New feeder design improves sow body condition and helps boost pigs-born-alive average.

About three years ago, Iowa Select Farms set out to do a better job of feeding sows in lactation.

“We work and work and work to get people to feed sows more consistently,” states Howard Hill, DVM and chief executive officer at Iowa Select Farms (ISF) based in Iowa Falls, IA. “Sows are often hand-fed two or three times a day with a scoop and feed cart.

“When you ask them, ‘how much feed is in that scoop?’ they'll say, ‘that's 5 lb.’ But is 5 lb. a full scoop or a heaping full scoop? They really don't know how much they are feeding,” he asserts.

“Our goal was to develop a more consistent feeding program that could keep lactation feed intake high. We wanted a low-cost, low-maintenance system that also saved labor.”

A pretty tall order, Hill acknowledges, but Iowa Select's production staff set to work with two equipment suppliers to meet the challenge. Through trial-and-error and a series of refinements, the system that evolved now has the sows feeding themselves.

The labor saved has been redirected to the important task of saving more pigs. An additional payoff is the assurance that feed disappearance is now a more accurate measure of actual feed consumption, having eliminated the estimated 10% feed spoilage that most often was scraped from feeders and dumped into the pit.

Evolution of a Sow Feeder

Iowa Select began testing feed delivery systems in a pair of 4,000-sow farms, one equipped by Cablevey, the other by Automated Production Systems (AP). Both carried feed to adjustable feed drop boxes mounted above each farrowing crate. Timers were set to drop feed from the boxes three times daily.

“Both systems allowed us to feed as often as we wanted, they both saved some labor and they both operated as advertised,” Hill says. “But we still had to adjust each drop box for each sow. Someone had to decide whether to cut the sow's feed back or how much to increase it. If a sow is overfed, it doesn't matter if you're feeding her with a scoop or an automated drop box if that feed gets wet and nasty, it still has to be cleaned out, which more than likely means it's dumped into the pit, so that problem hadn't been solved.”

Continue Reading on Next Page...

Feeder Components

The slanted portion of the PVC pipe is set with about a 1/3-in. gap. When set properly, there shouldn’t be much more than a cup of feed in the feeder at any time.

Hill describes the evolution of the automated lactation feeding systems as “a community effort,” with input from equipment suppliers and Iowa Select staff.

He credits a Cablevey representative for the suggestion to cut a PVC drop tube to match the angle at the backside of the sow feeder. Someone else suggested welding a collar to the feeder to make it adjustable and hold the PVC pipe in place.

In the end, the new feeding system has five basic components:

  1. A shutoff valve above each farrowing crate feeder descends from the overhead feed supply line.

  2. A section of surgical-grade rubber tubing, about 1½-ft. long, is attached to the shutoff valve with a hose clamp. Some units have substituted a canvas tube for the rubber tubing.

  3. A section of 2½-in. transparent PVC pipe, about 2 ft. long, is attached to the bottom end of the rubber tubing with another hose clamp.

  4. A 3-4 ft. section of 3-in., white, heavy-wall PVC pipe is cut at an angle at one end to match the angle of the backside of the feeder. The transparent pipe sits loosely inside the white PVC pipe. It is important that the white PVC pipe extends above the top rail of the headgate to prevent sows from knocking the transparent pipe out of the white PVC pipe — a lesson learned with early versions.

  5. A 4-5-in. section of metal pipe, slightly larger than the white PVC pipe, is welded securely to the corner of the feeder. A ⅝-in. hole is drilled in this collar where a ½-in. nut is welded to receive the ½-in. bolt that serves as the adjustable set screw to hold the white PVC pipe in place. The PVC pipe is set with about a ⅛-in. gap between the angle of the pipe and the back of the feeder.

“Normally, there's about a cup of feed around the slanted end,” Hill explains. “Feed wastage is nil. Very seldom will a sow play with the feeder and overfill the feed pan.” If they do, the PVC pipe is simply adjusted down to make it more difficult for the sow to get the feed out. Once the gap is set correctly, additional adjustments normally are not needed.

