Matt Davis
GROUP MENTALITY: Matt Davis, chief operating officer for Hord Family Farms, is using and evaluating four different pen gestation systems at farms in Ohio.

Sow solutions for group housing

One important factor influencing the success of a transition is the attitude of managers and employees.

In Ohio, hog producers must eliminate individual stall housing for pregnant sows by 2025 to comply with the state’s livestock care regulations, but moving sows out of gestation crates and into group housing requires more than just changes in the facilities. Management strategies need to change as well. To help in the transition, researchers and producers gathered in Columbus recently for a Tri-State Sow Housing Conference coordinated by Ohio State, Michigan State and Purdue. As producers make the shift to group housing, they are learning from one another, according to Matt Davis, chief operating officer for Hord Livestock and Family Farms, based in Bucyrus, Ohio. Although producers might be in competition with each other, they’re still willing to help one another improve production practices, he explained. “Our industry as a whole is really good about sharing information.”

Davis is overseeing four different pen gestation systems at Hord facilities. The farm began researching pen gestation about 12 years ago, when it became obvious that consumer perceptions about sow housing would push the industry to move away from individual gestation stalls. Since then they have retrofitted several barns with various group housing systems, and intend to change over the remaining three sow facilities by 2022. The packer they use for marketing hogs is requiring the change, so they are making the shift ahead of the state’s legal deadline.

Hord Livestock first began housing some pregnant sows in group pens 10 years ago when they converted an existing barn to hold groups of 10. A fire at another facility six years ago provided an opportunity to rebuild and try out a group housing system with free-access pens. At other locations, they are testing two different Electronic Sow Feeding systems.

Annual weaning rates per sow are about the same for all of Hord Livestock’s group housing systems, Davis says. “They all work, but people are a constraint.” Any one of Hord Livestock’s breeding managers could successfully run the facility with pens of 10, but the ESF facilities require someone who is willing and able to deal with the technology and the data generated by the systems, he explains.

Handling sows tends to be less stressful with sows housed in large groups, Davis adds. “We like how the sows in large groups move and interact with people,” he explains. “They move fluidly to the farrowing barn and back.”

RETURN TO HUSBANDRY: Human/animal interactions are always important in animal agriculture, but they become even more important with pen gestation according to Tom Parsons, associate professor of swine production medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

The downside of group housing is dealing with sow aggression. Planning ahead and carefully assembling groups helps minimize problems, Davis says. Hord Livestock groups gilts together and fills in as needed with young sows that have had one litter. Older sows are assembled in “like minded, like sized” groups, he says. “We want consistent size going in.”

Even with careful grouping, mortality has been 1% to 1.5 % higher than in stall barns. “That’s high on our priority list to work on," Davis says.

Another management challenge with group housing is lameness. Ben Pitstick, operations manager for the Ohio-based hog production company Fine Swine, is managing a new sow facility set up with traditional sow stalls in one wing and group housing with stanchions in another wing. He’s seeing more problems with lameness in the group housing, particularly with older sows. Managers also have to watch for signs of aggression such as vulva biting, he notes. “The fall out is in late gestation.”

Fine Swine is using their new group housing facility to help research production methods while they consider remodeling their existing stall facilities. For instance, they’re adjusting lighting levels to influence activity levels. Lowering the lights helps calm sows down between feedings, then increasing lighting encourages them to get up and eat. Chains hung in the pens also help reduce aggression by giving sows something to play with. Spreadsheets help managers keep track of problems with aggression and identify bullies within the pens. Employees are working together to learn how to best manage sows in group housing, Pitstick adds. “We’re learning all at the same time.”

Employee training
Training, of both people and pigs, becomes even more important with group housing, according to Jessica Risser, the Animal Health and Welfare Manager for Country View Family Farms, which operates in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. For instance, she explains, Country View takes care to select the right employees to introduce gilts to their EFS, because training the gilts takes so much patience. “We have to interview specifically for that role,” she says.

Electronic sow feeding can provide employees with “data overload,” which can be helpful in management, but employees must be willing and able to use the data, Risser says. ESF doesn’t save labor, but it shifts activities for employees.

Instead of looking at a sow in the same place in a stall every day, employees need to retrain their eyes to manage group housing, where sows are moving around within the pens, says Risser. “It’s taking the principles from nursery and finishing and moving them to our sow care.”

SIDE-BY-SIDE COMPARISONS: Ben Pitstick, operations Manager for Fine Swine, is evaluating group housing in a new facility with traditional stalls in one wing of the building and group pens with stanchions in another wing.

Tom Parsons, associate professor of swine production medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, points out that people will determine how a group housing system performs over the long term. Facility design needs to be done right only once, but people need to get the job done right every day, he says. “You need the right people with the right training.”

Parsons has worked with more than 80 producers as they’ve made the transition to group housing, and even though their physical plants were similar, they’ve achieved a spectrum of results. “Good people can make anything work,” he says. “Conversely, the best facilities won’t make up for the wrong people.”

One important factor influencing the success of a transition is the attitude of managers and employees. Negative attitudes toward the idea of pen gestation can lead to inappropriate human behavior, causing the development of fearful animals that exhibit unwanted behaviors. Those behaviors reinforce negative attitudes, leading to increased frustration for workers. Then workers either continue with inappropriate behavior toward animals or leave the job. On the other hand, starting with positive attitudes toward pen gestation can set up a cycle of positivity. Workers behave appropriately toward animals, which minimizes animal fear and leads to desired animal behaviors. That behavior reinforces positive attitudes and leads to increased job satisfaction for employees.

For some people, experience working with sows in individual stalls can be a disadvantage, Parsons says. “The people you have already working in your stall barn may or may not be the ones you need as you transition to pen gestation.” To make the transition, employees must be able to adapt to new operating procedures. Working with sows in pens requires that employees like animals and also be adept at working with technology, he says. Producers might want to look beyond the farm community to find qualified employees, he suggests. “Can we recruit people to work on a pig farm today who wouldn’t have considered it in the past because of the chance to work with technology?”

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