Open housing requires new way of thinking

Two types of creature need to be trained and treated right in an open housing sow barn: pigs and people.

Both have to behave differently in an open housing system, and getting that right will have a big impact on the success or struggles of an operation.

“You’ve got to sift through it carefully and not assume it applies to all group situations,” Jennifer Brown, a pig behaviour expert from the Prairie Swine Centre, said at a seminar held in Winnipeg Sept. 11.

She was talking specifically about the difference between managing sows in competitive and non-competitive feeding situations, but the insight applied to most of what she said about the wide array of situations and choices that farmers face when switching from sow stalls to open housing.

For instance, competitive and non-competitive feeding systems can have a different effect on mixed-size and uniform populations of sows.

In some competitive situations, sows need to be of uniform size or the smaller ones will be bullied and seldom get access to food.

However, in a non-competitive situation, smaller and bigger animals can often mix and will fight less because they will have less to sort out between each other since it’s obvious who’s bigger and smaller.

It’s also important to think about the specific pigs that are being moved into new systems because all might not be able to make the transition well, Brown said.

For instance, a sow that has spent a few parities in stalls might have trouble moving into open housing because of poor fitness or because it isn’t a “good citizen” that is able to mix easily with others.

Pigs are unique animals that can’t be thought of like other forms of livestock. They aren’t natural herd animals like cattle and seldom associate with more than a small group of relatives in nature.

“In the wild, pigs generally avoid each other,” said Brown.

“There is no mixing.”

However, bigger groups can get along fine if carefully managed.

In some ways, bigger groups can be more easily managed than smaller ones because they become less tribal. Little factions can become more fractious in some smaller groups because they can become more dominant than in big groups.

“Two small hockey teams? They’ll fight it out,” said Brown.

“People living in a city generally ignore each other.”

All of these complexities mean that farmers, managers and workers need to understand the social situation of the sows they are managing. It means they can’t just be switched from operating a stall barn to an open housing barn without preparation, said Doug Richards of the Prairie Swine Centre.

Owners and managers need to be careful about the kind of system they choose to adopt because that has a major impact on how they will have to operate.

“Ask more questions about training before you buy the system,” Richards said.

Having to catch up after a system is already installed and the pigs are in place “caused a lot of headaches for our producers,” he said about his time working with Ontario Agriculture.

Understanding and managing pig behaviour requires a different set of skills, so it shouldn’t be taken lightly.

“They didn’t give training enough thought,” Richards said about the farmers he has talked to about making the transition.

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