How Feeding Gestation of Sows is Evolving

by Jeff Schoening

It is interesting when we stop and look back how dramatically practices have changed in pork production management. This is also true in how we house and feed gestation sows. Many issues play a role in this “evolution” of production practices, including nutritional and genetic technology and improvements in equipment and facility designs.

More recently, pressure by consumers has affected the way we house and feed sows. As we look back on how sows were fed at different times throughout the past several decades, we see how improvements have been made and where they may lead us in the future.

While not comparable in size to today’s herds, nearly every mid-20th century American farm included pork production. Depending on the type of operation many sows were housed in small sheds and had outside access on concrete or dirt lots. Some gestating sows ran in feedlots behind market cattle and foraged through the lot picking out undigested kernels of corn. Sows were fed supplemental protein cubes on the ground to balance the diet.

Farrowing practices varied as well. One well-known system included individual huts in open lots where sows farrowed and raised their young. Other systems had small farrowing houses with wooden pens in and bumpers to act as creep areas. Sows were often turned out each morning and night and had access to ad lib feeding.

Of course, the phenotype of the sow was different then. Pigs had much more fat and could withstand colder climates. Another challenge that we see less of today was from parasites both internal and external. Mange, lice and large roundworm control were a larger part of management practices.

As we moved through the 1900s, we saw more and more sows being moved to inside housing. Some sows were raised in pens and some were put in individual pens. The stalls might not have always been steel stalls, as I know of sows that were put in stalls made from wood. Even if we were feeding sows by hand on the floor of a pen, we still improved the ability to get the correct nutrition to each animal. Less feed was wasted compared to feeding on the ground, especially when it was muddy. We could break up the groups and were able to group sows that had similar body condition and parity.

Adding stanchions (or shoulder stalls) and individual drop feeders to a pen further increases the ability for each sow to get their portion.

Eventually, more and more sows were moved inside to individual stalls where each sow could be fed individually to maintain ideal body condition. Through this transition many sows were still fed by a feed cart with an individual scoop. This was a slow, laborious process with sows vocalizing their impatience while waiting for their meal. Feed drop systems were brought online during the 1970s and made feeding faster, though still often operated by hand lever or winch. Now, actuated feed drops used in individual pens can be set with timers to feed the entire room or barn in a matter of seconds. Without the necessity of a human being present for feeding, caretakers and sows both experience less stress.

With the dawning of the 21st century, the pork industry and sow housing were influenced by consumers asking for pork produced from sows that spend less time in an individual pen. Many producers were alarmed asking, “Do we want to go back to raising pigs like our fathers or grandfathers did?” Ensuing discussions helped define new technologies and methodologies to improve group housing systems. By applying these technologies and methodologies to feeding group housed sows in modern facilities, we can maintain or improve modern production efficiency. While there are pros and cons for any new system, the success rate overall has been extremely good.

Group housing and feeding in its simplest form is floor dropping. Producers have learned how to time the drop feeding, set up pen layout, and position drop boxes to maximize the opportunity for each sow to get their share of feed for that day.

Adding stanchions (or shoulder stalls) and individual drop feeders to a pen further increases the ability for each sow to get their portion. This layout allows sows to guard their portion better and not have it stolen by other sows. Stanchion pens are a very common system and caretakers adapt easily.

Free access stalls give each sow the ability to let herself out and close herself in. While still fed as a group, each sow can eat her portion. Without control over which sow is in the free access stall at a given time, this system does not allow specific feeding. Supplementing a pig’s diet is possible but requires more labor. Because this system requires more expensive equipment and square footage per sow, free access stalls are the most expensive group sow housing system.

Free access stalls can go high-tech if a feed dispenser and an RFID reader are installed on the stall. Feeders are connected to a computer and when a sow’s id is scanned the dispenser feeds the sow a precise pre-programmed amount. Each sow is fed individually and one of these feeders (also called walk-in back-out free access) can feed up to 17 sows.

Electronic sow feeders (ESF) feed animals individually but with the added benefit of walk-through design to keep traffic moving and feed more sows per feeder. A fully functioning ESF also has the ability to color mark, sort, and automatically top-dress additional nutrients.

The evolution of pork production continues as better ways to feed and care for animals are developed. There are already examples of operations that feed gestation sows based on parity and length of gestation. More automation has improved the ability to top-dress nutrients to individual sow meals. There will continually be improvements on managing the sow, including heat detection, vaccination, pregnancy diagnosis, and so on. Genetics companies, nutritionists and equipment companies are continually working to improve pig health and production systems.

Jeff Schoening has been with AP for 27 years. The past 11 years he has focused on sales, support, and service for loose sow housing in US and Canada. Prior to that he was a district sales manager in Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri. Jeff grew up on a typical SW Iowa grain and livestock farm and has been involved in the livestock industry his entire career.