Tips for Training Gilts to Use Electronic Sow Feeding (ESF)

The transition to group sow-housing systems and electronic sow feeding (ESF) means many adjustments, but producers are learning from each other as they adopt this technology. Many buildings are either being retrofitted for ESF or built new with pens and ESF systems.

The reasons for the switch to group housing can be debated, but the bottom line is that times are changing. The pork industry is moving forward with a new paradigm that includes pen gestation. More importantly, they’re making it work without sacrificing productivity.

Jennifer Brown, ethology research scientist at the Prairie Swine Centre in Saskatoon, Sask., says sows can be housed in a much larger group with ESFs than the traditional 20-30 sows in floor feeding or shoulder stall systems. She says that for sows managed in larger groups, the aggression level drops and boss animals adopt a different social pattern when in a larger group.

Sows have RFID ear tags that the computer recognizes when they enter the ESF. It allows sows to be fed tailored, individual amounts that can be customized by increasing the amount or quality of feed or supplements as they get closer to farrowing. They can be put on individual feeding curves based on their body condition, and reproductive performance.

Best practices continue to be developed as the number of buildings with group-housed sows steadily grows. In fact, it is estimated that about a third of the U.S. herd is now housed in some type of group housing system.

“We believe that over the next five years that percentage will continue to increase significantly as a response to market demand,” notes Pedro Mosqueira, DVM, technical services manager at PIC North America. “There are many aspects of group housing that farm staff need to be aware of and prepared for, such as the use of electronic sow feeders (ESF). This way of feeding is foreign to gilts and therefore training is not only necessary but fundamental to the success of ESF use.”

Consistency, Discipline and Planning
Gilt training for ESF systems can be achieved in different ways, but Mosqueira notes that certain basic protocols are necessary to achieve success.

“Consistency, discipline and planning are critical,” he explains. “If gilts and sows aren’t trained properly with these things in mind, it could result in feed disruptions during the critical early gestation period, lower reproductive performance, higher culling rates and higher mortality. It can also create staff frustration and anxiety.”

Both owners and employees should be well-prepared prior to gilt training, and they should also understand that training will take extra time compared to a conventional sow farm.

Mosqueira says it’s important to put a specific person in charge of the training procedures, and for all trainers to demonstrate consistency when training begins (when gilts are between 20 to 24 weeks old). In addition, it’s best to start training procedures on a Monday in order to get the first of the training over before the weekend begins.

Look for more Part Two of this series next, on management and training related to electronic sow feeding.