Group Sow Housing – What have we learnt and where are we heading?
I recently had a veterinarian say to me, “The US Pig Industry still has a lot to learn about Group Sow Housing.” Why is that? It’s almost 20 years since some of the European manufactures of Electronic Sow Feeding (ESF) tried to ‘cash-in’ on the US market with over 6 million sows housed almost exclusively in stalls. Being European myself and having witnessed what happened on both sides of ‘the pond’, I believe I am qualified to pass on my theory of why we are still somewhat undecided and often misguided!
I helped train my first sow to ESF in England in 1986. A slow time-consuming process in a system with cumbersome neck transponders that came off daily. I spent many nights observing sows competing to gain entry to the feeder. Are we crazy doing this? By the time I moved to the US in 1993 many of the initial challenges were being worked out as the UK moved towards all sows being out of stalls and tethers by 1999.
“Keep calm and carry on!”
By the early 2000’s, following several years of pasture farrowing 6500 outdoor sows in Colorado, I took on a production managers role where over 30,000 sows were all housed in stalls. Believe me when I say that was a ‘true 360’ in my education on sow behavior! It was around this time that there were early signs of some US producers voluntarily moving sows out of stalls. ESF was the ‘promoted system’ for group housing that was coming from Europe, where a stall ban for sows was now also well underway.
As the decade progressed the US industry started to feel the growing pressures of ‘Animal Welfare’ and ‘Consumer Concerns’ and soon talk of the original “5 Freedoms of animals” became a common topic of discussion as activist groups tried to drag the industry through the mud. The one ‘freedom’ that caused the biggest challenge for the US producer was the ‘Freedom to Express Normal Behavior . . . by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of animals of its own kind.’ All of which was unfortunately left wide open to individual interpretation and was subsequently loosely written in to ‘the rules’ of group housing in the US!
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 the majority of US producer!
Scalability of concept + availability of labor x building cost
This was much less critical for the smaller European farms, where 500 sows is considered a huge operation. These farms may have 3 or 4 people working on them, and 2 of them are the owners! Go in to most pubs in England and there are half a dozen stockman sitting at the bar, they were plentiful. Drive 5 miles and you’re in the next town! In the US the industry was moving towards 5000 sow farms as the norm. Many in areas where its 50 miles to the closest town and now you need 20 people to operate the farm. Oh, and by-the-way, we’re building 5 farms!
I have watched the history of group housing evolve in the US. I believe that as an industry we must find a way that seeks out the middle ground for everyone, including the sow! The European cry of “It’s easy, you’ll love it, your people will love it” has now been proven to have its challenges. The more complex, conventional style of ESF has limitations for many US producer. I can understand why many of the large integrators continue to stay with stalls or stanchions having listened and observed what has happened since the early 2000’s. 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, right?
When a group housing system is too simple there is a compromise for the sow, when it becomes to complex then the compromise is with the people, in most cases! I don’t believe that either is sustainable for group housing in the US! It is an individual choice on the direction, but the consequences are huge!
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 us 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?
Maximum Ag Technologies I believe have found the middle ground in group housing, and then some! Surrounding a simple feeding concept that is easy to understand for employees, the Maximus controller also has the ability to monitor all aspects of the operation both at the farm level and remotely, giving producers a foundation to control their input costs. Not only does the controller precisely monitor the core principles of good stockmanship, Feed, Water and Environment, but it also provides vital information on biosecurity as well as supplying production data for management decisions. It’s a true all-in-one complete solution package!
Let’s not make group housing any harder than it needs to be.