Start hog housing transition at ground level, says expert

BANFF, Alta. — There are pitfalls when converting sow barns to open housing systems, and producers can learn from those who have already trodden the path.

Canadian sow barns that haven’t yet converted to open sow housing are mandated to do so by July 2024, as required in the code of practice for the care and handling of pigs. As well, any new barns built must use open sow housing.

Mark Fynn, manager of animal care programs with Manitoba Pork, said appropriate space and good flooring are key factors when making the transition.

Speaking to those at the Banff Pork Seminar Jan. 11, Fynn said areas of solid, bedded flooring in sow barns result in fewer non-productive cull animals. Fully slatted flooring is good for manure handling but also presents issues with footing.

Fynn recommended that 40 percent of the floor be slatted, ideally in the feed and water areas.

“We really want to encourage sows to dung where we want them to dung (over slatted areas).”

Solid floors encourage the sows to rest and discourage them from dunging in their sleeping areas, he added.

The latter areas should be free of drafts and have several partition walls for sows to lean against when resting.

Fynn suggested pens be designed so sows can escape or avoid conflicts with other sows.

“There will be minor aggression in any system that we look at,” said Fynn, because sows must establish a hierarchy.

He recommended a stocking density that allows pigs to get away from aggressive pen mates and includes solid partitions at least three feet high so pigs can hide if desired. Circular passageways and space between pen features are also advisable, he said.

He suggested new barns incorporate a 10-foot rule, which provides at least 10 feet of space between pen features such as feeders, waterers and partitions.

Mixing sows in open pens is best done just after breeding and estrus or after implantation and a positive pregnancy check, said Fynn.

There are pros and cons with parity and size segregation among sows, he added.

Segregation by size and age works well in competitive feeding systems, while a mixed parity group allows younger sows to learn the feeding system from the older ones.

When mixing sows, “try and remove the element of hunger-related aggression,” Fynn advised. Put groups together after morning feeding, and consider feeding again that day while the animals establish their hierarchy.

Adequate space is vital when mixing sows. The code of practice recommends 19 sq. feet per animal at minimum in mixed parity groups. If related fighting doesn’t end in one to three days, the troublesome sows may have to be removed.

Fynn urged producers to choose the right feeding system when moving to loose housing. Free access feeding stalls can be expensive and use up a lot of space. Electronic sow feeders (ESF) can work well in retrofitted barns but even better in new barns, he said.

ESF provides protected and precision feeding, and some styles offer free access so that sows decide when to eat.

The type of ESF chosen will determine the correct number of sows per feeder.

Fynn recommended leaving at least 10 feet of space around the feeder entrance because of potential sow conflict.

“This isn’t where you want to cheap out on space,” he said.

Training gilts to use ESF is critical, he added.

And when treating a sick pig, he suggested giving the animal fence contact with the rest of the group. Otherwise, it might be treated like a new pig upon return to the group and have to re-establish hierarchy.

More information on group housing can be found at groupsowhousing.com.

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