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  • Robert Drew

Maybe going backwards will be a step forward for ESF

Updated: Mar 13

In my last article, I looked at one reason the Conventional (front exit) ESF is starting to trend down as the “ESF of choice”, since the Free-Access ESF design started to get traction, about 5 years ago. Maintenance and Repair.


Some of the top producers are already replacing Conventional ESF equipment with less than 10 years of use. Not acceptable, not sustainable and just one reason many producers choose stanchions when they had to decide for a feeding system for group housing. After all, nothing much moves on a stanchion!



I can understand why several of the large integrators continue to stay with stalls or use stanchions, having observed what happened with ESF since the early 2000’s. However, 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?


I trained my first sow to a back-out style ESF station, in England, in 1986. A slow time- consuming process in a system with cumbersome neck transponders that came off the sow on a daily basis. I spent many nights wathching 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” as the British would tell us!


“Back in the day”, we’d asked 45 sows to compete for 1 (rear entry/exit) feeding station, per pen. We understood very little about animal behavior and should not have been surprised when dominant sows would basically live at the entrance to the ESF after they fed, in order to “stick a good hiding” into any timid sow brave enough try to enter HER feeder! If one did sneak in, there was a good probability she didn’t want to backout, for fear the bully sows would make a meal of her hind end! This often resulted in the timid sow laying down in the feeder and going to sleep! Not a good result either way!



With the high cost of electronics, back in the 80’s, this problem was circumvented by introducing the front exit ESF feeder. Pen designs changed to make the big racetrack, so that returning to the feeder entrance was more inconvenient for the sow. This in turn led to large dynamic pens and more additions and technology were added to the Conventional ESF, such as selection gates, sensors, air valves, corridors, weigh scales . . . the list goes on. The Europeans saw North America as a “golden market” for group housing. As the equipment became more complex, the price trended upwards. History has now seen several manufactures of Conventional ESF come-and-go. A simpler solution has now become the norm, as producers look at alternate housing systems for sows, other than stalls, that comply with both packer and consumer demands.


Pen design and stocking density, for group housing of any kind, is a key to success. With ESF there has been plenty of information for many years that will tell you around 22 sq./ft for sows and 20 sq./ft for gilts is optimum. If you chose to reduce this for money saving reasons you will see compromises. I’ll say no more because it’s really just common sense and basic knowledge of pig husbandry that provides those answers!




Understanding hierarchy


“There are more ways to kill a cat than choking it with cream!” – Charles Kinsley 1855

This proverb, used by the British Historian and Novelist from the mid 1850’s, is appropriate in the conversation on Group Housing sows in 2020! After all, what we are aiming to do is get the right nutrition, into the right sow, at the right time! The truth is, all group pen designs work (be it Floor Fed, ESF or Stanchions), layouts, feed station style, ratio of sows per feeder etc. it’s more about, how well do they work? My advice is don’t build compromise into your group housing system!


Dominant sows (or gilts) will always exist in a group of animals. It’s all about the pig’s love of food! Remember, as we design group housing systems, we must do our best to help facilitate those sows that are less aggressive, to give them an equal chance to ‘feed without fear!’


In the world of conventional (front exit) ESF there are several features on each of the feed stations, along with pen design, that determine throughput of animals every 24 hours. This number can range from around 45 to 70. With the newer technology and design, using the rear entry/exit ESF, I would go “all-in” and say that, for this design, 15 sows per feed station is the ‘sweet spot’. In both cases, in an attempt to persuade customers, your salesman may have you believe his or her ESF will feed a few more than the next persons, to justify the economics of their sales pitch.. So beware don’t be ‘choked with the cream!’


Conventional ESF needs to feed a pig quicker in order to get all sows fed in the pen in 24 hours. Water is added and gates will automatically open following the last feed drop (clean up period), access to feed will then be taken away, in an attempt to force the sow to leave. The rear entry/exit feeder allows the pig to feed at her own pace and leave once she’s done (usually to go and take a drink, as no water is used with this style of ESF, by design). Let’s do some simple math, for a 24-hour feeding period, using some conservative numbers –



1 Conventional ESF @ 60 sows / 4 sows average per hour feeding = 15 hours of feeding time per ESF each 24 hour period


1 Rear entry/exit ESF @ 15 sows / 2 sows average per hour feeding = 7.5 hours of feeding time per ESF each 24 hour period


Those that have managed ESF pens will tell you that their number 1 priority is, “To have no sows on my not-fed list”, every day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. This list in predominantly made up of the timid sows in the pen. So, the more time the system gives them to feed the better.

More sows per ESF feeding space, creates more stress on lower hierarchy sows, more stress on people and a longer not-fed list! FACT!


Think of the extra work for your people finding un-fed sows to escort to the feeder, think of the 5%-10% of timid sows that are compromised (and likely culled early) and NOT the 90% + of animals that feed unassisted. When we use stalls the choice on stocking density is made for us,t’s 1 sow for 1 stall!Give someone group housing pens, put in ESF, and tell them the optimum number is 60 sows per pen then come back in 6 months and there’s 70 in each pen and apparently “nearly 10% of my sows don’t eat daily”. I’ll let you do the math!


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.”

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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