Simplicity is the Ultimate Sophistication in Group Housing... Most of the Time!
With multiple choices for feeding systems for group housing, the US producers has been extensively educated over the last 2 decades on “the best” methods to feed their sows. The transition to group housing has been slow, to say the least. Many producers have opted to do what is the easiest alternative to satisfy the request to “get ‘em out of stalls” and moved sows to small pens or stanchions. I am confident that eventually history will show us that competitive feeding systems, such as these are, was a reactive move and not the answer!
ESF was the ‘promoted system’ for group housing in the US from the early 2000’s. The message was coming from Europe that “this is the way to do it!” In the early days of ESF in the UK the cost of the electronics, relative to today, really drove up the cost of production. Eventually some 40% of the industry disappeared. In addition, of those that remained, another 40% eventually moved to outdoor production. Today electronics are affordable, and technologies are way more advanced. However, what has happened in the US is that the ESF group housing concept that was introduced by us Europeans overlooked the importance of a key equation for success that is specific to many US producers and Integrators alike.
Scalability of concept + availability of labor x building cost
Competitive feeding for sows, be it stanchions or small pens, is in my opinion NOT the best way forward for the US industry and will likely be proven as history continues to unfold. Higher feed cost, bullying at feeding, increased stress, high sow mortality, uneven body condition, high replacement rate... that’s why we put them in stalls in the first place, am I right or have I missed something?
When a group housing system is too simple there is a compromise for the sow but when it becomes too complex then the compromise is with the people. In most cases production is affected as a result of both! I don’t believe that either “too simple or too complex” is likely the sustainable answer for group housing in the US! There is a lot to think about and the decision should be carefully evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Having worked extensively in both the UK and US with the traditional front exit style ESF, I was confident that “you had to do it this way.” I will hold up my hand, I have been proven wrong! It is a good job that I am passionate about group housing and not about being right! There are now more cost-effective and simpler ESF type solutions for Group Housing available to the US producer then there was 5 years ago that should not be over looked.
I had worked with an ESF feeder made by Hunday in 1985. This was a walk-in/back out style with a single feed station per pen. We would have around 40-45 sows to feed in 24 hours. Once you learn about hierarchy of sows in a group it became evident that, daily, you would see the same sows get their food first and then dominate, by aggression, the timid sows in the pen to prevent entry to the station. Vulva biting was common, and the timid sows would soon realize if they waited long enough then some nice guy would give them the red-carpet treatment and escort them daily to the feeder to eat!
As time progressed a front exit was added to the ESF which certainly helped reduce aggression, closely followed by adding separation pens, heat detection etc. All of which worked well (most of the time). The producer was happy and so were the manufactures as they got to sell more equipment!
When I first saw the ‘re-invention’ of the back-out ESF in Canada around 2014 I was with a fellow Brit that had also seen the revolution of group housing some 30 years previous. We looked at it, shook our heads and as we walked away unified in our opinion that, “it’ll never work!” Wrong again... and here’s why.
The cost of the technology today and the redesign of the hardware allows for a massive reduction in the ratio from 1:45 to around 1:15 sows/per feed station. It totally changes the game!
The feeding period compared to the conventional front-exit ESF is drastically reduced and if feeding is related to a stress... need I say more! Multiple choices for feeding source allows for sow hierarchy to easily be established. The so-called ‘fear of additional training and increased need for extra labor’ with ESF is minimized, as the competition for entry to eat is diminished. What’s more, the building cost is decreased for the GDU as gilts do not need to be moved to the entry side of the feeder (half of the pen space) before being encouraged to pass through. So, from 14 to 16 sq. ft. needed per breeding gilt to get them trained and familiar with the system, is back to a more cost effective, traditional, US space requirement.
What about dynamic v static? Or to complicate it even more, many of the top producers that started with dynamic ESF pens are now operating these as “static/dynamic!” Confused yet?
So, from experience, dynamic works. Selection works. Heat Detection works. However, unless you are confident that all the details surrounding dynamic pens can be adhered to, every day for the next 20 years by your people, you may want to reconsider the idea. Some producers have tried to copy what others have done successfully, only to find out the results were not the same. It takes more equipment (that’s why some manufactures will attempt to force dynamic your way), more technology, more electronics, more to go wrong, more animal training and is harder for farm staff to understand. ALL FACT! Having said that, in the right hands, it works great!