“The bottom part of the PVC pipe is the piece that gets the most workout. And there's a lot of pressure there, so you need a good weld on the collar,” explains Greg Gilsdorf, ISF pod production manager.

The length of each feeder section depends on the height of the ceiling. The flexible rubber tubing and the free movement of the transparent tubing inside the white PVC pipe are important, because they allow the front gates to be swung open to move sows out of crates.

The feeding system is on a timer, set to fill each feeder column three times a day (9 a.m., 1 p.m. and 5 p.m.). A column holds about 8 lb. of feed, so sows can eat up to 24 lb./day.

Feed lines are set up to serve three rooms of 39 crates, which constitutes one loop. Iowa Select's configuration of nine rooms in a row requires three separate loops, each with its own master control.

“Don't try to cheapen the installation,” Hill warns. “If you put in a master control with a couple of slave units, for the master control to work, the slaves have to be empty. That means you have to dump all of the slave lines into a cart. We tried that on a couple of farms and we went back and put in the additional lines and master controls.”

Feeder Management

When a farrowing room is loaded with sows, all feed drops are turned off and sows are hand-fed. “You don't want them gorging themselves before they farrow,” Hill explains. Feed drops are generally opened 2-3 days after sows farrow.

The last chore each day is to turn the feeding system off. This is both a safety measure and a practical one.

Although it's unlikely to happen, they don't want to run the risk that a sow could knock the feeding configuration apart and have feed pouring into the pit all night.

The practical reason is it gives the farrowing room staff a quick visual check of the transparent pipes, which tells them which sows are not eating. Those sows are checked closer and treated, as needed. “That's about all of the management there is to the system. It's very user friendly,” says Hill.

Payback is Multifold

“For years, we were at about the same level, reproductively. The two things that changed when we implemented this feeding system were pigs born live/litter and litters/sow/year improved,” explains Hill.

“Litters/sow/year is a function of non-productive sow days (NPD). If more sows fail to breed at first estrus, you stretch out those NPDs and it affects litters/sow/year.

“Our litters/female/year has increased about 0.2, which is a big number when you have 154,000 sows. That's 30,800 more litters,” he states. “I can't say that's all attributed to the feeding system, but we know the sows are in better condition, and it has allowed us to reallocate our labor, so sows are better cared for at farrowing.”

The time spent in farrowing rooms has been extended from 7-8 hours/day to 12-15 hours by staggering employees' arrival times, Gilsdorf explains.

Normally, a 4,000-sow unit will have three rooms farrowing at a time — two heavily and one wrapping up. One person is dedicated to checking sows in the three rooms, assisting as needed.

“We dry the pigs off as much as possible and make sure they get nourishment right off, because they absorb that energy from the milk in a hurry. We also use a lot of hot boxes,” he adds.

“There are three main functions on a sow farm,” interjects Hill. “You've got to get sows heat checked and bred, you've got to get them farrowed, and you've got to feed them right.

“In farrowing rooms, you often have different people doing the feeding. This system takes some of the critical feeding issues out of the equation. It takes the decision-making away from the people and puts it on the back of the sow, if you will.”

“To feed sows right, it needs to be done by your best person — which would tie him/her up all day long feeding sows. We don't have that issue any more. Our best people are now saving more pigs,” Gilsdorf adds.

Both agree that one of the big advantages to the system is it ensures sows are fed what they need and want seven days a week. Iowa Select's 4,000-sow farms commonly have a dozen employees. Four people handle weekend chores.

“You can set up all of the standard operating procedures you want, but you know those sows are not going to be fed three or four times/day on weekends (if you are hand feeding),” Hill declares. “With this system, the sows will get all of the fresh feed they need if all somebody has to do is come in and turn the system on in the morning.

“It's one of the simplest things we've done and the results have been great, both from a labor and a sow condition standpoint. Sows come out of lactation in much better condition,” he adds.

Gilsdorf did a cost analysis for installing the feeding system in a typical 4,000-sow unit with 780 farrowing crates. With independent feed lines and master controls for each loop, he estimates the cost at about $125,000, or about $160/crate, including labor.