In 2005, Jimmy Tosh felt the time was right to step away from gestation stalls in favor of pen gestation with an electronic sow feeding system.

When James Coates was named production manager for Tosh Farms' 21,000 sows in August 2006, owner Jimmy Tosh listed the slumping reproductive performance of a 3,400-sow genetic multiplier unit near Martin, TN, as his top priority. Farrowing rates had dipped to 50% in some groups; sow mortalities had climbed to 20%.

When Tosh built the multiplier unit in 2005, he felt the time was right to step away from standard gestation stalls in favor of pen gestation equipped with an electronic sow feeding (ESF) system. But subpar performance the first year of operation was unsettling, and Tosh challenged Coates to “fix it.”

With little documented information available, and limited experience in managing sows in pens on ESF, Coates and the 15 employees at the site dug in their heels to learn how to manage the facilities better.

The site includes two, 121×301-ft. gestation barns, each divided into two rooms. The rooms have several 41×28-ft. gestation pens, equipped with the Osborne TEAM system. In addition, each large room has 108 breeding stalls, two, 41×28-ft. training pens and four, 16×21-ft. recovery pens.

Their efforts have paid off. In the past year, farrowing rate has risen to over 80% and sow mortality rate has dropped to just over 11%. “It is now one of our best performing farms,” says Jimmy's son, Jamey Tosh.

In 2007, pigs/sow/year (PSY) was 25.19 for inventoried females at the Martin site, compared to 24.6 at the next best performing sow unit in the Tosh operation. Pigs born alive stood at 12.9/litter compared to 11.9/litter. The Martin unit recorded 10.7 pigs weaned/litter, a half pig better than the next best unit. Non-productive sow days were 41.48, nearly six days higher than the unit used for comparison.

Coates, site manager Jennifer Moore and the Toshes are remarkably open about the challenges at the Martin site. “There was no silver bullet,” says Coates, explaining that performance improvements were the result of many small management changes. He offers half a dozen key lessons learned:

  1. Address foot and leg problems.

    Foot and leg problems were prevalent from the start. “You name it, if it could happen to feet and legs, we had it,” Coates says. “We had long toenails, broken dew claws, broken legs and cracked hooves that were infected.”

    Autopsies confirmed the feet and leg problems were taking their toll. “Every sow had the exact same thing wrong. It was nothing internal. It was all chronic infection through the feet, legs, knees and joints,” he says.

    The broom-finished slats were abrasive to the sows' footpads, which caused sows to shift their weight backwards to alleviate pain. This tendency allowed toenails to grow longer.

    Since then, the cement slats have smoothed out somewhat, but slat quality is something to pay attention to, Coates emphasizes.

    To combat fungal infections, which can contribute to softening of hooves, gilts and sows now walk through copper sulfate footbaths as they enter the isolation unit and when they are moved to gestation pens. The footbaths, purchased through a dairy supply catalog, look like giant stamp pads.

    “We select for feet and leg structure and give some attention toward aggressiveness. I know aggressiveness is hard to select and breed for, but (we want) animals that are not as aggressive (in this system),” Jimmy Tosh says.

  2. Take steps to curb fighting.

    Coates says many of the foot and leg problems stemmed from injuries during scuffles and scrapes when gilts and sows didn't get along.

    Early on, two problems were identified. Gilts were over-conditioned, while some sows were very thin at weaning. The thin sows invariably got bullied.

    Adjusting the ad lib feeders in the farm's 21 farrowing rooms and switching from a pelleted diet to a mashed diet helped improve post-lactation sow condition. Better condition translates to less fighting, Coates says.

    “There is a lot of fighting involved in this system,” Coates admits. To prevent a steady stream of skirmishes, gestation groups are held static. No new females are added to pens to replace fallouts.

    The farm upped its pen stocking density after a visit from veterinarian Joe Connor, Carthage (IL) Vet Clinic, in the fall of 2006. Connor suggested increasing sows per pen from 60 to 65 to limit extra space and keep the most aggressive gilts and sows from bowling over the others.

