Becoming believers in group sow housing
Horton says some of the “bad” girls seem to learn, “at Georgetown we had some that would fight, and then we pull them out for a day, and put them back in and they are better the next day.” Friedel says gestation crate space is available for the few sows (less than 1% ) who just do not want to get along with the pen mates, “so we’ll put her in there to get a litter out of her and then cull her out.”
Though the group of 10 to 12 sows is entered into a much larger grouping of 280 sows, the Thomas team has found it interesting that this smaller social group of 10 to 12 hangs together. “It’s interesting how they will congregate throughout the whole gestation,” Horton says. “You will find that some of the nesting area is empty, because these groups will nest together. … I tell my guys that when they’re looking for a sow, to take the list of all the new sows, not just the one because they’ll likely all be together.”
The transition for Horton and Friedel becoming believers in the group sow housing movement has taken TLC to the next phase, as work began in September to convert the Pigeon Ranch sow barn from a crate facility to a group housing gestation facility.
Some of the changes being implemented in the retro-fit of the Pigeon Ranch are walk-throughs between pens so that barn staff does not have to climb over partitions all the time. Friedel says swinging gates were also added at the back side of the pen to create a back alleyway to eliminate potential congestion in the normal alleyway, if sows need to be moved from pen to pen.
Prior to building the Georgetown facility, the Thomas crew heard complaints from others using an ESF system was that it was hard to train the females to use the feeding system. “So we thought if that’s the case, there’s a fear factor (of the gilts apprehensive about entering the feeding system), so why not implement things ahead of time to address that fear so they are not afraid to enter,” Friedel says. In that vein, TLC relies on Juan, a worker who Friedel refers to as the “hog whisperer” who is able to train the gilts how to use the feeding system with hardly speaking, and definitely no aggression when handling the animals. “We learned that training gilts was much easier when one person was working with them rather than several people creating chaos and anxiety within the group. Gilts learn to use the system and increase their feed consumption much quicker when kept calm,” Friedel says.
Even before the “hog whisperer” gets involved, gates with rollers similar to what gilts will encounter when entering the feeding system have been installed in the gilt development pens, so the gilts’ general curiosity will familiarize them with the gates’ workings before their next meal depends upon it.
Since it takes a special person to work with the gilts to train them in an ESF system, Juan was brought from the Georgetown facility to work with the gilts at the new Dove Farm startup. “Patience is the No. 1 virtue for this person,” Horton says.
“You have to have the gilts totally at ease with him in that pen,” Friedel continues. “If there’s any fear, the gilts won’t train as easily. You need them to be comfortable with him to perform the way that you want with no fear.”
Since Juan cannot be at every TLC sow farm, Friedel and Horton look for similar, low-key qualities in other workers to fill that spot where needed. “The guy who is easy going and doesn’t get worked up, is the guy who can work great in this position,” Horton says.
Finding the right people can be difficult, but possibly more so for operations such as TLC, given their location in sparsely populated cattle country of central Nebraska.
“It might be different in Iowa or Minnesota,” Friedel says, “than it is in Broken Bow, Neb. In Broken Bow, Neb., we don’t bring these animal science students out of Iowa State or K-State. They just don’t come to Broken Bow, Neb. … we have to pretty much hire, train, and work within.” Friedel and Horton seem to be doing just fine finding diamonds in the rough of the local talent pool.
“This is still a new concept, even though we’ve been doing it for four years,” Friedel says. “That’s not a lot of time, and I think we’ve learned a lot just in the last year and will continue to learn as we go.”
With that learning has come betterment for the pigs and the people working in the barns, but not necessarily in improved production. That being said, production has not lagged with the TLC group sow housing. “I think we’re right at 35 PSY since we started at Georgetown, even as we’ve learned different things along the way,” Friedel says. “Production has remained consistent, but we’ve made things that are easier on the animals and easier for the people, so it comes back to the care and the well-being. … Maybe you don’t always get a payback. Maybe it’s just the right thing to do.”
Horton says he feels that there is potential to grow, it just has not yet been realized in the TLC system. Friedel says some potential production growth can occur with technologies that will be coming down the road. Though production has stayed strong with the group housing, Friedel admits that it may have been held back because TLC has doubled its footprint in the last four years. “You can’t expect to greatly improve productivity while your herd size is growing that much at the same time,” he says.
Don’t be afraid
Change can be difficult and scary, so Horton and Friedel are well aware of the apprehension that producers may have when contemplating a move to group housing. “Don’t be afraid of change,” Friedel says. “We were not in favor of group housing, but we went to a site in Canada that was using this system, and we saw that it was working. You just have to accept that it’s different, and you have to manage it differently, it’s not as forgiving, so you have to stay on top of things. The mixing can cause big problems if you don’t do it in the least stressful way.”
Horton says, “We’re not trying to sell it (the system), we just really like it. We were dead set against it, but we saw it working. Seeing is believing. We saw low-stress animals. And thought, ‘if they can do it, we can do it’.”
Read all about how Thomas Livestock Co. replaced individual gestation stalls with group sow gestation pens featuring Nedap automated sow feeders, heat detection and sow separation:
“This is the first group sow management system I have been around I think is less stressful for the sow than being in a stall.”
About the farm
- 22,000 sows at 4 sites
- Finish their own pigs
- Keep sows in dynamic groups of 250 or more