Ten years ago, Sean Dolan and his father, Jim, hooked up with Aaron and Kenny Cook to invest in equal shares of Newton Pork, a 625-sow, breeding-gestation site near Coggon, IA. In 2002, the Cooks built another sow unit and sold their shares to the Dolans.

Like most hog facilities, the Newton Pork operation's gestation stalls and feeding system began to show plenty of wear and tear after a decade of use. The 1997-vintage breeding-gestation barn's cement troughs were leaking and feeding tubes were badly rusted, making feeding more “by guess and by golly” than the individual sow feeding they were designed for. Additionally, Sean felt the 22-in.-wide stalls were too narrow for big sows. “We knew we had to do something,” he relates.

Dolan's search for remodeling options began in earnest in late 2006. A key consideration was their shared finishing capacity for 6,000 pigs — Sean and his brother, Mark, each with a 1,500-head, wean-to-finish barn, and their dad with a 1,000-head nursery that flows pigs to two, 1,000-head finishers and another 1,000-head wean-to-finish barn. All barns are divided into 500-head rooms.

“In January 2007, we moved from continuous farrowing to group farrowing in a two-week rotation because we saw the benefits of having single groups going into the finishers,” Sean explains. Two rooms of 24 crates each are filled every two weeks.

Although he prefers gestation stalls, having sat through numerous meetings of the National Pork Producers Council's animal health and food safety committee and the U.S. Animal Health Association's animal welfare committee, Sean saw some major changes in sow housing coming. “Dad has always instilled in us to try to stay ahead of the curve, so I thought I would get a jump on the pen-style housing,” he explains.

Various group pen configurations and electronic sow feeding were considered. In the end, Sean chose a large pen design with a trickle-feeding system. The extensive remodeling plan was set in motion on June 1, 2007, and what followed was a series of sometimes “hard lessons” that he shares openly in hopes that others might benefit from what he has learned.

Hard Lesson No. 1

The first lesson came with the decision to temporarily move the sow herd into two outside lots. Breeding and feeding challenges ensued, and the penalty for this decision showed up later in the form of much lower farrowing rates.

“The sows were strung out when we moved them back into the gestation barn, so we were behind the eight ball right from the start. Looking back, if we could have found a finisher for temporary sow housing, that might have been better,” Dolan says.

Remodeling Package

The first remodeling challenge was that there were very few trickle-feeding systems installed in the country, so first-hand knowledge about installation and management was hard to come by.

Dolan turned to local equipment and service providers he was familiar with. The first order of business with the large pen design was the ability to identify, track and sort sows easily and effectively. Eastern Iowa Pork (EIP) Mfg., Earlville, IA, had equipped other buildings, and they helped coordinate a package that included the Automatic Gestation System (AGS) manufactured by Schick Enterprises. Automated Production (AP) Systems and Big Dutchman provided feed drops and delivery lines.

Four rows of gestation stalls (448 stalls) were removed. Feed delivery lines, feed drop boxes and controllers were installed. The AGS sorter was positioned over a slotted floor, adjacent to an alleyway that runs the length of the building.

Here's how the system works: Each morning at 6:30, the system automatically turns on the feed delivery augers to fill the adjustable drop boxes with 2.25 lb. of feed. At 7:15, the controller actuates the automatic cable system (like those used for natural ventilation curtains) to raise the drop box balls and engage the starter motors. As the feed drops into the second feed line (below the drop boxes), the auger turns at a rate of 3.5 revolutions/min., slowly moving feed to an offset feed drop tube that delivers feed to an 18-in.-wide concrete slab, divided by 18-in.-long gates anchored at 22-in.-wide increments. The feed drops at the rate of ¼ to ⅓ lb./min. A timer allows the sows 20 minutes to eat. The feeding cycle is repeated in the afternoon, thus allocating 4.5 lb./sow/day.

“One of the reasons for the trickle feeding is sows stay at one (feeding) station,” Dolan explains. “The theory is the sows will realize that they can't get feed any faster by going station-to-station.”

