Why group sow housing? Evaluating loose sow housing options

Loose sow housing for both the North America pork industry is now part of most new sow facility construction and renovation discussions. The majority of major retailers, and food buyers are imposing requirements, pushing swine producers in that direction.

"When they hear about gestation crates, they think animal welfare issues," says Jennifer Brown, ethology research scientist at the Prairie Swine Centre in Saskatoon, Sask.  "The pressure was put on retailers to source meat from producers who don't use gestation crates."

The updated Canadian Code of Practice for swine production, released in March of 2014,  requires that new facilities or rebuilds now house mated sows in groups.  By July 1, 2024, all mated gilts and sows must be housing in groups, individual pens, or in stalls where they can turn around or get exercise.

In the United States, the largest integrators are already moving quickly to group sow housing. Cargill recently announced all its company-owned sows at farms owned by Cargill Pork are now in group housing.

The scientifically proven animal welfare benefits of stalls aren't in dispute in the industry, but there are farms using group sow housing that are now surpassing the excellent results achieved in the past with those using stalls.

There are several ways to implement group sow housing in sow barns.

These include:

  • Electronic Sow Feeders (ESFs)
  • Access  stalls
  • Group floor feeding
  • Short stall or shoulder stalls

Group Housing with Electronic Sow Feeders

Electronic Sow Feeders are the most advanced technology to the market for group housing options. They can have a smaller barn footprint than a conventional stall barn and provide more square footage per sow.  Work done by the Prairie Swine Centre clearly shows that in new barn construction lower capital costs are a direct result of Electronic Sow Feeders.

Differentiators among ESFs on the market include:

  • Standard 304 stainless steel construction versus galvanized metal
  • Easy availability of parts
  • Simplified Integration with herd management software
  • Sow flow through rate
  • Actuator style - Electric / pneumatics / biological

Brown says that sows can be housed in a much larger group with ESFs than the traditional 20-30 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 which 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.

"It has traditionally been difficult to find top quality herd managers for sow barns," says Brown. "With the introduction of ESFs, tech savvy people may take more of an interest in working with sows because of the technological component of ESFs. Producers can get by with fewer staff, but they need to be more technically competent."

ESFs provide a huge amount of data which can integrate with other software tracking performance. The Canarm SowChoice Systems ESF fully integrates with industry leading PigCHAMP Swine Management Software. It also works with other herd management software.

Gilts and sows must be properly trained to use an ESF. Brown says younger sows are quite easily trained, but older sows can be more difficult.

In addition to being capital-cost effective,  ESFs ,with savings in feed, labour and space as well as fewer injuries and potential for increased productivity,  results in continuing long term pay back greater than other options for loose or group housing .

Access Stalls:

Access stalls provide complete protection from aggressive sows for timid or weaker sows. Similar to gestation crates in size, gated stalls allow sows to back out of the stall and walk freely in a common area and then go into a gated area prior to feeding time. 

"This is the system we have at the Prairie Swine Centre," says Brown. "Although used mainly for research, gated stalls in producer barns allow easy flexibility for a manager to treat a sow if she is sick, breed her or top up feed if she needs extra."

Gated stalls are the most expensive option for producers requiring a stall for every sow and a larger space foot print providing for the lose area where sows comingle. Due to the fact that sows are free to choose the stall where they eat, it is often difficult in these types of barns to maintain optimal body condition.

The major advantages are the system is really easy to manage, and there is no competition for food as sows can isolate themselves during feeding and from more aggressive sows.

"European producers used gated stalls early on when they went to group housing, but many have since moved on to ESFs," says Brown.

Floor Feeding:

Brown says floor feeding is the simplest and is the traditional ways group-housed sows were fed. Feed is dropped in four corners of the pen floor and sows eat from there. Some barriers need to be set up so sows are not competing as much for piles of feed. Floor feeding does promote competition amongst sows.

"Floor feeding is more suited to smaller herds with a hands-on management style," says Brown. "There is more potential for sows to lose condition or become lame. Managers must keep an eye out for overly aggressive sows or those falling behind and remove them from the group.

Floor feeding requires the least cost upfront when renovating or building a barn as there is very little equipment required, but do typically require as much as 10 per cent more feed and have a higher pregnancy drop out rate.

Short/Shoulder Stall Feeding:

Short stalls are built into a trough to reduce competition while sows are being fed. Coming back to their shoulders, the stalls provide a physical barrier for sows.

Feed is dropped into the common trough, either being thrown in or through trickle feeding. Trickle feeding where feed is automatically dropped into the trough at the rate the slowest sow eats her feed to allow to eat her fill.

Reducing competition somewhat, herd managers still need to be on the lookout for sows falling behind and separating them out.

Short stalls do require more penning and more space than floor feeding, but are a relatively easy renovation to an existing barn.

There are many options for group housing for producers and not all systems will work for everyone. It is best to discuss options with industry and extension personnel or your local agriculture equipment dealer, such as complete supplier Canarm AgSystems to find what will suit the management team as well as barn building and producer goals.