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  • Robert Drew

Group Housing – What does the pig see, that we don’t?

In the last of our 3 Maximus newsletters on ESF/Group housing, I am going to suggest we all take a step back and ask ourselves ‘what does the pig see?’.


I had the fortune several years ago to ride in a car to a PACCO auditor training session with Dr. Temple Grandin (Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University). Although our time together was brief, one comment Dr. Grandin made that has stuck in my mind since that day, that relates to group housing of sows is, “you have to be the pig. We often don’t see, what the pig sees!”

Group housing of sows with ESF is not about the pigs that feed every day, it’s about the ones that don’t feed!



We manage ‘not fed lists’ daily in most group housing systems. How do we get to where we don’t have a ‘not fed list’? Or, at least a list that our people in the barns can manage easily in order to allow them to do other tasks within the barn and not spend time “looking for sows!” Time = Money . . . correct?


As owners it is easy to focus solely on cost driven areas of group housing that are thought about on a new build or remodel. Building cost, how many sows can I house compared to stalls, the cost of equipment. All of these are important, however, don’t forget the people who take care of the sows AND the sows themselves. Replacement of sows in group housing, through deaths and culling due to over stocking pens, poor design of pens, feeder placement and subsequent poor performance, stacks up fast and is often overlooked when considering the obvious upfront costs.


Every group of pigs will have a hierarchy that won’t be easily visible. We need to go back to what we all learnt in PQA+ about the flight and fight zone of the sow. Especially the timid sow!


Pigs do not have particularly good vision. Their sensitive hearing and good sense of smell makes up for their poor sight. Pigs have color vision and a panoramic range of about 310 degrees and binocular vision of 35-50 degrees however it is thought that they have no accommodation, which means their ability to focus is limited.


If you watch a pig in a group housed pen for a long enough amount of time, you will notice certain behaviors that are common. This could be ways in which they conduct themselves, such as types of movement or the way they appear to look at things. You may notice a certain cock of the head or a point at which a pig moves away from a feeder indicating an implied threat, such as a sow guarding a feeding station. These behaviors, and more, are because of the way pigs see the world around them.



More important to a pig than vision is the ability to acquaint itself with its surroundings via smell as well as hearing. A calm environment is a good environment! Through sniffing and rooting, pigs can gather more information about their domain than through sight alone. The nose of a pig will convey the layout of its habitat, and should something be moved or changed, the nose will know, detecting such changes in smell. One thing we have found doing ESF pen layouts for several years is that by separation of feeders and multiple options to feed, the fear of entry to the feeder is minimized for the timid sow (which are generally your non, or infrequent, eaters!). Although single ESF stations in a pen will still work, where they are located up against a wall or fence line, it makes entry for those timid sows wanting to eat, much less attractive. Where multiple ESF feed options are available in a pen it does give sows more options to find feed, however, for the less aggressive sows ‘danger zones’ still exist where feed stations are lined-up, side-by-side.



Fear will always condition the animal's escape zone or personal zone. If at feeding time another sow enters into a timid sow’s personal zone, the animal will see itself in danger and will therefore move to get away and be less likely to enter a central feed station or a single feed station (see below). With observation you will tend to see the timid sows approach the feeding station from the side, rather than walk directly into the feeder. Evolutionarily the pig has learnt that if the danger comes from in front, or the side, then it is better to move away. This determines what is known as the balance point of the pig, which will determine the direction of the pig's escape in relation to the position of other sows So, by separating the feeders it give the timid sow an opportunity to approach all the feed stations with ease, knowing they have more chance of both entering the feed station AND, if necessary, escaping into their flight zone.



The more we know about the way pigs see the world and incorporate that knowledge into pen design and layout for group housing the better able we will be to anticipate their needs, giving them comfort and security, while making life easier for our employees in the barn. Choose wisely at the beginning and set up and design your group housing pens to be easy to manage and maximize production!


Drew adds, “When group housing is too simple the sow is compromised but then when it’s made too complex the people can become compromised. The result either way is that production suffers. No system is perfect, but I believe a balance of what’s best for both the pigs, people, and the US industry in the future, is achievable.”

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About the Author



Robert Drew

Robert Drew has well over 3 decades of experience that he brings with him to MAXIMUM AG in both Outdoor and Indoor sow production on a large scale. Along with establishing on-farm Quality Management Programs and Independent Consulting roles, Drew’s knowledge on group housing is a great addition for MAXIMUM AG and its customers. His first exposure to ESF technology was more than 30 years ago in the UK. More recently he has worked with many of the other group feeding systems in the US as the industry started to adapt to the European way of thinking.

I believe that Maximus can provide a foundation for true animal care through precision monitoring of all the critical areas of the production system. In addition, I feel by offering a simple, manageable solution for group sow housing, they have found what I would describe as “the middle ground”, that the US industry needs.”

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