Open housing offers benefits over stall system

Hutterites find advantages | Manitoba colony says extra labour and equipment concerns proved to be unfounded

Open housing for pregnant sows works and costs about the same in money and labour as traditional stall barn systems, based on the experience of a Manitoba Hutterite colony.

And most of the myths farmers have about “loose housing” for gestating sows don’t occur in reality.

“We’ve never had any applications where you need more people,” Kevin Kurbis, a consultant with New Standard Ag, said about the open housing systems he has worked with, including those at the Eagle Creek colony near Altamont.

He said the barn at Eagle Creek cost $75,000 less than the stall barn the colony was planning to build.

Eagle Creek decided to go with open housing rather than stalls because of pressure from major pig buyers such as Maple Leaf Foods and Smithfield Foods to move away from stall systems.

Open housing of gestating sows relies on electronic sow feeder systems, something that often spooks farmers who think they might be expensive, unreliable and hard to maintain.

Kurbis said the mechanical systems and electronics involved in sow feeders actually require less equipment than what is used in stall barns.

However, they can appear to be more technologically intensive in open housing because they are gathered in one place rather than spread across the barn.

He said Eagle Creek has had few problems with the system’s electronics, which are rugged. The biggest problem has been from springs on the feeder doors, which is easily solved.

Farmers need to provide more manpower for the first five days after a group of gestating sows is introduced to the system, but other chores can be done simultaneously and only the first two days require intense supervision.

Fighting and aggression are not bad once the pigs establish their hierarchy and know who the boss pig is, Kurbis said.

However, this extra labour doesn’t force barn operators to use more staff because they are freed from other common stall barn chores.

“You’ve got jobs in a loose housing barn that don’t exist in a stall barn, and conversely you’ve eliminated some jobs that exist in a stall barn,” said Kurbis.

Only one sow has died in the feeding system since the Eagle Creek barn began operating three years ago, and it was easily removed from the side because of detachable barriers.

Kurbis said the sows in open housing generally seem healthier with fewer leg and joint problems, but they develop more hoof problems because they’re able to walk around more.

“They are healthier animals, but (the hoofs must be watched).”

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