Busting Myths about Loose Sow Housing

Learn why loose housing may be the right choice for the welfare of your sows.

Automation has crept up on us in the last 25 years. I counted the number of clocks in my kitchen one night as I waited for the kettle to boil: a decorative clock on the wall; digital clocks on the stove, microwave, coffee pot, and TV timer; and clocks on my smartwatch, smartphone and tablet.

When I was a kid, if you wanted to know the time, you had better hope that you remembered to wind your watch!

 The Internet has irrevocably altered the way we conduct our lives since it became commercially available nearly 27 years ago. The speed at which we learn, exchange information and challenge the validity of old concepts continues to increase, as we look for the best way to achieve a goal.

We often hear arguments that this way of doing things is better than that way. The simple answer is, if that situation was the case, then there would be only one kind of car, one kind of tractor, one kind of computer, etc. In reality, different styles of management structure and different philosophies produce different results from equal systems.

So, let’s discuss three major myths regarding loose housing.

Myth #1 – Sows continually fight in loose housing

What farmers call fighting, researchers call competitive dominance social encounters.

 Sows bully each other to determine a social structure.

This is normal behaviour – any animal group has a process to determine social pecking order. “The first thing sows do when they are placed in a pen is elect a chairman,” as a friend of mine likes to say. Sows bite and snap at each other until one of them is crowned queen of the group or pen.

They snap at each other in stalls as well, as anyone who has worked in a conventional barn long enough can attest. In a stall-type gestation barn, a certain number of sows are unable to acclimatize to the stall. They are always trying to get out, often getting trapped in very odd positions as they try to escape.

In loose housing, in contrast, sows determine a pecking order fairly quickly and then activity settles down, the research shows. Pens that incorporate areas in which sows can hide from or escape the queen are part of a good overall design.

At the 2016 Group Housing seminar, one of Quebec’s major producers, who is using a stall-type feeder in loose housing, discussed the increased feed costs, lower production levels, and difficulties sorting and moving sows to farrowing. Notably, this production group is, in my mind, one of the best managed operations in Canada.

The producer had a well-developed plan, and understood the challenges surrounding a move to loose housing, yet had to adapt to the realities in the barn.

Myth #2 – Loose housing does not perform as well as stall barns

The highest producing herds in North America have at least part of their barns in group housing, and quickly realize its benefits. Many herds have experienced a decrease in farrow time, fewer stillborn animals and shorter recovery time for the sows.

Well-managed sows in loose housing tend to have better body condition scoring (BCS) at farrowing since exercise and diet are integrated.

No longer are we limited by having to adjust 1,000 feed drops as feed density, day of gestation, feed curve, barn temperature or season of the year changes. Feed level adjustment is infinite, often  accomplished with only a few taps on a smartphone or tablet right beside the sow.

Recently, a vet at the Swine Vet Centre said to me that, not too many years ago, some of the largest producers in the practice had stated “No way will we ever move away from our gestation stalls.”

Today, those same producers say the only way they will achieve 40 pigs per sow per year (PSY) is with the advantages of loose housing.

Myth # 3 – The same high level of management cannot be provided to group-housed sows

So what is management? It is the ability of an organization to perform, analyze, adapt and then outperform previous results.

From my 30 years of experience as a producer and 10 years of experience working on animal welfare production strategies, I have become increasingly involved in understanding how sows interact with each other. I have become more familiar with their needs from nutritional, physical and welfare perspectives.

Being willing to adapt and change is not mandatory, but then neither is survival, said management consultant W. Edwards Deming. Just look at the advances in human health care: 40 years ago, someone who underwent a triple bypass surgery had to spend six weeks in bed before he or she could begin rehabilitation. Now, someone with a quintuple bypass is walking the next day.

Inactivity is more problematic than anything else we expose ourselves or our animals to.

I now challenge producers to show me the daily standard operating procedures (SOP) for their gestation stalls – daily feed requirements, water monitoring, observation and assessment of lameness, BCS, and barn temperature. In most barns, this SOP does not exist.

I challenge producers to consider how they would assess those tasks in a loose-housing  environment.

Often, they realize that many of these management functions can be determined by looking at data that is gathered from an electronic sow feeder (ESF).

The sow went to the feeder, so she can walk. An increase or decrease in the number of visits to the feeder suggests sickness or need for nutritional adjustment. If a sow did not eat, producers can consider if she needs attention.

Producers can quickly determine, with a walk through the barn, if a sow needs a feed adjustment for being under- or over-conditioned.

Many of our best pork business managers subscribe to the theory that, if you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it. But these individuals can be hard-pressed to look at the data an ESF can provide to take their operations to the next level.

Loose housing is an accepted norm in the world of swine production and is quickly gaining traction in North America. I believe, as we close in on 40 PSY, it is imperative that we manage each sow to an exacting standard to ensure her well-being and a profitable, productive life.

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