As an industry the static systems using some form of ESF technology will likely be a better fit for most US producers once they realize that taking the simpler path with competitive feeding, with stanchions and small pens, may not have been the wisest choice.
We must remember that no group housing system is perfect. No matter how acceptable the system may be in principle, without diligent, competent stockmanship the welfare of any livestock is in jeopardy! Group housing is so much more than choosing the way you feed the sow. It’s not about buying feeding equipment, it’s about finding solutions for all areas of the operation to see our Industry in to the next decade and beyond. The stall offered us a non-competitive system that allows individual feeding. We can still do that with group housing in such a way that we can cater to both the producer and the employee, as well as the sow. If we continue to ignore all technology, we will go backwards as an industry. Both Poultry and Dairy are showing us the way. Think of the future. What will it look like 10 years from now? Will we have the answers to the questions that will undoubtably continue to be asked of us?
You must pick your path with your group housing decision whether it is dynamic or static ESF, front exit or rear exit, or maybe you are just more comfortable with stanchions. Never forget that it is the PEOPLE on the slats that tend to determine the success of whichever system you chose!
Let’s not make group housing any harder than it needs to be.
Grandview Farms is a family farm, owned and managed by the family for 5 generations.
Over the years they continue to grow and now have 11,000 sows, farrow to finish.
When looking at the software Grandview wanted to improve efficiencies, reduce the time spent with recordkeeping and have more control. Other considerations were to be web-based, real-time and cost effective. Grandview was ready to change from a traditional record keeping system where they kept sow cards, transferred the data weekly to data sheets, and those data sheets were sent into the office for data entry. As you can imagine this process is not very efficient, not to mention the data corrections that were needed. With a traditional system real-time reporting was not an option, data was sometimes up to 4 weeks behind. Data access and reporting were very limited as the data was stored off site on a local system.
Grandview Farms had a deep well-established relationship with Maximus due to installing Maximus Controllers at many of their sites including their two sow farms. When introduced to Maximus Software, Grandview had already known Maximus for superior products and support. Maximus Software offers a web-based solution with mobile data acquisition that is extremely efficient. The data is secure in a private cloud network and is accessible 24/7/365 via the Internet.
“The software along with the RFID tags has saved a lot of time and duplication of record keeping. We have also seen a significant cost savings.”
- Tom Dittmer, Grandview Farms, describing the adaption of Maximus Sow Software
The Maximus Sow Mobile application to collect data works online and offline therefore being connected to the Internet at all times is not required. The Application is very easy to use and easily adopted by farm personnel and is available in multiple languages. The application includes data error logic which ensures data integrity. The Mobile Application also has an activity dashboard and simple action lists built in for things such as due to farrow, due to wean and so on. The Maximus Software team was able to convert all our historical data overnight and Grandview had no down time. Training employees was simple because of the well written interface which uses icons. The Mobile Application also allows for using RFID tags which proves to be very effective and saves a lot of time and duplication.
“Today using Maximus Sow Software we have streamlined the data flow. This has allowed us to greatly improve accuracy, efficiencies and time spent on record keeping. Also, having self-reliance and control inside our operation. Finally, there was a significant cost savings.” Said Tom Dittmer, owner Grandview Farms.
“We pride ourselves on our responsive support and implementation team, all who have real production experience.”
- Lisa Butler, Maximus Solutions Manager
Tom also stated “The Maximus Software Team has been instrumental in helping with the transition. To this day, whenever a question comes up, staff members reach out directly and they get back to us right away with either a solution or are able to help us troubleshoot.”
With the Maximus Sow Software, farms are able to respond to production concerns in a much faster manner. Features like breed targets and pigs projected to wean are standard features. Customers can also customize and manage the reporting they need in real-time. Tom stated “Maximus Sow Software is simple and easy to use, we use less paper, our records are more accurate and utilize real- time data for better decisions has been a great success for us.”
“If you do not measure it then you cannot manage it.”
“If you cannot manage it then you cannot improve it.”
Not having a process and tools in place to measure performance is like an athlete not having a stop watch to gauge success in their timed event. How can an athlete address their weakness and improve if they cannot measure their performance?
