While the adoption of group sow housing was driven by consumers, the pork sector isn’t skipping a beat when it comes to making it work.
“Through science, we have been able to show that you can achieve comparable, if not better, productivity through the group housing setting,” swine behaviour and welfare scientist Yolande Seddon told attendees at the recent Livestock Care Conference.
“We know more about the animals, and we should be improving our husbandry practices.”
The Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pigs has required new barns to use group housing since 2014, and all hog barns will have to house mated sows and gilts in groups by 2024. The biggest knock against the practice is that hogs are often aggressive towards each other. While that doesn’t necessarily mean outright fighting (and increased risk of injuries), aggressive behaviour increases stress and that can lower productivity.
But you can manage much of that through feeding, said Seddon, an assistant professor at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon.
“If you’re going for a competitive feeding system, the animals gain feed by fighting or aggression,” she said.
But there are numerous options for “non-competitive” feeding, including electronic sow-feeding systems, free-access stall systems, drop-feeding systems and drop-feeding systems into a trough (also known as trickle feeding). These systems mean animals cannot gain food by fighting because each individual is protected when feeding (although hogs will still compete for access to the feeding space).
The choice of sow grouping will have an influence on the choice of a feeding system. Static groupings are made up of groups of bred sows that stay together until farrowing. Dynamic systems allow animals to move in and out of the gestation group.
“In some systems, you would not want to have a dynamic grouping,” said Seddon.
Scientists used to think static groupings were best, but now know that large group sizes can accommodate dynamic grouping. Aggression can happen every time new animals are added to the group, so it’s important to have pen design to allow sows enough room and space to escape from social conflict.
“If you can move away from each other, social conflict can actually disperse,” she said. “We know that sows will do subgrouping within a large group. They will develop their friendship circles.”
When producers are using a competitive feeding system, grouping is very important and it’s best not to remix the animals and have ones of similar size.
Seddon is involved in the National Sow Housing Conversion Project, which tracks about 20 barns across the country that have converted to group housing. Producers are sharing their experiences at http://groupsowhousing.com.
The majority of Canadian producers converting barns are choosing electronic sow-feeding systems.
“Producers are excited for the ability for true individual feed control and for the automatic detection that electronic sow feeding can give,” said Seddon.
Many of the new barns require an additional separate exercise area in addition to a feeding space. Producers who have converted their barns have also changed their pen design, and flooring, and have added enrichments such as bedding to their barns to improve animal welfare.