• Robert Drew


Updated: Jan 17, 2020

"The pen is designed to allow animals to exhibit natural behaviors. Lay down protecting their reproductive organs, eat when they want to eat, establish a pecking order are all instinctive habits that help reduce stress and increase longevity"

There are five essential parts of successful group housing systems, according to Dr. Lisbeth Ulrich Hansen, chief scientist with the Danish Pig Research Centre:

• Individual feeding • Adequate space allowance • Stable groups of sows • Close daily inspection with sufficient hospital pens for disadvantaged sows

• Effective gilt management prior to first service

Individual feeding is the most important factor affecting reproductive performance. According to the Centre’s research, the ability to feed sows individually enhances both farrowing rate and litter size compared with stanchion systems, free-stalls, long trough, or floor feeding. She prefers static grouping systems because they are based on weekly breeding groups, are easier to manage, and don’t require an automatic separation facility on the ESF feeder. This means the ESF station can be simpler and cheaper, and it won’t break down as easily as stations used for dynamic grouping systems.

In static systems, groups of sows are moved into pens at the same time, grouped by projected farrowing dates, and kept intact (except for drop-outs) during gestation. No new sows are added to the original groups. This system makes managing the gestation barn easier. Static grouping helps each pen of sows to form a stable social hierarchy which reduces competition. It also allows sows easier access to and from the feed stations. Advocates of static grouping systems say that static groups are better than dynamic groups because they are better for sow welfare and produce lower levels of aggression. No new sows and a faster time to create a stable social structure (dominance hierarchy) are two reasons. Another is that static groups are smaller than dynamic which also helps to reduce aggression. Recently completed research done at the University of Pennsylvania helps support the advantages of static group systems (Hurst J, Pierdon M, Parsons T. Physical and behavioral indicators of animal welfare on farms using electronic sow feeders. In Proceedings, American Association of Swine Veterinarians Annual Meeting [San Diego, CA], 2018.). On 11 ESF sow farms in Pennsylvania, they compared static v. dynamic groups as well as pre-implantation v. post-implantation mixing.

Comparing static v. dynamic grouping systems, their results showed that: • Sows in static group systems had improved measures of physical welfare: fewer scratches and less lameness. Static systems allowed for a more stable social hierarchy to form and decreased aggression. • Sows in static housing were less timid (they had more contact with a novel object and higher human approach scores). • Overall productivity was not different between static and dynamic housing systems.

Pre-implantation or post-implantation grouping of sows?

The most common management strategy today is mixing after pregnancy check. This means keeping sows in individual stalls for the first trimester of pregnancy and then moving them to group housing. Using this method, barn staff have the ability to individually feed sows, do heat checks and watch for returns, and do pregnancy checks in stalls.

When they compared pre-v. post-implantation mixing, the University of Pennsylvania study found that: Sows mixed post-implantation had more positive human approach scores. There was no difference in measures of physical welfare (scratches and lameness). There was no difference in sow productivity.

Personal experience with static ESF systems

Joel Phelps, co-owner of Paragon Pork, a 20,000-sow production system in Ontario, has converted his own as well as many other sow farms across North America to ESF group housing using the Maximus ESF technology. He is now an ESF specialist for Maximum Ag Technologies, working with producers in the US and Canada as they install Maximus ESF systems when remodeling or building new sow farms. Here are some of his recommendations for success based on that experience: Pre- v. post-implantation mixing: “Mixing sows right after breeding disrupts the pen and increases the barn size requirements. We want to keep them in stalls first and then form groups after they have had a positive pregnancy check.” 

Static grouping: “We found that it is not necessary to separate animals in pens by size or parity. We fill pens by due date, we try avoid any sow from coming into heat in the pen, and we try to reduce competition for feed. Filling pens by due date and mixing all parities after they are confirmed pregnant reduces the competition for feed and reduces the stress level within the pen. Following this approach, we found that gilts do learn from older sows how and when to eat.” Feed station: “Being able to accurately feed sows individually can have the greatest impact on productivity. Sows must have the opportunity to eat at their own pace, in a safe and comfortable space. We use feed stations where sows and gilts will back out after they are finished eating. We’ve had no problems with this and think it’s one of the keys to success of simple, mechanical feed station design. The feed stations should have a solid area at the bottom. And an opening at the top so sows can see out. Sows outside the station should not be able to contact the sow in the station. The feeding dispenser should be adjustable and easily set to accurately monitor and dispense feed.”

Pen design: “In our experience, pen shape and layout have the biggest impact on sow longevity. Sleeping areas should be separated from the feeding areas, the drinking areas, and the dunging areas. Pens should be laid out so that sows from any point in the pen can see into the entrance of the feeding stations. Stations should be separated to avoid funneling all sows to one area at feeding time.” “We use double, side-by-side stations to avoid sows taking ownership of a station. Water should be outside the feeding area to encourage sows to finish up eating and exit the pen to drink. Water should NOT be in or around the sleeping areas to keep the sleeping areas dry and comfortable. Sows should not be forced to walk through or by another sleeping bay to get to feed, water, or the dunging area.”

“The sleeping areas and pen separation gating should be solid at least 1/3 way up – this allows sows to exhibit normal behaviors and lay with their reproductive organs protected. Multiple pass-through gates are important, so caretakers can enter and exit the pens quietly and calmly. Climbing over gating or opening and closing gates can startle the sows and cause disruption in the pen. Plan for one hospital space per feed station to pull lame, injured or unthrifty sows from the group and allow for recovery.”

"Climbing over gating or opening and closing gates can startle the sows and cause disruption in the pen" 

About the Author

DR. TOM STEIN Doctor in Veterinary Medicine and Clinical Epidemiology, designer of the PigCHAMP software, co-founder of MetaFarms, nominated by National Hog Farmer in their “Top 50” most influential persons in the swine industry of the 20th century, rewarded for outstanding contributions to swine production and health by the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, Dr. Tom Stein is a world-leading expert and pioneer in modern swine industry. (651) 247-3925

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