As an athlete, today’s chicken is growing at a logarithmic pace. It is not uncommon to have broilers achieving growth rates of over 5 grams per hour, laying fowl encroaching on an incredible egg a day and breeder performance improving even with the consequence of success of their progeny. With such improvements, we are left in a world of accountability each and every minute. Accountability means we must write down what we do, do what we write down and prove it. Record keeping starts with data collection, which in turn stimulates discussion, which will lead to direction and if need be discipline! As mentioned, field performance is at an incredible pace, high expectations established in live production and in processing returns. Much can be attributed to genetic potential. Depending on which trait we are considering, genetic traits do have a limit! The factors that have an effect on genetic potential are in the hands of the operation. Figure 1 considers the importance of nutrition, health, environment and management. With optimization of these critical components, genetic potential can reach a level of excellence needed for profitability and efficiency to meet today’s standards in sustainability and welfare.
Considering the four components in today’s field performance requires accountability. Requirements in health programs, feed formulation, management details, and environmental inputs all have to be maximized for positive returns. To manage these details requires data and therefore measurements in the production chain. Once we have a process and are able to measure the output then we can start applying quality improvement methodologies. It is our goal to have a continuous circle of planning, doing, checking and acting upon.
The question now is “What to Measure”. No doubt we want to measure activities, critical control points and results that are important to achieve our company’s goals. Key Performance Indicators or KPIs help to define and measure those critical points making the progress towards the companies defined goals.
Brooding parameters of young stock stands out as the most important process to follow. Critical to success in providing healthy viable chicks is to measure all details that are impactful for the chicks finding that comfort zone. Chick vent temps, crop fill, uniformity and 7 day weights are critical criteria for performance and understanding the challenges that impede success. When people follow the process and measure it then management will be able to act upon it to ensure continuous improvement and above all health. Gut integrity, a competent immune system, growth rate and musculoskeletal development will be enhanced.
The hatchery is another critical component of overall chick health and production return. Hatch profiles differ between breeds, hatch windows need to be predictable and age of breeder considered. The way to optimize these variables for hatch efficiency is data collection. Evaporation rates, egg temperatures, chick yields, turning frequency and angle with concluding chick vent temps are some of the critical data points to consider. Lack of attention to detail for each and every hatch will have detrimental effect on disease prevention, hatch and cull percentage, body weight and even bursal health. From maximizing egg pack standards, to egg set, to hatch process, to chick pull and service, data is our tool in making the management and maintenance changes to maximize chick output and above all chick health.
Production is no different. On a bigger scale and using advanced automated tools and sensors, management can now measure and manage feed, lighting, air, water, space and security (figure 2). These new management tools are becoming more user friendly with remote capabilities. Advanced technology married with efficient software capabilities allow management to optimizing environmental parameters for growth and prosperity in the poultry production chain. Like “having a brain in the barn” figure 3, the manager can now manage bird behavior and bird potential each and every minute.
In conclusion, measuring only is not a replacement for management. Measuring, a valuable action tool, is complementary to management. Measure what you can and take it seriously, adjusting the equipment and the environment for health and production return. There is no room for error in our production systems. Birds perceive change, tolerate little hence vitally important to measure and manage each and every minute. Remote auditing and review with active managerial input is the key for success. Remember to measure what’s important, review the metrics and benchmarks, reward people for exceeding goals and keep fine tuning for success.
About the Author
"The pen is designed to allow animals to exhibit natural behaviors. Lay down protecting their reproductive organs, eat when they want to eat, establish a pecking order are all instinctive habits that help reduce stress and increase longevity"
There are five essential parts of successful group housing systems, according to Dr. Lisbeth Ulrich Hansen, chief scientist with the Danish Pig Research Centre:
• individual feeding
• adequate space allowance
• stable groups of sows
• close daily inspection with sufficient hospital pens for disadvantaged sows
• effective gilt management prior to first service
Individual feeding is the most important factor affecting reproductive performance. According to the Centre’s research, the ability to feed sows individually enhances both farrowing rate and litter size compared with stanchion systems, free-stalls, long trough, or floor feeding. She prefers static grouping systems because they are based on weekly breeding groups, are easier to manage, and don’t require an automatic separation facility on the ESF feeder. This means the ESF station can be simpler and cheaper, and it won’t break down as easily as stations used for dynamic grouping systems.
