Worn out equipment is part of farming and can make a big dent in your productivity. But it also creates opportunity. The options available to update your facility can put you in a good position to be productive for years to come.Sow gestation housing is a great example, says Tim Safranski, Extension swine breeding specialist at the University of Missouri.
“Most producers in the U.S. moved pregnant sows into gestation stalls to eliminate fighting and control individual feed intake, to improve animal well-being,” he says. “Today, some customers want them out of stalls with the same ultimate objective. While the science may not support that stance, there are group housing technologies available today that are very different than when most of our stalled barns were built.”
Keep in mind that no barn is the same, nor are all managers or employees the same. What works for someone else might not work for you, so choose experts to help you develop a plan for your farm’s future. Consider these three areas to effectively remodel your facility’s system and make it easy to use.
1. What’s Best for the Sow
When deciding to remodel your barn, try to “think like a sow.” What keeps her calm, so she can be productive? Minimizing aggression, providing adequate resting areas and eliminating congestion at the feeder entrance are important components of keeping sows peaceful and productive.
“The most important thing to consider when remodeling is the environment you want to create for your sows when the remodel is over,” says Brad Carson, vice president, Nedap Livestock Management, North America. “When you choose a barn management system with your sows’ needs in mind, your sows will be productive.”
From the slat and pen configurations to the feeder design, each part of your barn plays a role in sow care and her success.
“We’ve seen many successful remodels in barns newer than 10 years and older than 20 years,” Carson says. “We’ve seen remodels work with fully or partially slatted floors. Your barn’s attributes might impact the process of your remodel, but you can work around those physical aspects. What you can’t work around are your sows’ needs.”
Sows can develop feed-guarding habits if given the chance, so carefully evaluate feeder designs if you move to an open pen gestation environment.
Consider these questions: Can sows interrupt an individual while she eats, even when she is inside the feeder? What about when she is done?
An electronic sow feeder designed with front exits encourages one-way traffic through pens to eliminate negative interaction. This kind of design also prevents sows from returning to the entrance immediately after eating to guard the feeder or aggressively disrupt another sow trying to eat.
Giving every sow the opportunity to eat without interruption will allow her to maximize productivity.
In addition to reduced aggression, sows using forward-exiting feeders are more comfortable exiting both breeding stalls and farrowing stalls. The forward-exit motion is familiar, making exiting from the stalls easier on both the sows and the employees.
2. Do the Sow Math
To meet square footage requirements in group pens, you might need to be flexible with your sow math, Carson says. You might need to change the total number of sows in your barn. Or you might need to develop group sizes slightly different than in a new barn. To find the perfect fit, surround yourself with a team that has experience in all sizes and styles of group sow management.
“Don’t try to force something that works in someone’s new barn to work in your remodeled barn,” Carson says. “Whether you want to manage sows in static or dynamic groups, the right team can help you determine the right number of sows for your groups.”
3. Strategies During and After a Remodel
It’s possible for production to continue during a remodel, but it requires additional management. The first step is to adjust breeding targets to reduce sow inventory. This gives you room to pull out stalls and begin building new pens, if you decide to incorporate group housing. Another strategy is to find an alternative location to house your sows during the remodel.
When gilts arrive at Jayce Mountain Pork near Fredericktown, Mo., they’re taught to use the electronic sow feeding stations.
“This is the area where you either make it or break it,” says Walt Laut, an owner along with his brothers Don Jr., and Doug. “You teach them one little thing every day, and if you don’t do this part right, you’re wasting your time.”
He says the training process takes two weeks. Patience and positive reinforcement are required for each animal to be fully trained by the end of the first week.
Week two is used to teach the animals how to use the responder in their ear tags so the feeding station will dispense feed and record her number. From the data gathered when sows eat, employees know if a sow is off feed and can follow up to see what the problem might be, and correct it that day.
Sows tend to adapt more quickly to open pens after being in stalls, but training is still important.
“Many producers who have remodeled their barns repopulate their new pens with previously stalled sows that adjust quickly to their new environment,” says Carson. He notes that producers who are feeding formerly stalled sows in group pens say sows learn quickly to use individual electronic feeding systems because they have strong feed drives and know what to do when feed drops.
Body condition can be managed, but sow behavior in a new environment needs to be learned. As a result, Safranski says barn design and careful management are key.
“Based on science it is hard to abandon stalls,” Safranski says, “But I also know that a picture of a sow in a stall, especially with dim lighting, is a strong statement against them when I am sitting on a plane. That being said, even the EU allows use of stalls for early gestation.
“Part of the remodel consideration should include whether a combo system is acceptable (where vaccinations and mating will take place in stalls, and where sows remain until placental development is established),” Safranski adds. “At that point, body condition should be uniform, and pregnancy is established. Then our group housing system is much easier to manage, and many of the benefits of individual housing are achieved for the sow and the farmer.”
When you put your sows’ needs first and surround yourself with a great team, remodeling a barn can give new life to your barn for years to come.
“Every situation is different, and with remodels there are no cookie-cutter or one-size-fits-all solutions,” Safranski says. “What works bests in your situation is dependent on the facilities, desired animal flow, and the people/culture of your farm.”