    “I thought it was crazy at first, but it worked to slow down some animals,” Coates says. Extra gates will also be added to create smaller, protective alcoves within the pens.

  3. Training gilts is a priority.

    Gilts enter the multiplier unit every eight weeks from the farm's 300-head nucleus herd, also housed at the Martin site. Gilts spend six weeks in an isolation unit (not equipped with ESF) before being moved to training pens with ESF when they are 30 weeks old. Ideally, the gilts are trained for a minimum of two weeks prior to breeding.

    Gilts and sows are bred in stalls, where they remain for 48 to 72 hours after insemination, before being grouped and moved into a gestation pen.

    During training, customized gates divide the training pens in half with the feeding station serving as a one-way route between the two halves.

    “Before employees go home in the evening, they move all the animals to the side with the entrance to the feeding station,” Coates says. The next morning, they know which gilts have used the feeder.

    Reluctant gilts are coaxed into the feeding station by feed sprinkled inside the station and an open side door. The process is repeated as needed. “Employees have to be able to multi-task because training is ongoing throughout the day,” Moore says.

    One to two percent of gilts are culled because they never learn how to use the ESF system.

  4. Deal with equipment problems immediately.

    Equipment downtime causes particular problems because it takes at least 20 hours/day to feed all of the sows with the ESF system.

    “The sows have to be fed all day, every day, because this is on-demand feeding,” Coates says. Sometimes, that means extra hours for site manager Moore to work out software problems.

    “She understands that if the system isn't working and sows aren't getting fed, it is not only (welfare) unfriendly to the animals, but you are going to have reproductive problems and lose performance,” Coates says.

    The farm keeps extra hardware, such as air or water lines and even plug-and-play electronic components, on-site. “It's not that they (Osborne) can't get us parts overnight, but if it breaks, we need it now,” he says.

    Since Tosh Farms rely heavily on alternative feed ingredients, Moore and her crew also must calibrate the feed system often to ensure feed is delivered accurately.

    Coates says animals in the ESF unit use less feed than Tosh facilities with gestation stalls. “We have more accurate feed delivery here so we are using less feed to maintain much better condition,” he says.

  5. Large pens don't work for fallouts.

    Large, 16×21-ft. recovery pens were originally designed to hold 15 fallout sows, but Coates and Moore have discovered that large pens aren't conducive to healing injuries.

    Whenever an animal is added to the pen, the social environment is upset, causing more fighting and new injuries. Plans are to divide the recovery pens to hold only four or five gilts or sows each.

  6. Acceptance is key to success.

    Jamey Tosh says the early problems at the Martin facility partly stemmed from an internal “it won't work” attitude toward the group pens and ESF system.

    “People thought it wouldn't work, so they weren't getting in there and making it work,” he explains. “Having the right mindset is key.”

    “People have to want to focus on this system to make it work,” Coates agrees. And, he is quick to applaud Moore and her team for their commitment to addressing problems early.

    “Any problem is bigger here than at a stall (gestation) farm,” Coates says. “Things get blown up and multiplied.”

    Jimmy Tosh is convinced that a pen gestation system can be managed to match performance results in a stall system, providing the managers are up to the challenge.

    “Day-to-day care of the animals is virtually the same with the exception of walking the pens. Locating animals that need treatment might require a higher level of husbandry,” he says. “It takes a different level of management — more attention to detail because of the technical aspects of the system.”

    Tosh also feels the facilities offer a better work environment. “There is better air circulation and less noise, and it's just a much more pleasant work environment,” he says.

    Future plans at Tosh Farms include expanding two recently acquired, 550-sow units into two, 2,500-sow, large pen units with ESF.

    When asked about the expansion, Jimmy Tosh is cautiously hopeful. “No doubt the next one will go a whole lot smoother because we have learned what to do and what not to do. We are still learning,” he says.