on all of the Agrimetrics and AgriStats records, in North Carolina and elsewhere, there is no difference in the amount of feed we use compared to other housing options. We use around 29-30 lb. of gestation feed/sow on a weekly average,” he says.

Continuing to cite production measures, he allows that the proof is in the performance. “Typically, we are in the top three (systems). As far as sow mortality goes, we're at 4 to 6%, higher in the summer or if we have some challenge like PRRS (porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome). All of the Maxwell Foods farms are PRRS positive,” he says. “Depending on what's going on with the 4,000-sow farm, the pigs/sow/year (PSY) will range from 19 to 25 or better. It really isn't a pen or stall issue.”

Pigs are weaned at an average of 19 days of age and average 14 lb. “We focus a lot on pig quality. We'd rather have a few less pigs and improve the livability in the nursery and finishing barns. We focus more on pounds produced per sow than PSY. Farrowing rates average around 84%, with some farms at 92% and others at 78%. It depends on what is going on with management and health,” he explains.

Social Sows

Generally speaking, Ivey says the sows in the Maxwell Foods system are quite social. “There is some fighting and scratching that occurs when sows are mixed, but it's not been a problem. Our animals are very gentle. They don't run to the back of the pen. They lie around and touch each other. They seem happy, but I can't say they are any happier than sows in stalls.

“We have not seen the aggressiveness that you sometimes hear about with group housing. Part of the reason may be that we have our own in-house genetics program, and the pure lines are raised in the same kinds of facilities, so there may be some indirect selection,” he says.

Outside Opinion

In 2006, a major restaurant chain approached Maxwell Foods to be a supplier of animal welfare-friendly pork. Ivey took the unusual step of inviting Temple Grandin, widely recognized for designing welfare-friendly livestock handling systems, to review the firm's production system.

Although many people thought this was a pretty bold move, Ivey felt Grandin's approval was very important. As he describes it, her visit was “very interesting” and also “very revealing.”

Because of her autism, Grandin can visualize and empathize with the flight and fear tendencies of animals. With her unique talents, she is constantly counting things as she walks through the barns. “After a certain number of pens, she stops to reach into the pens to touch the animals,” Ivey explains. This is her random test of the animals' fear/comfort levels.

In her report she wrote: “They (Maxwell Foods) are setting the standard for large-scale pork production. The entire (pork) industry can use them as an example.”

“We were very proud of that endorsement,” assures Ivey. But he reminded: “I don't want you to make the change to pen gestation more difficult than what is required to satisfy the (animal welfare) people that we want to satisfy. The Humane Society of the United States will allow sows to farrow in crates, and that's something we need to remember. We don't want to give that up,” he reminds.

“Whenever you're talking to the public, be sure to tell the story that it's dangerous to the sows, dangerous to the workers and dangerous to the piglets if they don't allow the use of farrowing crates. Most people will understand that.”

In like fashion, Ivey feels the use of individual stalls for the first 35 days after breeding is defensible. “Focus on worker safety, pig health and sow health,” he recommends. “Many of you will be remodeling, so we need to set the standards so that everyone can participate. Don't make it more complicated than it needs to be,” he reminds.