It is important to understand the advantages and challenges of automatic sorting, large-pen finishing barn designs, says Frank Brummer, owner and president of Farmweld, manufacturers of auto-sort equipment for hog barns.

In a talk at last summer's Pork Academy, Brummer drew on 28 months of inquiry into large-pen, auto-sort finishing systems installed in the U.S.

From that experience, he developed this top 10 list of the benefits of large pen auto-sorting:

  1. Better uniformity in size of pigs produced. Housing 25 pigs/pen discourages uniform production. Lack of uniformity is the number one cost to the pork industry today, says Brummer. National Pork Board data suggests this converts into a loss of $1-3/pig.

  2. Accurate marketing is enhanced. Data from Purdue University indicates there is $7,000-$10,000/year in revenue to be gained on a 1,000-head barn just from selling the right pigs on the right day.

  3. Labor savings are realized. Estimates are there is a $2,000/year savings or 76 cents/pig on a 1,000-head barn, says Brummer.

  4. Job satisfaction is improved. “Producers love working in these auto-sort barns, and truckers like to load out of these barns,” he observes.

  5. Improved feeding and throughput are achieved. “The key with automatic sorting is that we can separate the pigs into two groups — heavy and light — and we can feed them both the right diet,” states Brummer. By feeding pigs the right ration, energy levels in swine diets can be improved and this can boost throughput. Pigs should be split into heavy and light groups at about 135 lb. When it's time to sort pigs for slaughter, the producer only has to sort out of one side of the barn at a time.

  6. Better opportunities are provided to use ractopamine (Paylean from Elanco Animal Health). With a scale to record actual weights, this repartitioning agent can be used with more precision.

  7. Feed withdrawal is facilitated. Groups destined for market should be moved to the sort pen two days prior to shipment, says Brummer. Pigs should be taken off feed the last 12-18 hours before load out. This saves about 26¢/pig in feed costs. “Some people trucking pigs a long way can do all their feed withdrawal on the truck,” he notes.

  8. Animal welfare is improved. Pigs have the ability to find their own comfort zone in a large pen, according to Harold Gonyou of the Prairie Swine Centre, Saskatchewan, Canada. “If you move pigs into a 25-head pen and it's too hot or too cold, they cannot move to a more comfortable environment. But with large pens, pigs can find their own comfort zone,” comments Brummer.

    Pigs also get used to producers walking in those large pens, which becomes very valuable in easing stress at load out time, he notes.

  9. Tail biting and fighting are reduced because pigs learn “they can get away from each other,” explains Brummer.

  10. Death loss is reduced. New University of Pennsylvania research says that conventional barns had almost twice as many dead pigs in transit vs. automatic sorting barns (see article on p. 14).

Brummer says there is preliminary evidence that points to a slight improvement in meat quality in large-pen, auto-sort systems. The data from Purdue University is based on 1,229 head in auto-sort systems vs. 2,220 head in conventional facilities. There was a slight increase in percent lean and loin depth for automatic sorting. Less fighting leads to better meat quality and lowers stress, which lowers incidence of porcine stress syndrome, he says.

Probably the biggest plus for automatic sorting is that it teaches pigs to walk single file through chutes. “This makes them very calm at load out time,” he says.

Potential Drawbacks

Brummer says producers need to realize when shopping for an automatic sorting system that there may be some caveats, too. For example:

  • Realize an automatic sorting system may add $10,000 or more to the cost of a building project vs. conventional construction. Producers need to focus on throughput advantages to help make up the difference. Removing the center alley can help make up the cost difference.

  • Be aware that durability is an issue when there are a lot of moving parts and electronics in the harsh environment of a hog barn, Brummer says. Buy a product that can hold up to the extreme conditions, he stresses.

  • Understand there is a learning curve that comes with owning an auto-sort system. “You've got to commit to learning how to operate the system, train the pigs and manage the information,” he says.

  • Decide how you will treat sick pigs and remove dead animals. “This is probably the largest challenge of large-pen production,” says Brummer. “Properly locate hospital pens in an area that is not hot or cold and is hopefully close to the doors for pig removal.”

  • Understand there is very limited research data at this point on automatic sorting technology. “Track your closeouts and look at your own return on investment,” he says.

  • Be sure that the information at the scale head gets into the office or desktop, or to the person making the selling decisions for your farm, he concludes.