30 June 1995

Sows and staff happy with free access feeding

By Jessica Buss

INVESTMENT in a free access stall sow feeding system on one Lincolnshire pig unit is saving £32,000 a year and increasing pig sales.

Dry sows were kept outdoors until 18 months ago on the 800-sow unit owned by Mike Hook, Sandilands Farm, Laughterton, Lincoln.

Mr Hook has eight pig units and 3500 Cotswold sows in total, producing breeding stock, weaners, and bacon pigs.

He cites cost savings of £17,000 a year at the Sandilands Farm unit from reducing concentrate use by 0.16t a sow a year to 1.21t, and £15,000/year by staffing the unit with one less man.

As an outdoor unit it was successful with 300 sows, but when numbers increased sows were sent outdoors three weeks after service and performance suffered, says Mr Hook.

"In hot weather, the farrowing rate dropped to 60%, but since housing it has increased to a consistent 87%." Together with an increase in pigs born alive a litter from 10.4 to 10.7, the pigs reared a sow a year has increased by 3.3, from 18.7 to 22, he claims

The sows are housed in 30 straw-bedded pens, with three rows of 10 pens in the building.

Each pen has 18 stalls, providing 540 sow spaces. But only 17 sows are housed in each pen to allow room for a boar. Space allowance is 2.4sq m (25.7sq ft) a sow in excess of current guidelines.

The building was put up using farm labour at a cost of £410 a sow for the 540 places. Design and equipment was supplied by building specialists Lambert Geerken.

The new dry sow housing has reduced aggression between sows. "They can shut themselves in the stalls away from bullies," he says. "There is less vulva biting than there was with the outdoor unit."

The farm staff prefer the stalls and yards to the outdoor system. "You know where the sows are and its easier to keep an eye on them," says unit manager John Lovell. "Tasks such as pregnancy diagnosis and vaccinations are easy when sows are in the stalls."

The disadvantage is the noise of the metal work as sows open and close the stall gates, he says.

The building is well insulated, ventilation can be adjusted on each side, and the ridge vent raised or lowered, to maintain a constant temperature, says Mr Hook.

The 17 sows in each group enter the building from the service house, having been served within four days of each other. They are not split or mixed again in the dry period.

Sows returning to service are served by one of the boars which is run with the sows for four weeks, from two weeks after first service. Returning sows remain in the group and enter a holding pen in the service house when the rest of the group go into the farrowing house.

The daily routine begins at 9.30am. An alarm sounds and the feed is dropped from the automatic feeding system, without anyone entering the building. "This way the sows do not expect to be fed every time someone opens the door," says Mr Hook.

Each sow enters a stall and pushes up the front bar with her nose to get at the feed trough. This drops the gate down behind her. Only the sow inside the stall, or the pigman, can open the gate, so she is protected for as long as she remains in the stall. The sow opens the gate by pushing a lever as she walks backwards.

Sows in each pen receive the same ration. Usually this is 2.1kg a head, increasing to 2.7kg a head three weeks before farrowing. "When sow condition in the group is above average or poor the feed is adjusted," says Mr Lovell.

"Kirncroft" overhead drop feed hoppers are adjusted from walking boards on the stalls. Feeders refill automatically after dispensing the ration.

The pigman locks sows in the feeders for the yards to be cleaned out. One of the three lines of pens is cleaned out each day and two round straw bales are unrolled down the line.

"It was decided that two bales were right for the system after one and three bales were tried," says assistant manager Richard Battersby.

Straw keeps the sows occupied, says Mr Hook. To help keep it fresh a drainage system of small holes leading to a larger bore pipe is laid in the concrete floor.

Stall floors are insulated so they are warm for the sows to lie on. "Over 50% of the sows choose to lie down locked in the stalls in preference to lying in the straw yard," he says.