2 June 1995

The future of feeding

Electronic sow feeding and group housing come under the spotlight in the first of our special features considering life without stalls and tethers. Jessica Buss reports

ELECTRONIC sow feeding must be the management system of the future, for it enables individual feeding control with group housing, says Prof Peter Brooks of Seale-Hayne College, University of Plymouth.

The college pig unit, Newton Abbot, Devon, has seen three electronic sow feeding systems in the past 10 years. The current one has been in place for five years and Prof Brooks is convinced the layout is right this time. "If a system is working, only 10% of the sows should be standing up when the building is entered," he says.

The 30-year-old building is 225sq m and houses 80-90 sows and gilts. "Sow flow around the building and the arrangement of the furniture is far more important to the success of the system than the space provided," maintains Prof Brooks.

Sow behaviour at the unit has been studied for three years by post-graduate student Nikki Hodgkiss. "Compared with other systems there is less aggression, for there is no competition for resources," says Ms Hodgkiss. She has recorded few injuries and found tail and vulva biting rare. Although there is some pushing when freshly served sows and gilts are introduced to the group, there is little aggression, she says.

Gilts tended to stay in the dunging area for the first few days then found a place on the edge of the straw yard. After feeding or time out for farrowing, sows often returned to the same place in the yard.

Pre-service gilts are penned where they can see the feeders. "Once served, gilts join the main group and are not scared of the feeders, because they have seen sows enter them," says Prof Brooks. "It takes a maximum of three days before the gilts learn to use the feeders on their own.

"A choice of environments should be available to keep sows happy. For example, sows like to choose where to lie, and when they are hot lie on concrete in the dunging area. Bedding is essential, as it adds much to the sows environment, such as comfort, entertainment and additional gut fill."

The yard has never been cleaned out, and the compost base provides warmth for the sows. The feeding and dunging area is scraped out daily, a routine that takes about half an hour.

Sows are observed when the building is scraped out and when staff walk past. Noise from the sows alerts the stockperson to potential trouble. "In the day the sows are very settled and it is easy to check them and to sort out sows for farrowing," says Ms Hodgkiss.

The feeding cycle starts in the afternoon, as sows are naturally twilight feeders. By the following morning the computer print-out will identify those sows which havent fed. "It is rare for a sow to lose her transponder provided it is fitted correctly," says Prof Brooks.

Rationing is decided by a visual assessment of sow condition as she enters the group. The ration is set for 2.2-3.2kg a sow a day, until the last week of pregnancy, when feed is increased by 1kg a sow. Rations are changed only when a sows condition alters.

Boars can be kept in the group, but they must have a good temperament. "They can grow too big to use the feeder and can also cause injury to sows when they become bored," says Prof Brooks.

He says sow health in the building is good, lameness rare and the performance results indicate good conception rates. Sows commonly have 10 parities and culling rates are low.

Sows are so content, says Ms Hodgkiss, that some injections can be given in the straw yard, although for other treatments a sow weigher in the building is used.

"The feeders should not be used for anything other than feeding for it is important sows enter them freely," she says. "The sow does not associate the stockperson with feeding, so shows interest and not aggression towards them."

"Indeed, electronic sow feeding encourages a different relationship between sow and stockperson," says Prof Brooks. &#42