Researchers at Iowa State University (ISU) have been encouraged by sow performance and the economics of group sow housing in hoops as an alternative to gestation stalls.

“We found reproductive performance can be maintained or enhanced in well-managed group housing systems for gestating sows, such as deep-bedded hoop barns, without increasing labor,” says Mark Honeyman, animal science professor and coordinator of Iowa State’s Research Farms. “We also found group housing may produce pigs at a lower cost than individual gestation stalls in confinement facilities. And the pigs may qualify for expanding niche pork markets.”

The effects of two gestation housing systems on sow and litter performance were compared at an ISU-managed farm in southwest Iowa for 2-1/2 years. One system featured individual gestation stalls in a mechanically ventilated confinement barn with partial slats and a manure flush system. The second system involved group pens with individual feeding stalls in deep-bedded, naturally ventilated hoop barns.

Researchers tracked 957 litters from 353 sows. They found sows in hoop barns gave birth to more live pigs/litter than sows gestated in confinement stalls.

Peter Lammers, ISU graduate research assistant, speculates one reason sows in the two hoop barns may have done better was due to the bedding and extra space for the sows.

“The presence of bedding and the ability to huddle together or maintain distance between animals may have enabled the sows gestated in hoop barns to have more control over their thermal environment,” he says. “Because the hoop barns are a lower-cost shelter, we can allow each sow more space. Also, the feeding stalls allowed us to manage the sows as individuals, although they were kept in groups.”

Construction costs of the two systems were also evaluated. “The estimated construction cost/gestating sow for group housing in hoop barns was $552, compared with $815 for individual confinement stalls – a 32% reduction,” says Jay Harmon, ISU professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering.

Operating costs were similar for both systems. “But total costs/weaned pig are less for the system utilizing hoop gestation,” reports James Kliebenstein, ISU economics professor. “And when the increase in the number of live pigs produced/sow in the hoop barns was taken into account, the group housing of gestation sows resulted in a weaned pig cost that was 11% less than the cost of a weaned pig from the individual stall confinement system.”

Labor requirements may be a toss up, but the skill sets needed to manage group sows are unfamiliar to most producers and would require increased experience, according to Honeyman.