Top 12 Questions about the Transition to Group Housing : Questions and Answers by our Experts
By : Sylven Blouin, Agr. and Amanda Uitermarkt, M.Sc.
Your decision is made. You want to go for group-housing in gestation. Whatever the reason is for doing this transition; compliance with governmental regulations in your country for the welfare of your sows, you must have a lot of questions regarding this major change. We can assure you that you are not alone in this situation. Every sow-farm owner that has done the transition went through this period of questions and uncertainty.
In this article, we present you the most frequently asked questions from our customers and will answer them. We also included different suggestions from research articles and/or presentations on the subject. You will see, there are different elements to consider before starting off the project.
So, here are our answers to your questions!
- What will be the costs of a retrofit to group housing?
- Do I need to start over with a new herd, or I can keep my actual herd?
- Will I need to have a smaller herd if I want to keep the same building footprint?
- Gestating pen design : Should I go for static or dynamic group management?
- Can we put gilts in a pen with sows or do gilts need their own specific pen?
- When do we need to transfer sows from breeding without impacting the farrowing rate?
- Will I be able to keep my old flooring?
- Choosing an electronic feeding system or not?
- What floor space should I allow per animal?
- Will there be fights and will it create a need for culling sows? Also, how to reduce the fighting or poor sow behavior?
- Will I lose productivity?
- What will be the impact on my tasks and those of my employees?
What Will Be the Costs of a Retrofit to Group Housing?
This is THE question we get most often. There are so many variables in the equation that we could even write 10 articles on this subject only. Remember that the perfect system does not exist, but some are pretty close!
On one hand, some group housing systems like stanchions or floor feeding are cheaper to install (PSC). However, they will be more costly mid or long-term. On the other hand, an electronic feeding system (ESF) like the Gestal 3G will be a little more costly initially but will be more profitable on short, mid and long term. You must also remember that animal welfare should not be implemented over producers’ or employees’ welfare…
We recommend looking for a system with which you and your employees will be comfortable since it is a long-term investment. It is also important to make sure that you will not become a ‘’technological abandoned’’. We saw, way too often, equipment dealers going out of business and leaving producers alone with their technology and without spare pieces neither support.
Do I Need to Start Over with a New Herd or I Can Keep my Actual Herd?
To answer this question, we need to ask ourselves if we take this retrofit opportunity to do major repairs in other sectors of the farm. So, if the answer is yes and that you need to change farrowing crates or breeding crates, you probably won’t have a lot of benefits in keeping your actual herd. Those repairs/changes need a lot of space to do the work properly. If the equipment is still in good shape, it can be considered to keep the same herd.
It is important to remember that the transition to group housing of a herd that is used to individual crates is often a challenge. Many of those producers have experienced an increase in the culling rates after the transition to group housing for one complete rotation.
If you decide to take this opportunity to increase your herd inventory, the decision will be different. By increasing the herd and therefore the floor space, you have space to move animals to repair what you want to repair or to change the equipment needed. In this case, most of the producers will keep their actual herd.
What is the health status of your actual herd? If you are having problems with diseases impacting your productivity and profitability, it can be a good time to start over with a new herd and therefore improve health status. Discuss it with your veterinary to make sure you are making the right decision!
Will I Need to Have a Smaller Herd if I Want to Keep the Same Building Footprint?
Really often, for budget reasons, permits or other regulations, it is not possible to increase the size of a building. Depending on the feeding system that was chosen, it is sometimes possible to keep the same building footprint without having to decrease the herd size in the group housing transition. Gestation pen design varies greatly from one group housing management system to the other. Some layouts are more adaptable to the existing floor plans than others.
We strongly suggest that you contact a specialist that will know how to help you in your building/gestating pen layout design.
Gestating Pen Design : Should I Go for Static or Dynamic Group Management?
Dynamic gestation pen management requires more installations
A dynamic pen management system handles different batches of sows that will farrow on different dates in the same gestating pen. So, in the same pen, there are sows on their 40th day of gestation and others ready to be transferred for farrowing. Therefore, to well manage a dynamic group of sows, ideally you would need a sorting or labeling system. This is where smart feeders or technological advanced feeders are more than interesting being able to communicate between the tag and RFID reader. This type of sow feeder will recognize the animal going in the station for a meal and identify it, for example with a spray paint mark.
Static Systems Need Very Low Group-Housing Management
Can we Put Gilts in a Pen with Sows or Do Gilts Need their Own Specific Pen?
Having gilts in their own gestating pen has one advantage
This is one sensitive question here. Literature shows that producers would benefit from separating gilts from multiparous sows. The reason is that when mixing gilts and multiparous, there is a higher risk of aggression from sows which could lead to abortions, more culling and even primiparous refusing to eat because they are scared of getting to the feeding zone.
How to Properly Mix Gilts and Sows
It is not always possible to isolate gilts from sows. This is often because of the herd size or because gilt pens are too small to work properly. Therefore, gilts need to be paired with multiparous. In this situation, the gestation pen design and layout need to be adjusted. Often, more stations will be put in the pen, the allowed floor space per animal will be increased, etc. Mixing P0 with P1-P2 of smaller size can also be an advantage for self-training animals to the stations. The article from Amanda Uitermarkt, M.Sc, explains why and how.
