VIDO Technical Group Examines Stall Alternatives

CANADA - The VIDO Swine Technical Group (VSTG) is encouraging pig producers that are considering the switch from housing pregnant sows in stalls to group based loose housing to be aware of the available options. They must evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each system before they begin costly renovations, says Bruce Cochrane.
calendar icon 21 January 2008
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North American Pork Processors Plan Phase Out of Gestation Stalls

Just over a year ago two of North America’s largest pork production and processing companies, Smithfield Foods and Maple Leaf Foods, announced plans to phase out the use of gestation stalls over the next ten years. Gestation stalls, which measure about two feet by seven feet, are designed to eliminate the aggression common in group housing systems but they raise other welfare concerns.

The Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization’s Swine Technical Group, an industry based group of professionals made up of pork producers, engineers, veterinarians, researchers and extension people, has been gathering information on the various types of loose housing systems available to help pork producers make informed decisions.

Representatives of the group were on hand earlier this week to present that information to delegates attending the 2008 Banff Pork Seminar.

VSTG Explores Available Alternatives

“Our group has put together a series of questions and observations that pork producers can look at and form a basis of understanding about the different systems, their strengths and weaknesses and the key questions to ask before they start changing their systems,” says VSTG chairman Lee Whittington.

“Our role is to make sure that the right questions are being asked if you’re considering making an expensive change either by renovating or by building new gestation housing systems, before you go and pour concrete or spend a lot of money on new penning,” he explains.

Whittington points out the concept of loose housing is not new. “If you go back 25 or 30 years ago we had sows in small groups and, of course, the concern was when you mix sows into small groups there’s a lot of fighting and pushing and shoving at the time of mixing.”

In light of that welfare concern the industry developed crates which offered the ability to protect the sow throughout the day, provide access to feed, and check her body condition and health on a daily basis without the confusion and the challenges of having her in the middle of a group.

Increasing Group Size Reduces Aggression

“What’s changed over course of the last 30 years is that our groups now are much larger.” He observes, “Because sows don’t count well past 50 or 60, some of the challenges of fighting and mixing have actually declined as group size has increased.”

“We have to understand the systems and options that are available to us,” states Ontario based agricultural engineer and group member Franklin Kains.

“There’s quite a number of options -- electronic sow feeding, trickle feeding, floor feeding, cafeteria style systems – that will be evaluated and considered over the next while. Producers have to understand, first of all, the advantages and disadvantages of these systems and, second of all, how they could be incorporated into existing operations.”

Alberta Pork Producer Moves to Straw Based ESF System

The Alberta Pig Company started making the switch to straw based group housing of gestating sows using electronic sow feeders in 2001.

“We had concerns over what was happening in Europe where there was going to be a ban by 2013,” says production manager Tony Nicol. “We were concerned about increasing welfare activity by groups in the U.S. and we also were concerned about the fact that, if we were forced to change during the lifetime of the unit, it was going to be a considerable extra expense if we built the unit with stalls and then had to change to loose housing,”

He notes electronic sow feeding is just one system for keeping sows loose housed but it is the only system that will guarantee that each sow will get exactly what you want her to get. Most other systems rely on trough feeding or floor feeding and do not allow the opportunity to individually feed the sow. The advantage of more relaxed sows that are easier to handle can be found in electronic sow feeding as well as in other loose housed sow systems.

The change has been highly successful for APC. ”Productivity on our ESF units is as good as or better than the units that we have which still have conventional gestation stalls,” says Nicol.

The only time you will see aggression is when the sows are mixed he adds. ”We will move them in as a group of 65 to 70 animals. You see the aggression inevitably during the first 48 hours post mixing but, because it’s a large group and a large pen, the fighting subsides fairly quickly and animals learn to avoid the bully sows.”

Complex Electronics Vulnerable to Failure

The down side to electronic sow feeding systems are their complexity. “There’s a lot of electrical wiring, there are a number of actuators, a number of solenoids,” says Nicol. “Each individual sow feeder is probably visited something in the order of 200 times a day. The equipment has to be sturdy and well built.”

He acknowledges that managers have to take particular care to protect they system from mice which are inevitably brought in with straw.

Nicol also warns ESF feeding is not a system that can easily be put into existing facilities where producers are removing stalls. “ESF is probably a system which is more likely to be used when somebody is considering building a new unit.”

Kains points out, considering the current state of the industry, it’s unlikely we will see a lot of new barns. He believes most of the change will come as the result of renovations so it will be a matter of how these systems can be incorporated into existing facilities.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of variations on the way these pens are laid out and learning, as we go, about the subtleties of sow behavior and how they react to various things.”

Floor Feeding Offers Low Tech Alternative

Kains has considerable experience with floor feeding, a system in which feed is dumped into the pens several times per day.

“It is simpler. It uses less equipment, doesn’t get into a lot of electronics that some of the other systems do. That’s the upside. It will be cheaper to install and easier to manage,” he says.

However, he concedes the down side is you don’t have the ability to feed to individual sows. It is done on a group basis.

Kains notes there is considerably less aggression within this system than might have been expected 30 years ago.

“Most of it is based on design, square footage allotment, the addition of extra walls within the pens to give the sows a place to hide and to lie against and most recently the idea of feeding them eight times a day to reduce the aggression at feeding time. If you’re fed little bits of feed over the course of the day you’re not as hungry as you would be with once a day feeding. All these things can lead to situations where there is far less aggression than we would have expected in the past.”

As for productivity, Kains expects considerable variation but he’s convinced, with good management, the productivity of sows in pens can be as good or better than those in stalls but it has to be done right.

Web Based Survey Allows Producers to Share Experiences

The Swine Technical Group is conducting a nationwide web based survey of swine producers to gather additional information.

“The web site is open to all pork producers in Canada,” says Whittington. “We hope to include producers from all provinces and all sizes of operations using both alternative sow housing as well as the traditional gestation stalls. The information will be used to develop new brochures and other materials related to alternative housing systems.”

“We’re trying to find out, what is the state of the Canadian industry in regards to how we’re housing gestating sows?”

Additional details on the information presented at Banff and on how to participate in the on line survey can be accessed at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization web site at, the Banff Pork Seminar web site at or the Prairie Swine Centre web site at

Further Reading

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