In mid-December, on the advice of John Sonderman, technical service manager for Danbred North America, Dolan moved the feeding times closer together — to 6:45 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. — in hopes that the heavier “boss” sows would load up during the first feeding, giving the more timid sows a better chance of getting the feed they need during the second feed drop.

“I feel the switch has helped,” Dolan says. “The sows seem more content when I walk through during heat checks.”

After sows have eaten, they generally move through a one-way gate into the water court equipped with two, 4-ft. stainless steel water troughs. Then, at their leisure, they will gradually move back through the AGS sorter, their only access back to the feeding and loafing area.

Every sow carries a Destron-Fearing radio frequency identification (RFID) tag. “The tag reader logs each sow when it goes through the sorter and performs a function if one is assigned to a tag,” he explains. “If it is programmed to sort a sow out for farrowing, she will be sorted into the alleyway. Thin or light sows can be sorted to a smaller pen where they receive extra feed.”

The AGS task management feature will also paint sows to be vaccinated or pregnancy-checked, or when they have lost their tag. Sows with unreadable or lost tags are allowed through the sorter, but they are spray-painted a specific color, making them easy to find and retag.

“The sorter times out at about 8 seconds and lets them go through, so they don't disrupt the flow,” he notes.

Dolan's barn has two pens with water courts at the ends. One has 192 feeding spaces, the other 240 feeding spaces. When filled to capacity, square footage per sow drops to about 17.5 sq. ft.

“I think that's too crowded, so we try to keep 165-170 sows in the smaller pen (Parity 0-3) and 200-220 in the larger pen (Parity 4 and above).”

More Hard Lessons

Initially, Dolan was concerned about constantly adding sows to groups. “It seems with a dynamic group in these larger pens, the sows don't fight a whole lot when you introduce new sows,” he says. “The newly weaned sows will fight amongst themselves for a while, but the others don't really bother; they just stay out of the way.”

At weaning, sows are held in stalls until they are bred, then added to the group the next day. “I usually wait a day to be sure they are out of heat. I don't want them riding and hurting themselves or the other sows,” he says.

“I figure if they've been in a farrowing crate for three weeks, then they sit in a gestation stall for another 35 days (post-breeding), they're sitting there for eight weeks without much movement. Then if you put them in a pen and expect them to move around to get food and water, they're likely to be sore for a while,” he adds.

Herd performance numbers suffered as they worked through the sows coming in from the outside lots. He still struggles to hit 80% farrowing rates, but in the summer-fall of 2008, pigs born alive/litter hovered between 11.1-11.4 and weaning average has held between 9.8-10.2 pigs/litter.

Sow mortality rates are nearly twice what they were with gestation stalls, however, rising to 15% at times. “It's mostly feet and leg problems,” he explains.

Sows are walked through a footbath containing copper sulfate as they go to farrowing rooms and as they return to the gestation barn. “That's helped,” he says. “But, you have got to have a dedicated spot for lame sows so they can be treated, because they don't respond well (to treatment) in the big pens.”

In an effort to reduce the number of torn dew claws, Dolan also removed most of a bar that ran down the center of the sorter to prevent sows from lying down there. It has helped.

And, he's reduced the level of distiller's dried grains with solubles fed in gestation diets because manure was building up on slats and making them slicker.

One challenge he didn't anticipate was how group housing has brought out the orneriness in sows. “They are a lot more independent,” he explains. “They are tougher to move. I think it's because in stalls they were limited in where they could go. Now, they are so used to an environment where they go here to eat, walk through the one-way gate to get a drink and walk through the sorter to lie down. Even when we move them from one pen to another, like when they move from the Parity-3 pen to the Parity-4 and higher pen, they will be messed up for a week. They'll try to walk through the sorter to get to the water area — just because it's facing the other way.”

Another big hitch in sow flow is making sure sows don't get jammed up as they move through the sorter. It's important to have breaks in the feeding station rows every so often so sows can move away. “Some sows think they have to lie by the sorter and greet every sow that comes through,” he says.

Gilts are a whole different challenge. They are reluctant to go through the sorter, so they have to be pushed through.