When Do We Need to Transfer Sows from Breeding Without Impacting the Farrowing Rate?
The transfer moment has a huge impact on the farm floor layout, on the retrofit/building costs and on productivity if it is done at the wrong moment.
Research agrees that we should avoid transferring animals after 4 days of gestation and until day 35 of gestation. So, the moment that is chosen will impact the design because the number of places needed in every production sector will vary greatly. Therefore, it is important to consider it. Dr. Lori Thomas explains why it is mandatory to mix sows pre or post implantation.
External source : Knox et al, Journal of Animal Science April 2014Gestation Crate Activated by the Sow
Will I Be Able to Keep my Old Flooring?
Breaking the concrete and changing the slats represent a huge amount of money and lots of work. It is a modification that could be really expensive and even more if you need to decrease the herd size for the duration of the retrofit or if you need to delay animal entry.
Again, the feeding system will have a huge impact on the decision that will be taken. For example, you can’t floor feed if you only have 1 or 2 meters (3-6 feet) of full flooring. However, some feeding system like the Gestal 3G can be installed on every type of floor. Therefore, it allows you to keep your flooring.
For more details regarding farm retrofits on a budget, we suggest that you have a look at this article.
Choosing an Electronic Feeding System or Not?
Smart feeding systems are reliable and profitable
We do not have to defend the results you can get with smartly designed electronic feeders anymore. They allow for a better management of the feed intake of each animal, reduce feeding costs and even allow for better reproduction performance with body condition control. We challenge you to do the maths, if you can save 30-40 kg of feed per sow per year, it can justify the investment for smart feeders.
Choosing a Certified Feeding System
If you decide to look for different smart feeders or ESF, we suggest that you look for IP66 certifications and Nema 4X. Also, you should explore feeding systems that have the less mechanical parts possible. Here is a guide to help you out.
Are these systems reliable? Gestal has been on the market for more than 25 years. The products are known to be very resilient. They are water and dust-proof and they get tested in the owner’s 2200 heads sow-farm to make sure that they will perform and last in farm situations.
The usage of technology in the farm can discourage or repel producers. However, look at what our communication systems and farm ventilation looks like now. Technology is here to stay and will continue to evolve. You should not be scared. It is often simpler than what you think on the first glance.
What Floor Space Should I Allow per Animal?
In Europe, Canada and other countries, there are minimal standards to meet for animal welfare. Afterwards, it is the job of the producer to adjust himself to the different elements that will have an impact on the welfare of their sows. The chosen feeding system, the genetics chosen, the choice between dynamic or static groups and mixing gilts with sows or not will all be major points to reflect on.
For example, in Canada, the Codes of Practice recommends 19 sq.ft (1.8 m2) per animal for a gestating pen with only multiparous sows. It is truly a minimal requirement. On our side, we saw better behavior when increasing the floor space. Of course, it has a direct impact on the budget/investment, but it needs to be evaluated/discussed with specialists. We also see producers going over the minimal requirements to be farsighted and to make sure that they will comply with the requirements for a long period of time.
Will There Be Fights and Will it Create a Need for Culling Sows? Also, How to Reduce the Fighting or Poor Sow Behavior?
Of course, there will be fights between animals. It is totally normal because sows need to establish a hierarchy in the group and disputes are a part of the process. You know, pigs do not do democracy. It’s the jungle law!
Unfortunately, it is possible that there will be an increase in the culling and mortality rates. Also, feet and leg problems are more common in group housing than in individual gestation.
Fortunately, we can decrease the severity, frequency, and the impacts of fight with good pen designs and by adding certain elements to the pens (divider walls). Non-competitive feeding systems like ESF or free access feeding stations like the Gestal 3G can also help to eliminate a great deal of fighting during meals.
Will I Lose Productivity?
Yes and no. If we look at published data, some herds saw a decrease in the number of piglets weaned per sow per year, but others have seen an increase. What is most certain is that a majority of the producers that have done the transition in the past would not go back to individual gestation. Their herd’s behavior is totally different than what it was before, and for the best. Animals are calmer, better fed and reach higher performance. However, this is again in direct relation to the feeding system selected and the type of group chosen.
What Will Be the Impact on my Tasks and Those From my Employees?
Here is a question that we get asked really often because what is new most often brings concerns. We could answer it in more details in a future article. But let’s just say that the tasks will be different, they will evolve. Our experience with customers all around the world shows us that the workload tends to increase a little bit. However, the importance of this increase really depends on the decisions that were taken for the equipment, pen designs and feeding system.
Here are some notable differences between group-housing and individual gestation throughout the whole gestation period:
- There is an additional move between the breeding stall to the gestating pen
- ESF may require training (it can be quite needy for traditional ESF vs. sows almost all self-training with smart feeders such as the Gestal 3G)
- Management of injured or sick sows
- Sows losing their RFID tags
This can look troubling. However, as mentioned previously, most of the producers that did the transition to group-housing would not go back to individual gestation. Animals truly have different behaviors and seem to be in better health conditions when the right decisions are taken.
In this article, we covered the 12 most asked questions to our team by producers and other members of the pork industry. We may have discussed other questions in our previous blog articles.
We invite you to contact us if you wish to talk directly with a specialist from your area. Also, if you wish to have more information on other aspects of the pork production, you can go through the «NEWS» section of our website.