Animal health is an important component of pork production. Group housing of sows can pose challenges when an animal needs to be isolated and treated. It depends on the type of illness or injury as to what care the animal should receive. Minor cuts or scrapes that need attention may be treated in the pen by calmly isolating the sow, treating her, and releasing her back into the group. Bigger challenges arise when a sow becomes compromised and needs to be separated to ensure her quick recovery.
However, an important issue with modern barns is maximizing space per animal and return on equity (ROE) of the barn. Every inch needs to be productive, which means you also have to put a value on the space dedicated to animals that are compromised to ensure their well-being.
(credit: South Dakota State University)
Examples & Considerations
Each producer must determine his or her own personal investment in a hospital pen. Producers in some countries have a required minimum area for these pens. Denmark implemented legislation in 2005 establishing the following requirements for hospital (relief) pens:
- Accommodate not less than 2% of animal spaces and always have one free pen ready
- Have a minimum of 3.5m2 (~38 ft2) unobstructed free area
- Pens for more animals can have 2.8m2 (~30ft2 per animal)
- Have a maximum of 3 animals/pen
- Two-thirds of pen is soft bedding (e.g. rubber, straw)
- Climate control with cooling and heating options
General considerations regarding hospital pens in the U.S. include:
- Accommodate at least 1-2% of the pen stocking rate
- Location should facilitate easy removal or transport of an animal, if needed
- Being near the “vet room” or barn entrance adds convenience for caregivers to observe animal health more frequently
- Free from cool drafts; supplemental heat and lighting is helpful
Both sow welfare and caregiver efficiency can be improved by giving careful thought to hospital pen characteristics within group housing systems. First, determine how many hospital pens may be needed for your barn design and group sizes. Meeting the recommendation of space for 1% to 2% of the stocking density can take many forms. It could be one large pen used for an entire barn, which comes with challenges.
One pen limits the ability to provide more individualized treatments and feeding if multiple cases exist; for example one sow may be severely lame while others need to gain body condition. Other sows may have severe lacerations or vulva bites.
Additionally, choosing the location of the hospital pen has potential trade-offs. Locating it at the entrance of a barn could mean compromised sows have to walk long distances, or the farm needs equipment (e.g. sled, cart) to humanely move the sow.
A Danish company was developing a mobile hospital pen for transporting sows which could be beneficial in these situations and provide extra temporary hospital space. Another option is having one hospital pen per group pen. Ideally, the hospital pen would be located adjacent to each group pen for quick sorting by caregivers. Obviously, this option provides shorter distances for compromised sows to travel. This option also means fewer animals in each hospital pen, improved observation and less competition.
More pens add construction and maintenance cost, but in the long run, the additional cost could be offset by improved employee efficiency, better individual sow care, and faster return to good health.
What features do you want to provide to improve recovery time? Sows may still require supplemental heat during illness, but to a lesser degree than nursery or grower pigs. Investing in pen options that provide both heat and cooling features is more important with sows depending on barn design and ventilation. Maybe this means using solid panels to limit drafts or having heat pads on-hand, or additional fans for cooling.
Floor type also impacts sows. Slats may be convenient for manure management, but they do not necessarily provide the increased cushion a lame sow may need. Investing in rubber mats or evaluating the logistics of providing natural bedding like straw or sawdust can provide benefits.
The Bottom Line
Regardless of your current group-housing sow management system, a few considerations regarding hospital pens could improve animal welfare and caregiver efficiencies. Both can be economically beneficial, enhance sow recovery, and improve consumer perception of pig care practices.