Technology Creates the Best Environment

for Our Pigs and Makes Life Better for Our Producers

by Dr. Lori Thomas

For many of us, technology plays an active role in our daily lives much like the modern swine producer. While technology hasn’t always been in our swine barns, as our industry has developed over the years, producers have learned to use technology as a tool to be more productive and efficient.

It’s no secret in our industry that finding good people to do the job is critical and often, a challenging task (see article on page 20 for hiring tips). Not to mention, our employee retention rates are far from ideal. However, our industry is finding ways to use technology to overcome these challenges, while also improving the way we raise pigs.

Most producers are familiar with technology that allows them to create an optimal environment for the pigs by controlling pit fans, curtains, and heaters. This is old news for producers; however, communication systems are now available that are capable of alerting farm managers when specific environmental conditions are not met.

Corey Whisenhunt, a producer in Arkansas, recently built a 2,500-head sow farm with an alarm system that can send text messages directly to his phone, notifying him of changes in temperature, ventilation, water, and even out-of-feed events. Corey said his previous farm didn’t have this type of technology, and he used to be afraid to leave the farm for fear that something would happen while he was away. This is a perfect example of where today’s technology is being used to help swine producers raise pigs and provide the best care possible.

Technology in modern swine barns has evolved to more than just controlling the pig’s environment. There are new tools that assist in feeding, raising, and caring for the animals. One technology receiving increased interest is precision feeding, especially in gestating and lactating sows.

In gestation, producers are receiving pressure from consumers to convert to group housing instead of keeping sows in individual stalls. The development of electronic sow feeders has allowed producers to house gestating sows in groups, while still feeding them individually. This offers an opportunity for producers to utilize precision feeding in gestation, as systems are now available that can automatically adjust the sow’s daily feed allowance based on parity and stage of gestation. This minimizes the need for manual adjustments, reduces unnecessary feed wastage, and better controls female body condition.

Similar technology is available in lactation, allowing the producer to monitor individual sow feed intake and quickly identify females with low feed consumption. The farm crew can then rely on automatic reports to identify the females with low feed consumption and direct their attention to those problem sows. Thus, these systems eliminate the need to perform the time-consuming task of physically making each sow stand up every morning.

Where do I see this type of precision feeding technology evolving next? I’m excited about using feed blending of different diets. Mainly used in research today, feed blending technology is the next step in precision feeding, altering both the quantity and the quality of the diet provided. This would have immediate application in lactation, where feed intake and requirements vary widely between individual sows affecting downstream performance. By using feed blending technology, the nutrient density of the diet can be adjusted based on the female’s daily intake to better meet her actual requirements, improving subsequent reproductive performance and longevity.

Feed blending can also add value in nursery and grow-finish, as it will allow producers to feed pigs differently based on health status, age, and gender. Another area of interest for feed blending is in gilt development, with the goal of improving gilt body condition and longevity in the herd. Most producers would agree that the fewer diets manufactured and delivered to the farm, the better. By utilizing on-farm feed blending technology, producers can simplify feed manufacturing while still delivering a custom diet to match the animal’s requirement.

In addition to nutrition, technology is being used to help improve efficiency in swine production systems areas, such as counting the number of pigs. Recalling my previous experience in production, there is nothing I disliked more (okay, maybe a few things) than frantically counting a couple of hundred weaned pigs at 6:00 AM. Amazingly, there is now technology that is capable of individually counting weaned pigs as they leave the farrowing house.

Similar technology is also capable of observing and analyzing the behavior of animals in real time, to help diagnose problems with animal health or ventilation, and can even detect patterns of behavior that indicate estrus.

Another area of technology I find interesting is robotics, specifically in the farrowing house to be used to clean lactation crates and thus replace or significantly reduce the need for power washers. Each of these advancements allows producers to strategically use their manpower to focus on the population of animals that need them the most. Assuming these advancements can be economically justified, they have my vote.

So, what does the future look like for technology in swine production? I think it’s obvious that the opportunities are endless and continuously evolving. In general, I think most swine producers are open to technology and the benefits they offer; however, some are more cautious than others.

Speaking from previous and current experiences with technology, Darrel Lunsford, manager of a 5,000-head sow farm in Missouri, shared his thoughts, stating, “If you are going to be in the hog business, you’ve got to be able to handle change because our business changes all the time. Sometimes we change back to what we’ve done before, but we are trying new technology and new ideas and new ideas don’t always work, but a lot of the time they do. You have to be willing to try new things.”

We can all agree that adopting new technology in the swine industry offers the opportunity to engage and excite a younger workforce extending the manpower in the barn. Ultimately, technology will help us create the best environment for our pigs and make life better for our producers. Does it get any better than this?

Lori Thomas received her BS from the University of Missouri in 2013 before working in production at a large sow farm. It was during this time that Lori’s excitement for the swine industry erupted and brought her to Kansas State where she then completed her MS and PhD in Swine Nutrition. Lori has a passion for pigs and loves interacting with producers, which ultimately led her to Gestal where she presently serves as a nutrition and production specialist.