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  • Robert Drew

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery with ESF!

Updated: Jan 21


In a series of MAXIMUS articles for 2020, I plan on discussing why the Conventional ESF has lost momentum in the US group housing market and a “new alternative” of Free Access ESF has started to emerge.



Having worked extensively in both the UK and US with the traditional front exit style ESF for over 30 years, 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 is now a cost-effective and simpler ESF type solution for Group Housing available to the US producer, unlike there was around 5 years ago. When the manufacturers of Conventional (front exit) ESF start to design, and sell, look-a-like Free Access (back out) ESF, something has changed!


There have been an increasing number of producers in recent years that, having jumped on the conventional ESF bandwagon in the mid to late 2000’s, now find themselves removing their investment much sooner than they planned. More recently, a top producer achieving over 30 p/s/y, with conventional ESF, has chosen to now use Free Access ESF – despite their success!


Ask yourself “Why?” As I dig in to answering this question, I will start by looking at R&M!


"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!" - Benjamin Franklin (1736)



“Too much maintenance!” One of the concerns that has been regularly expressed when producers look at ESF as an option for their conversion to group housing.

When the European designed ESF’s first hit the US market, in the early to mid-2000’s there was only one option to consider in regard to the basic design of the feeder. ‘Conventional ESF’, as it has come to be known, requires the pig to walk into the feeder, eat, and then exit forwards. At the time this reduced aggression at feeding time and allowed for easy separation of animals. The group sizes increased, with multiple ESF’s in one pen. I have seen as many as 700 sows in one pen, of all different parities. The dynamic pen era of group housing was born in Europe in the 1980’s and, generally, was based on research with much smaller farms that were typically ‘Ma and Pa’ owned!


Does it work? – Yes! Is it a “one-size-fits all” solution? - Absolutely NOT!


I have worked and consulted with several ESF manufactures that sell the conventional style of ESF. This was the ‘promoted system’ for group housing in the US during the 2000’s. The message was coming from Europe that, “this is the way to do it!” In the early days of ESF the cost of the electronics, relative to today, really drove up the cost of production. Eventually some 40% of the UK industry disappeared as mandates were in place for the banning of stalls and tethers. In addition, of those that remained, another 40% eventually moved to outdoor production. Today electronics are more affordable, and technologies are way more advanced. However, what has happened in the US is that the ESF group housing concept, that was introduced from Europe, overlooked the fact that labor to run these more sophisticated machines, both from a production AND maintenance aspect, are the cornerstone for their success. Something that many US producers and Integrators alike have found to be a challenge. Its all about the people!



The technology and engineering of adding to the ESF, more gates, corridors, air valves, sensors etc., is true genius! It is fair to say that it can be managed successfully, especially by those that embrace spending time watching, tuning and tinkering with equipment or that are lucky to have a truly stable workforce! However, many producers are finding that after having had these conventional ESF stations in barns for 8 to 10 years the longevity is just not there. Many are now taking them out as the level of maintenance and repair has become unacceptable along with the fact that it is hard to find the people to run the system year-on-year, as the shortage of quality labor has become the Achilles Heel for many!


Around 2013/14 the “Free Access Style” ESF started to appear. The cost of the electronics today and the redesign of the hardware allows for a massive reduction in the ratio of sows using each feeding station. The Free Access, back out style, feeder is around 1:15 sows/per feed station. The conventional ESF is typically around 1:60 sows/per feed station. It totally changes the game regards management style AND I am confident in saying, equipment maintenance and longevity! Let’s do the math!


For the sake of my argument we will pretend that each feeding, for each station, for every day. . .is a mile on the car! We’d like to think 15 years for equipment is achievable so -


With a Conventional ESF station, feeding 60 sows per day, here is the math -


60 sows per day x 365 days x 15 years = 328,500 miles!


With a Free Access ESF station, feeding 15 sows per day, here is the math –


15 sows per day x 365 days x 15 years = 82,125 miles!


Those of us that have been around ESF know that these numbers could easily be doubled as several more dominant sows will visit the feeder multiple times a day. (One of several reasons that I will cover in future articles of why multiple feeding options, in a pen, have an advantage!)


OK, so you have more stations with Free-Access ESF, but MUCH simpler technologies, with way less replications of use each day. I believe this is just one of the reasons that has caused the trend away from conventional ESF and more towards Free-Access ESF by many producers recently.


Come discuss with Robert Drew at the Iowa Pork Congress January 22nd to January 23rd and with the MaxAg team at all these winter shows




Robert 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.”

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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