In static systems, groups of sows are moved into pens at the same time, grouped by projected farrowing dates, and kept intact (except for drop-outs) during gestation. No new sows are added to the original groups. This system makes managing the gestation barn easier. Static grouping helps each pen of sows to form a stable social hierarchy which reduces competition. It also allows sows easier access to and from the feed stations. Advocates of static grouping systems say that static groups are better than dynamic groups because they are better for sow welfare and produce lower levels of aggression. No new sows and a faster time to create a stable social structure (dominance hierarchy) are two reasons. Another is that static groups are smaller than dynamic which also helps to reduce aggression. Recently completed research done at the University of Pennsylvania helps support the advantages of static group systems (Hurst J, Pierdon M, Parsons T. Physical and behavioral indicators of animal welfare on farms using electronic sow feeders. In Proceedings, American Association of Swine Veterinarians Annual Meeting [San Diego, CA], 2018.). On 11 ESF sow farms in Pennsylvania, they compared static v. dynamic groups as well as pre-implantation v. post-implantation mixing.
Comparing static v. dynamic grouping systems, their results showed that:
• Sows in static group systems had improved measures of physical welfare: fewer scratches and less lameness. Static systems allowed for a more stable social hierarchy to form and decreased aggression.
• Sows in static housing were less timid (they had more contact with a novel object and higher human approach scores).
• Overall productivity was not different between static and dynamic housing systems.
Pre-implantation or post-implantation grouping of sows?
The most common management strategy today is mixing after pregnancy check. This means keeping sows in individual stalls for the first trimester of pregnancy and then moving them to group housing. Using this method, barn staff have the ability to individually feed sows, do heat checks and watch for returns, and do pregnancy checks in stalls.
When they compared pre-v. post-implantation mixing, the University of Pennsylvania study found that:
• Sows mixed post-implantation had more positive human approach scores.
• There was no difference in measures of physical welfare (scratches and lameness).
• There was no difference in sow productivity.
Personal experience with static ESF systems
Joel Phelps, co-owner of Paragon Pork, a 20,000-sow production system in Ontario, has converted his own as well as many other sow farms across North America to ESF group housing using the Maximus ESF technology. He is now an ESF specialist for Maximum Ag Technologies, working with producers in the US and Canada as they install Maximus ESF systems when remodeling or building new sow farms. Here are some of his recommendations for success based on that experience: Pre- v. post-implantation mixing: “Mixing sows right after breeding disrupts the pen and increases the barn size requirements. We want to keep them in stalls first and then form groups after they have had a positive pregnancy check.”
Static grouping: “We found that it is not necessary to separate animals in pens by size or parity. We fill pens by due date, we try avoid any sow from coming into heat in the pen, and we try to reduce competition for feed. Filling pens by due date and mixing all parities after they are confirmed pregnant reduces the competition for feed and reduces the stress level within the pen. Following this approach, we found that gilts do learn from older sows how and when to eat.”
Feed station: “Being able to accurately feed sows individually can have the greatest impact on productivity. Sows must have the opportunity to eat at their own pace, in a safe and comfortable space. We use feed stations where sows and gilts will back out after they are finished eating. We’ve had no problems with this and think it’s one of the keys to success of simple, mechanical feed station design. The feed stations should have a solid area at the bottom. And an opening at the top so sows can see out. Sows outside the station should not be able to contact the sow in the station. The feeding dispenser should be adjustable and easily set to accurately monitor and dispense feed.”
Pen design: “In our experience, pen shape and layout have the biggest impact on sow longevity. Sleeping areas should be separated from the feeding areas, the drinking areas, and the dunging areas. Pens should be laid out so that sows from any point in the pen can see into the entrance of the feeding stations. Stations should be separated to avoid funneling all sows to one area at feeding time.” “We use double, side-by-side stations to avoid sows taking ownership of a station. Water should be outside the feeding area to encourage sows to finish up eating and exit the pen to drink. Water should NOT be in or around the sleeping areas to keep the sleeping areas dry and comfortable. Sows should not be forced to walk through or by another sleeping bay to get to feed, water, or the dunging area.”
“The sleeping areas and pen separation gating should be solid at least 1/3 way up – this allows sows to exhibit normal behaviors and lay with their reproductive organs protected. Multiple pass-through gates are important, so caretakers can enter and exit the pens quietly and calmly. Climbing over gating or opening and closing gates can startle the sows and cause disruption in the pen. Plan for one hospital space per feed station to pull lame, injured or unthrifty sows from the group and allow for recovery.”
"Climbing over gating or opening and closing gates can startle the sows and cause disruption in the pen"
About the Author