Gilt Training - Like Kids and Brussel Sprouts

Here’s how to prepare for training day moving your sows and gilts onto electronic sow feeders

Anyone who has tried to get a two-year-old to eat Brussel sprouts has a pretty good idea of the challenges that you may face getting a young gilt or sow to enter and use an Electronic Sow Feeder for the first time. No matter how much you tell them it’s good for them, they really don’t want anything to do with that thing. And all of this can be exponentially more difficult if they are not introduced properly to the new system. But as North American farmers adopt more ESFs, a good understanding of this training is building.

I like to break it down into four main topics: Prep Work, The Station, Training Day and Election Day

Prep Work

As we all know, getting something done right takes a lot of prep work. Training sows and gilts to use their ESF takes a lot of prep work.

If possible, people that work in the Gilt Development Unit (GDU) and are tasked with gilt selection, tagging, or vaccinating, etc., should not be the same people who will interact with gilts on training day(s). Swine have long, sharp memories and will associate those people with those necessary but unpleasant tasks, and will be leery of any new things or routines they present.

The more we can expose sows and gilts to technology, the easier it will become to teach these animals to use their ESF.

Whether that technology is low functioning like a spring loaded gate hung on the pen wall that allows gilts to experiment and interact with mechanical devices, or highly functioning equipment such as an automatic pig sorter in the grow / finish / and gilt development unit, exposure is critical for an easier transition to ESF systems.

The range of technology exposure is everywhere in between. Simple unimpeded tunnels that help encourage and funnel animals to eat on one side of the partition and drink on the opposite side, are a great place to start and can be added to most grow-finish barns with little cost between adjoining pens. To further mimic the conditions of the ESF, the addition of one-way gates can be implemented once the animals have grown accustomed to the path they need to travel and will encourage the correct behaviour through positive reinforcement.

The Station

This sounds like a great name for a TV drama series, but we need to focus on what is needed to ensure training is a great experience for the first-time animal. We can all tell a story about going to a recommended upscale restaurant only to have the great meal destroyed by poor sanitation, bad lighting, slow service and having the table next to the men’s room. The same principals apply to an ESF, but in a slightly different way. Careful observation of training animals in new installations versus running installations leads to some key observations. Basic things such as floors not being slippery, with no areas for feet or toes to get pinched or caught if an animal balks moving into the station is very, very critical on training day. What may not be an impediment to a trained animal will cause a new animal to balk or have a bad experience, possibly preventing her from ever properly using an ESF.

The area inside the training station MUST be well lit. None of us like to walk into dark alleys, especially when we are not sure what’s in the dark, and sows and gilts are even more sensitive to this. Their natural fight or flight mechanism can destroy months of investment in prep work in the grow / finish and gilt development unit. It is critical to have clean bright light (I would suggest 350 + Lux with a 5000k light) to allow the animals to see what is ahead and move without hesitation.

A couple of gates that have vertical spindles are very useful on training day. There will be a certain number of animals that are hesitant to use or even approach the station, and these gates can be used to encourage her to observe the animal ahead of her in the station, and relax a bit after you move her toward the station entrance. Allowing a nervous animal to observe the feed cycle of the animal ahead of her goes a long way to getting her into the station and having a great first experience. A bit of spilled feed is always a good thing in training, since the animal can smell feed and will be motivated to move towards it.

If your ESF has a training cycle, make sure it is properly configured to quickly, if not instantly, present feed to the sow / gilt. This will ensure that she will have no hesitation in understanding what she is in the station for. It is also key to adjust station settings, as training and young animals will take longer to eat and enjoy their first meal. Finally, if you have a new installation, throw some manure in and around it so the equipment smells like pigs, and they will not be deterred by the unfamiliar smell.

Training Day

I always like to start training day with sows and gilts that have been without feed for 24 hours. My grandma always used to say that “a little bit of hunger goes a long way to making a really great meal”. There are many ideas as to how to properly train a sow or gilt to use an ESF, and as a friend of mine says “it all depends on whose lies you believe”. So here is what I have experienced to be the best way to start this process. Partition your training area so that you have fed and unfed animals in two groups. Then, cut the recommended space allowance by about 25 per cent, encouraging the aggressive animals to begin exploring the station. Many of these more aggressive animals will walk right in and the training cycle of the ESF should kick in and feed that animal. For all practical purposes, the aggressive first-time animal is now trained. She will not forget where she got that meal, and will return for another day of training in the future without hesitation.

While those aggressive girls are getting their first experience with the ESF, it is a good idea to pick a timid animal and gently move her into position at the entrance to the ESF, and hold her there with the spindle gates. She will have time to calm down if excited, and she can observe the sow in the station ahead of her, will clearly hear the meal being dispensed and her eating it, which are all positive reinforcements that this new ESF equipment is a good place to be.

When the feed cycle for the sow /gilt in the station ends and the entrance gate opens to allow access, it should only take mild encouragement to get the next animal to enter the station and begin her feeding cycle. This all sounds easy on paper, but we all know there will be extremes at both ends of the spectrum. Some animals will never adapt to ESF, while others will quickly figure out how to boss their way in for an extra crumb or two, and both must be quickly addressed. A majority of the animals will learn to use the station in a single day, some animals may take up to three or four days to become comfortable, while others will never fully adapt and will need to be moved to alternative housing systems or removed from the system completely.

Election Day

I refer to this as the day you turn the animals loose in your ESF feeding system and let them sort it out for themselves. No matter how much training and hard work put into preparing these animals for loose housing, I always go through a tough day when I turn them into the larger common herd for the first time.

The animals always elect a new chairman, sometimes in a single vote and other times it takes a couple of ballots, but this is their natural behavior and all we can do is minimize the process and deal with injuries if they occur. As with all good stockmen, animal welfare is at the top of my list of concerns, and ESF barns can contribute to that well-being but that’s not to say it comes without hard work.

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