Animal welfare a focus during new hog barn construction

The extra cost of sow lift crates pays off in reduced piglet mortality

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During the recent 2019 edition of the Shakespeare Swine Seminar, there were presentations from two similar-sized farrow-to-finish operators who, when making decisions about new barn construction, opted to included innovations aimed at boosting animal welfare.

Why it matters: Enhanced livestock care regulations, coupled with a more intense focus from the public on how food is produced, make it increasingly important that farmers consider animal welfare when making upgrades.

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Tara Terpstra of Silver Corners Inc., near Brussels, chronicled her farm’s installation in 2016 of hydraulic sow lift crates in the five farrowing rooms of a new, 370-sow farrow-to-finish operation.

According to Terpstra, when she and her husband, Dennis, set out on their own three years ago from his family’s hog farm, one of the salespeople who came by to offer new construction options automatically added a 15 per cent death loss in the farrowing facility.

“Coming from the city, I asked ‘why do we have so much death loss?’” she said. “Why can’t we wean more piglets per sow?”

At the time, sow lift crates were an oddity in Canada, with only two installed in Ontario for the Terpstras to see… and only one of those actually in operation. But they decided to crunch the numbers. Given strong evidence that the technology offered the potential for significant reduction in piglet mortality, and considering the trend toward stricter livestock care rules, they decided they’d be happy with a three-year payback for the extra costs from installing lift crates.

Three years later, after crunching the numbers in preparation for her Swine Seminar presentation, Terpstra figures they spent an extra $77,000 compared to a conventional barn. And, with an average pre-weaning mortality over the past three years of 9.5 per cent compared to an industry estimate of 14.8 per cent, she calculates the lift crates — with the overall cost decreased slightly thanks to the fact the air compressor needed for raising and lowering the units is now also used to run the farm’s automatic feed system — paid for themselves in 18 months.

An intangible benefit, she said, is less stress and physical strain on the sows.

“With that activity on their udder (in a more controlled manner than conventional systems), we just can’t get over how well they do in their subsequent litters,” Terpstra noted.

She said the family spent extra money on a rear hallway in the farrowing rooms so sows could enter the crates from the rear and exit out the front. There’s a microclimate in the piglet resting areas created by hot water heat mats. But the true innovation of the lift decks is a switch with an arm extending out over the sow side that gets tripped when the sow stands up or sits up, causing the deck upon which she’s positioned to rise. As a result, the piglets can’t get underneath her. When she lays down, the switch signals to lower the deck and the piglets once again have access to the sow.

There’s a flex tube on the sow feeding unit to allow the deck to go up and down without disrupting feed.

On their farm, the decks are turned off on Day 10. This doesn’t coincide with the manufacturer’s suggestion, which is earlier, but it coincides with their second iron injection, so it’s the most convenient for them.

“Usually by Day 4, (the piglets) are running up and over (the barrier when the lift deck raises) anyway.”

One option for managing grouped sows

Zeldenrust Farms near Drayton, meanwhile, opted for a somewhat more well-established but still innovative solution for sow welfare when constructing their 350-sow, farrow-to-finish facility in 2018. At the Swine Seminar, Dave Devries described the farm’s eight-pen, group-housing sow area, featuring between 25-35 animals in each pen and an average of about 23 sq. ft. of space per sow.

Lauren, left and Dave DeVries, right and their sons Garret and Clark.
photo: Courtesy Dave DeVries

Each pen contains eight drop feeders, and there are six feed drops per day: 5:30 a.m., 8 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 1 p.m., 3:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. One-third of each pen is slatted; the remainder of the floor is solid and has pods in which the sows can lay.

Typically, the sows are put into loose housing four days past breeding, and the boar is put into a section of the pen — gates can be swung within the pen to create a small, separate pen — at 21 and 42 days as a way of checking pregnancies.

Devries likes to be there in the barn during at least one of the feedings per day to see if everyone is getting up and eating.

“It gets pretty quiet when the feed starts dropping.”

“(Fellow Ontario pork farmer) Reid Wilson put this system in already in 2002,” Devries said, when asked by an audience member about the risk of building a new barn with an unproven housing system. “So I wouldn’t call it a young system.”

He added the family’s goals, when deciding on the construction, were “minimal repairs in the future” and making sure to keep ahead of the consumer trend towards demanding more in terms of animal welfare. When they realized the cost to implement the loose housing and drop feeding was less than a conventional barn, the choice became clear.

“I’m definitely not feeding any more than most other barns,” he said, when asked about the drop feeders. Much of the feed is actually consumed by the waiting sows before it even hits the floor, he noted, and it’s not long after the feed drops that the floors are cleaned and the pens return to a state of calm.

Sows eat at the feed drop at the DeVries farm.
photo: Courtesy Dave DeVries

A lot of the older sows that were brought into this barn after having lived with twice-a-day feeding have now been culled, while none of the gilts that came in to repopulate since the barn was built have subsequently been removed. But Devries believes a big part of success with loose housing will be genetics. Some lines are definitely more conducive to being raised in this manner. Sows cannot be fed individually, so those that tend towards being too fat or too skinny, or that are timid, might not thrive.

“I also think the lack of slats in the pens allows us to have a lot fewer foot problems and leg problems.” Since August of 2018, he can think of only three or four sows that had to be pulled out of the pens with lameness.

One audience member wondered about keeping the pens clean. Devries responded that he initially thought he would need to put in a mister system to force the sows to defecate in the slatted areas. But that didn’t happen.

“The fuller the pen, the better.”

They get lazy if there’s more space, he believes, and don’t move to the slatted area. All the drinkers are over the slatted area, he added, and he rarely finds himself needing to scrape out the loafing area into the slatted side to keep it clean.

About the author

Contributor

Stew Slater operates a small dairy farm on 150 acres near St. Marys, Ont., and has been writing about rural and agricultural issues since 1999.

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