If a production practice is working, why change it?
Even though the gestation stalls they have been using have proven to be a successful production practice, there are a number of reasons pork producers in Ohio there are changing to group sow housing from gestation stalls. The foremost reasons are that group sow housing is a recommendation of the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board (OLCSB) and a growing preference of retailers and consumers.
With the OLCSB requiring gestation stalls to be phased out of current facilities by 2025 and all new swine facilities built with alternative housing designs, pork producers are taking stock of their options. While some may be digging in their heels and resisting the change, others are taking advantage of this transition period to implement alternative options and determine the right fit for their operation.
Alan and Jeff Wuebker of Darke County are looking at the situation as an opportunity. They have two farrow-to-wean facilities that include 1,800 sows at their Darke County farm near Versailles as well as 2,600 sows at a nearby farm in Indiana.
“I think there’s a lot of farmers out there like ourselves, looking at that 2025 date and doing some experimenting on a small scale,” Alan said. “When we bought the facility in Indiana last year, we thought it would give us a heads up on how we want to change the one at home. Here at home, we have 75% in stalls and 25% in group pens. At our other farm, they’re only in stalls the first 45 days after breeding, until confirmed pregnant with ultra sound, then they spend the rest of their gestating period in group pens.”
The Wuebkers have found that some changes in genetics and increasing the time in the gestation stalls from 38 days to 45 has made a critical difference in maintaining production levels. When looking at production rates, the Indiana farm averages only three-quarters of a pig less per weaning.
The other significant factor is sow health.
“With the pens we have to keep our eyes open more for sows that get beat up and we put them back in a stall in what we call a hospital area. Sometimes, we’ll come in and there will be one dead that got beat up just because they decided it was beat up time, we don’t know why. That doesn’t happen with a stall,” Alan said. “A big factor is body condition, that smaller girl that got milked down in farrowing needs the extra groceries to get her back where she needs to be before she goes back in the group pen. Or with a girl that tends to put it on quicker, in a stall, we can manage that week by week and treat each one accordingly. In the pen situation, when we’re feeding for 17, we have to feed them all that way to hopefully get her back where she should be. Because of that, sows tend to be a little bit bigger in the pens.”
While there are more complex feeding systems for group pens in the pork industry, the brothers agree their simple feeding system is the way to go.
“Some other producers that are using different options are using computerized systems that are more individually based. What little we know about those is there is a pretty steep training curve for gilts with these systems. They have to be careful to identify animals that aren’t eating and somehow get them some food. You’ve really got to work hard at training gilts. We bring 30 gilts into our system every week, so that would be a challenge for us with some of the new systems,” Jeff said. “There are some relatively simple feeding systems being designed with stalls. Our system is more simplified than that, the feed just drops right onto a concrete pad and they eat. I don’t think I would put a computer system in a barn today, that environment is just too hard on equipment. I know two or three producers in Ohio that have them. They may like them, but from what we’ve seen and heard there are a lot of things that have to be watched closely every day.”
Beyond the welfare of the pig, the different housing systems can impact the employees as well and influence the way they do work around the farm.
“Let’s forget all aspects of a sow and its condition with stalls verse pens. Look at the employee perspective of it. Giving shots in a stall, he reaches his hand in or can vaccinate from the rear and he is done. With a pen he has to physically get in with 17 sows and if they’re not happy with him there is probably going to be an injured sow or an injured employee. That’s a downfall a lot of people don’t look at,” Alan said. “With group pens we have to get in and get the work done, feed them, do what has to be done that day and get out. Just let them chill and don’t agitate them. We don’t want them to get aggressive, that’s the biggest thing I’ve seen. By noon I like to see guys out of the pen, doing very little excitement work, like shots, that gets the whole barn riled up. We try to limit that kind of movement in the group barns.”
Like the Wuebkers, many Ohio pork producers will make changes and adapt to the new requirements. However, there are some that will likely be leaving swine production behind at the end of 2025.
“There’s a couple producers out there I know who will use their facilities to that date and they’ll be worn out and they won’t produce pigs anymore. It might be for a combination of reasons: the stalls, age of buildings, disease, profitability,” Jeff said. “For swine producers, there is no government program, no insurance for disease and there’s no doubt the price of corn last year has made our industry extremely unprofitable. It isn’t easy producing pork right now, but for anything that eats corn it’s been tough. We need cheaper corn in this country to make livestock production profitable.”
While many farmers may be concerned about the cost of changing their facilities to phase out the use of gestation stalls, others have already seen the pens as a low cost option.
“The farm we bought in Indiana never had a complete stall set-up. It’s cheaper to build, there’s a lot less gates, a simple feeding system, there’s no computer feeding. It’s just an extremely simple, low maintenance, easier to build barn. I think that’s why the farmer chose to build it with pens in 2004,” Jeff said. “It wasn’t done to satisfy any certain group of people, it wasn’t done to be compliant with any law in Indiana, because there isn’t one even today. It was done because they thought they could build it cheaper and get similar production.”
Aside from the struggles that the industry faces and the challenges that may lie ahead, both Wuebker
brothers recognize the importance of taking an active role in the organizations that provide leadership for the industry. Alan has recently wrapped up a four-year term on the Pork Board and Jeff has been serving on the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board since its inception in 2010.
“We thought it was important to be involved when the issue came up here in the state; to be a voice. There’s no other pork producers on the board, so if I’m not at a meeting telling them how it is, how we
see it as producers, then we have sheep or dairy producers making the decisions for us,” Jeff said. “Somebody has to step forward, it takes a lot of time. We have to have people on the board that commit and give up time to make sure we head in the right direction.”