By Curtiss Littlejohn
Sow Products Manager
Canarm AgSystems  

Moving on Up 
Two basic housing arrangements must be considered for loose housing

Do you remember your very first day of school, or when you graduated from elementary school and moved on to high school?

Each of these stages presented you with a new, bigger environment, and exposed you to more people than you had been previously. When young, immature gilts are introduced to a training area before being exposed to some form of group housing, they have a similar experience.

 In most forms of Electronic Sow Feeder (ESF) systems, there are two basic types of housing arrangements: Dynamic groups of sows, and Static groups of sows.

As defined by the Oxford online dictionary, dynamic means a “process or system characterized by constant change, activity, or progress.” Therefore, in a Dynamic group system, the composition of sows is constantly changing. Every week or cycle sees a partial depopulation and repopulation of the group taking place. So by default, the social structure within the group adjusts itself on various levels to the new order within the pen. You will find that small groups of sows within the larger group tend to form sub groups within the main group and move, eat, and sleep together with their group mates. This tends to occur for varying reasons, most often due to physical size, parity, and days of gestation. These subgroups will often choose to relocate to a different location within a different area of the larger dynamic group pen as the large dynamic group changes with the addition or removal of sows.

My personal observation of sows within Dynamic groups suggests to me that although group sizes can vary, sows typically perform better in large Dynamic groups of over 150 sows. I have worked with Dynamic groups with as few as 75 sows and larger Dynamic groups approaching 320 sows. I find that Dynamic groups are only limited by the capacity of the feeding equipment, barn design and staff ability to manage the group. The simple matter of staff trying to locate a sow that has not eaten or does not eat consistently can be a challenge when the group size gets too large.

A Static group is formed and placed within the pen prior to seven days post-breeding, or after 35 days post-breeding, and then remains constant or Static until the group is moved to the farrowing barn. Dropouts are removed from the group and the extra sow place(s) is not refilled or replaced. Once the social order is established, it will remain constant for the duration of gestation.

Static Groups can be almost any size, depending on the feeding equipment you choose. A small pen of 10 to 15 sows that remains intact as a unit from breeding to farrowing is a simple Static unit. Depending on the overall herd size and farrowing pattern, you could have up to approximately 300 in a single Static group.

As with any grouping system, there are trade-offs and each system has its strengths and weakness. When the time comes to make a decision on Static versus Dynamic systems, you must consider all of the potential variables in your operation, which can include: herd size; flooring type; grouping requirements; is your farrowing schedule weekly, bi-weekly, batch rotation; does your work force consist of all family labour, long-term experienced employees that require little to no supervision, or short term employees with a larger turnover and less actual pig experience, and whether you intend to provide bedding to help reduce aggression, thermal comfort and satiety.

Floor feeding may result in a lower capital cost, but higher feed cost due to wastage and potential for larger variation between sows, as there is no way to control per animal feed intake. Shoulder stalls are another low cost option that can be used, but will increase aggression, result in a lower farrowing rate and require more staff time to monitor as there is no record of sow movement or feeding pattern. Boss sows will still be able to gain access to more than their share of feed, resulting in thin and fat sows. As with all groups that use a competitive feed system, cost savings up front must must be seriously considered and weighed against the long-term issues of increased feed cost, lost productivity and longevity, and potential increase in management costs.

The type of ESF you choose to install can also impact the decision. How long will the equipment last? Galvanized units last up to eight to 10 years, while stainless steel can last 20 years or more. The capacity of ESFs varies widely, which can have a direct impact on the size of the group, as well as the amount of effort and time required to train new arrivals. Some stall- type feeders have a very limited capacity (as low as 15 per feeder) while some ESFs have a capacity up to 80 sows per feeder. Many feeders are “simple” in appearance but require a significant increase in the actual number of units needed. They can also be limited to simple feed functions, increasing management demands and reducing the ability to use larger groups to eliminate aggression and injured sows.

Some questions you need to ask yourself when considering an ESF are: Do the ESFs you are looking at have a single management program for herd management and feeder management, or are you dependent on a daily information push to your ESF? Does the equipment provide feedback that is linked to productivity to evaluate system performance and drive improvement? What is the potential to easily convert or upgrade your ESF as you look forward to being able to implement precision feeding for your gestating sows, and how can you accommodate that with the system you are developing? Will you be renovating an existing barn, or will a completely new barn be designed, timed with a herd expansion? Will you be a commercial producer or working with a specialty market?

Grouping sows into either Dynamic or Static pens is one part of the development process as you move towards loose housing. SowChoice Systems offers the most versatile and wide-ranging choice of ESFs in the market today, developed based on actual farmer input and requests. SowChoice Systems builds housing systems to meet your exacting farm requirements, maximizing your ability to continually exceed your goals.