14 July 1995

Its curtains for stalls and

tethers…

Plastic curtains are an important part of a novel, straw-based group housing system that has replaced stalls on one 1000-sow Bedfordshire estate.

Michael Gaisford reports

CURTAINS it may be for dry sow stalls in a couple of years. But on one 1000-sow Bedfordshire estate, plastic curtains are an important part of a novel straw-based group housing system developed for the herd.

Knowing that sow housing changes are on the way, since 1992 Bedfordia Livestock has been experimenting with different designs of loose housing to replace the sow stalls for its two 400-sow commercial herds and 220-head Cotswold multiplication unit on the 2000ha (5000-acre) Bedfordia Estate at Milton Ernest, Bedford.

Different shapes

Trials with differently shaped pens and feeding systems led to a £180,000 investment in a new building for 290 dry sows. It has now been tried and tested successfully for 12 months.

The building is the brainchild of Bedfordia Livestock managing director Graham Tucker and his production manager Richard Smith.

"It has been working very well, and when we have to move all of our sows out of stalls, we will put up similar buildings for them, if we can afford it," says Mr Tucker.

"What the pig industry needs now is two years of good prices to be able to finance the change from stalls to alternative systems. We reckon that we need at least 115p/kg deadweight for finishers in the next couple of years to be able to justify investment in any more new pig buildings," he adds.

The new building that he has put up has been 50% financed on a 10-year fixed rate loan. It cost £448 a sow place plus £130 a sow for new roads, services and excavation of a sloping site for the new steel framed building.

It boasts several novel design features. These include the building ventilation system, the curtain divided pens and a special mixing pen for groups of 18-20 sows when they are moved into the building after weaning.

Divided into 16

The new building, constructed by ARM of Rugeley, Staffs, is divided into 16 pens including the mixing pen on either side of a wide central service passage.

Each pen has a 9.14m (29.7ft) frontage and is 6.95m (22.6ft) deep. Stocked at 18 sows a pen, the animals have a generous space allowance of 3.52 sq m (37.25sq ft) a sow.

Sometimes the pens are stocked with 19 or 20 sows, but gilts are never introduced to the system until after their first farrowing.

Each pen has three nipple drinkers built into the service passage wall, and three E B dump feeders in their partially curtained-off rear section.

Feeding the 290 sows takes just three minutes once a day by turning a couple of handles which open-up the dump feeders to discharge a measured quantity of sow nuts on the straw below. Pens are strawed with big bales every 10 days.

The building has an open ridge, and ventilation through it is controlled carefully by two quite separate automatically controlled natural ventilation (ACNV) systems.

The more conventionally placed ACNV system consists of louvres in the side walls of the building at the back of each pen. But in addition there is a another ACNV system with sets of louvres located above the plastic curtaining which divides the front and back of the pens.

This curtaining is suspended to about a metre above floor level and helps create a cosy micro-environment at the back of the straw bedded pens for sows in the winter months.

The roof of the building is insulated behind the curtained-off pen area but is uninsulated down the centre where a generous number of roof lights provide good natural lighting for the building.

In the special mixing pen the translucent plastic curtaining is supplemented by black colliery belting hung to floor level to give extra pen privacy for newly mixed groups of sows.

When sows are moved into this pen after their litters have been weaned they are also sprayed with a scent to encourage mixing, and a boar is introduced with them to help form a new social group of sows.

In a typical week a group of sows is moved from the new dry sow house to the farrowing house on a Monday, and the pen is mucked out and refilled with a new group from the service building, plus a boar, on the Wednesday.

This new group will have been established the previous Thursday in the mixing pen.

On the Saturday it is split up temporarily into groups of three or four in the adjacent service house where sows are served on the Monday or Tuesday.

All new groups are established in the morning from sows moved from the farrowing house after 21-day weaning. On the morning of the move they are not fed in the farrowing house. Instead they are fed on transfer to the mixing pen which helps them settle down together.

The service building which was fitted with sow stalls and boar pens, is now fitted out with alternate pens of sows and boars so that every sow can have direct contact with a boar.

Manager pleased

Herd manager Phil Webb who runs this 400-sow unit at Highfields Farm, Ravensden with Ray Papworth and Bob Henshall, says he is pleased with the new group housing system that is replacing stalls.

"I think the sows are fitter than those in stalls, and there are fewer riding problems with them," says Mr Webb.

Herd performance to the year ending May 1995 resulted in 22.48 pigs a sow being reared to 30kg at the farm. At this weight they are transferred to a company finishing farm in Leicestershire and marketed through a farm assured scheme with Dalehead.

Mr Tucker reckons that there is very little difference in feed intake between loose housed sows and sows kept in stalls.

"We expected them to eat more, but some of our latest figures show yard fed sows eating only 1.06t a year compared with 1.16t a year for sows in stalls," says Mr Tucker.

He says that he would prefer to stay with a stall-based system which gives more consistent results and less husbandry problems.

"I know the public view it differently, but they do not see the vulva biting and friction that can occur in some groups of loose-housed sows.

"We find that some groups of sows mix better than others, and occasionally we do have to pull a sow out of a group", says Mr Tucker.

He considers that the loose housing system that he and his staff have developed is a practical alternative to stalls.

"On our heavy soil, outdoor pig farming is not an option that we could consider here", he says.

"We are still on a learning curve with group housing, but hope that we are producing a product that is acceptable to the public," says Mr Tucker.