A report from the AgTech Centre
Group sow housing explored as an alternative pork production systemDate posted: January 14, 2004
Group sow housing systems could offer pork producers a competitive advantage on the international pork market, say Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Developments (AAFRD) engineers. They could also benefit the industry long-term, helping to ensure socially acceptable animal welfare systems in food animal production.
Replacing individual gestation stalls with group housing is an emerging global trend, says Kelly Lund, Engineer-in-Training with the AAFRD. Lund and her colleagues with Livestock Welfare and Agricultural Engineering in the Technical Services Division in Red Deer, plan to examine the effect of various group housing systems on animal welfare and production economics.
In many ways, group sow housing resembles the way pigs were raised in times past, says Lund. That changed as operations grew and producers searched for increased efficiency, for example in controlling feed intake of individual pigs and preventing aggression. Modern group housing systems showcase technological innovations and management techniques that promise to largely mitigate these problems.
The search for effective group housing systems is a worldwide one. Research is aimed at defining favorable group sizes, group management strategies and feeding practices for various systems that will optimize animal husbandry and productivity.
"The greatest worry for producers is the effect of group housing on productivity," says Lund. "Profit margins are generally low, and hard numbers for calculating initial start-up or conversion costs, as well as predicting long-term profitability are lacking."
The research project will evaluate production economics as well as animal welfare factors associated with three different group sow housing systems and a gestation stall system. The study will run for six gestation cycles, which translates to just under three years. Two facilities will be involved - the University of Alberta in Edmonton and Agriculture and Agri-food Canada's Lacombe Research Centre in Lacombe.
A free access system, as well as a standard gestation stall system will be evaluated at the University of Alberta. At Lacombe, free access stalls, a mezzanine system and a popular group feeding system, the electronic sow feeder (ESF), will be assessed.
Proven in previous research to be successful, ESF is efficient, but can initially be high-cost, especially in small barns. It relies on advanced computer technology to ensure each pig accesses feed at a programmed daily rate, says Lund. The system is often held as the standard for group housing of sows.
The free-access system involves individual stalls that pigs enter to feed, she says. When a stall is empty, the rear gate stays open to the common area, but as a pig enters it can close the gate behind it, thereby avoiding interruption by other pigs as it feeds.
"A mezzanine may be the cheapest option for a producer converting a gestation stall barn to group housing," says Lund. In this system, existing stalls continue to be used for feeding, but the rear gates are removed and a second floor is added above the stalls to provide the sows more laying space.
"The mezzanine system doesn't provide the same control of individual feed intake as the other two systems, but might prove a reasonable alternative when conversion cost is an issue," she says.
At both research locations, dynamic grouping, where animals are added and removed on several occasions during a gestation period, will be used, with each group involving 20 pigs.
The group sow housing project is supported by the Alberta Livestock Industry Development Fund (ALIDF), University of Alberta, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Alberta Farm Animal Care Association (AFAC) and Alberta Pork. Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development's Agricultural Engineering Branch has a mandate to support all aspects of agricultural sustainability.
Reprint credit: AgTech Centre
© 2004 Meristem Information Resources Ltd.