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.