“Some gilts are really timid; they are not used to a big group because most of them have been in a (breeding) stall for a while, so when they get out in a pen and get moving, they fight and get sore. It's a good week before some of them catch on to the sorter and one-way gates to the water court,” he continues.

To help resolve the problem, Dolan has added one-way gates and water courts to the pens in his gilt isolation barn to pre-train them.

Recently, he penned off a section of the large pen and added a water trough for about 30 gilts. “I plan to breed and gestate the gilts in this pen so they are used to eating at the feeding stations,” he explains. The first group were also the first gilts pre-trained to the one-way gates in the isolation unit.

Finally, there's the simple matter of which ear to put the RFID tag. The tag reader in Dolan's sorter is on the left side, so sows are tagged in the left ear.

“Do you know how hard it is for a right-handed guy to tag a sow in the left ear — especially in a large pen?” he asks. “You're always reaching across yourself to put the tag in. We could switch the reader to the other side, but then we'd have to switch all of the tags. It's something to think about.”

Do It Again?

“I thought the trickle-feeding system would be less work,” Dolan admits. “It's not less work; it's just a different kind of work. It's totally different than managing stall-housed sows.

“If I were building a new unit, I might build a different system. But in a remodel, I probably would put this system in. I'd add more solid area and put more breaks in the feeding stall rows so the sows could get away from the sorter more easily.

“I do like the fact that if the sorter goes down, I still have the ability to feed sows. With some other systems, hand feeding is not an option,” he says.

“If you're thinking about making a change, ask a lot of questions, because there's definitely going to be some challenges,” he advises. “It has a steep learning curve.”

One challenge he didn't anticipate was how group housing has brought out the orneriness in sows. “They are a lot more independent,” he explains. “They are tougher to move. I think it's because in stalls they were limited in where they could go. Now, they are so used to an environment where they go here to eat, walk through the one-way gate to get a drink and walk through the sorter to lie down. Even when we move them from one pen to another, like when they move from the Parity-3 pen to the Parity-4 and higher pen, they will be messed up for a week. They'll try to walk through the sorter to get to the water area — just because it's facing the other way.”

Another big hitch in sow flow is making sure sows don't get jammed up as they move through the sorter. It's important to have breaks in the feeding station rows every so often so sows can move away. “Some sows think they have to lie by the sorter and greet every sow that comes through,” he says.

Gilts are a whole different challenge. They are reluctant to go through the sorter, so they have to be pushed through.

“Some gilts are really timid; they are not used to a big group because most of them have been in a (breeding) stall for a while, so when they get out in a pen and get moving, they fight and get sore. It's a good week before some of them catch on to the sorter and one-way gates to the water court,” he continues.

To help resolve the problem, Dolan has added one-way gates and water courts to the pens in his gilt isolation barn to pre-train them.

Recently, he penned off a section of the large pen and added a water trough for about 30 gilts. “I plan to breed and gestate the gilts in this pen so they are used to eating at the feeding stations,” he explains. The first group were also the first gilts pre-trained to the one-way gates in the isolation unit.

Finally, there's the simple matter of which ear to put the RFID tag. The tag reader in Dolan's sorter is on the left side, so sows are tagged in the left ear.

“Do you know how hard it is for a right-handed guy to tag a sow in the left ear — especially in a large pen?” he asks. “You're always reaching across yourself to put the tag in. We could switch the reader to the other side, but then we'd have to switch all of the tags. It's something to think about.”

Do It Again?

“I thought the trickle-feeding system would be less work,” Dolan admits. “It's not less work; it's just a different kind of work. It's totally different than managing stall-housed sows.

“If I were building a new unit, I might build a different system. But in a remodel, I probably would put this system in. I'd add more solid area and put more breaks in the feeding stall rows so the sows could get away from the sorter more easily.

“I do like the fact that if the sorter goes down, I still have the ability to feed sows. With some other systems, hand feeding is not an option,” he says.

“If you're thinking about making a change, ask a lot of questions, because there's definitely going to be some challenges,” he advises. “It has a steep learning curve.”