A new sow gestation pen design is aimed at protecting market access.

Doug Groth, DVM, says the new pen configuration for sow gestation at Bluff Road Genetics is “another step at trying to stay progressive and live within the new marketing box and industry marketing constraints.”

Marketing pressure comes from Smithfield Foods' decision to phase out individual gestation stalls and the additive effect of sow stall bans passed in Florida, Arizona and Oregon. A similar effort to ban stalls was recently launched in California.

Groth is one of nine swine veterinarians employed at Carthage Veterinary Service (CVS) of Carthage, IL, which serves sow farms in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri. Bluff Road Genetics, LLC is a sow farm startup at Peaksville, MO, that is under construction and will be managed by Professional Swine Management, LLC, the production arm of the CVS group.

The farm is an 1,800-sow, farrow-to-wean, internal gilt multiplication system producing nursery-age replacement gilts for Art Lehmann of Strawn, IL. Groth says Lehmann sought a reliable, cost-effective means of accessing replacement gilts. Bluff Road Genetics, LLC will serve as a closed-herd supplier.

Only semen will be introduced into the single-site operation. Gilts and barrows will be shipped to owners for finishing.

More Space for Sows

In planning this new sow pen design with Automated Production Systems (AP), Groth says an overall consideration has been to provide extra space for the sows, while keeping the configuration easy for staff to understand and manage.

CVS co-owner Joe Connor, DVM, says there are five key components to the new configuration:

  • Crate bred animals until Day 35 of pregnancy. “This will allow recycles to be removed, real-time ultrasound to be completed to confirm pregnancy, and sows to be fed to achieve a body condition score of 3 while in crates,” he says.

  • Group sows after Day 35 in pens at 10/pen based on body condition.

  • Drop feed 3-4 times/day so animals will eat small amounts at one time to minimize dominant sow feed consumption and aggressiveness.

  • Provide 20 sq. ft./sow while sows are in the gestation pens.

  • Install enough stalls to house individual sows that may need to be moved from the pens.

Sow Placement

Sows will spend the first five weeks after breeding in traditional 2x7-ft. gestation stalls that provide 14 sq. ft. of space. Then they take the short walk to nearby gestation pens.

“The general rule is if you stay in that 16-18 sq. ft. range for pen gestation, you are probably okay,” Groth comments.

Each sow also has access to short feeding stalls. The stalls don't have backs but are just 22 in. wide and 22 in. deep to eliminate interference from other sows in the pen.

The AP feed drops provide feed on a flat concrete surface. They will be set to deliver feed 3-4 times a day as another precaution against feed being stolen by faster-eating sows, Groth notes. More frequent feeding cycles mean that sows will be eating smaller meals in a limit-feeding strategy designed to keep the feeding floor clean and dry.

The simple drop feeding strategy will make it easier to spot “off” or sick animals. “If a sow is slow to get up, or if there is an empty feeding stall at feeding time, it will be a little easier to identify those animals, and they can get treated or get the extra care they need,” he stresses.

Pens feature concrete slat flooring and a single, fence-mounted cup waterer to avoid water wastage into the 3-ft.-deep shallow manure pit.

The system is designed so each row of 86 stalls matches up to gestation pens that hold 86 sows, enabling animals to be moved from the stalls to fill adjacent row of pens.

This flow also matches up with the production schedule, according to Groth. Each week, about 100 sows will be bred with a target of farrowing 84 sows, with 8-9 pens available for a week's worth of breeding.

“So what you end up with is eight divisions of body condition by type, and possibly by parity, so you can group gilts and sows appropriately,” Groth says. This also helps set feed boxes based on body condition of the 10 sows in each pen.

Smaller Sow Groups

By housing 10 sows/pen instead of 40, more even feed distribution is provided. Ideally, the smaller pen size provides improved animal welfare for the animals and simplifies management, he notes.

“By going to smaller and smaller numbers, it forces producers to be more systematic in looking at the sows, so that husbandry is better and you get better individual sow performance,” Groth suggests. “Big pens have some great advantages, but you've got to have the right people to work in them.”

The extra move from individual sow stall to group pen may result in some losses, he admits. Sows are being placed in a more vulnerable environment when moved to a pen setting.

But Groth says the small pen density and the individual feeding stalls with solid wall dividers reduce competition for feed and may make up for much of those concerns.

Plus, with sows falling out of the herd from time to time, it's expected that a few of the 860 individual stalls will be available for sows that need to be removed from the pens to be treated or isolated.

Balancing Cost Issues

Providing nearly 20 sq. ft./sow modestly increases the cost of going to this stall/pen design, Groth explains. Throw in rising costs for steel, wood and concrete, and justifying this building project was a difficult decision for the rights to market access, he admits.

To compensate, some adjustments were made in building design to save space and reduce the cost. The feeding stalls were set up head-to-head to eliminate “head” alleyways.

Secondly, the gestation barn is a double-wide design, with the two sections separated by a 5-ft.-high center wall with open studded supports, permitting the whole unit to be cooled by one tunnel-ventilated system.

The double-wide concept is also more efficient for traffic and sow flow, Groth points out. The unit is 338 ft. long and 118 ft. wide.

The gestation/breeding barn is double-curtain-sided. Curtains will operate on an emergency-only drop basis to ensure animals have adequate air flow.

Along one side of the gestation barn will be a gilt development area. A narrow alley along one wall will be used for boars to walk by gilts to stimulate estrus.

The sow gestation facility is the first structure to be built at the isolated site. Next door will be the farrowing barn, and last is the nursery/office, in an L-shaped configuration, all three connected by enclosed, 50-ft.-long walkways.

Manure will flow out from pits in the three barns using a pull-plug system that carries effluent to a single, above-ground Slurrystore containment unit. The plan is to only pump out manure once in the fall. Neighboring crop farmers, who sold the land for the complex, will apply the manure to fields using a dragline injection system.

The first gilts were to be placed in the sow barn by the end of July and will be finished out in the gestation pens. Gilts will be introduced in phases, giving them time to adjust to the design, as the staff learns to manage the new system, Groth says.