When Denise Beaulieu asked a group of pork producers if they’re planning to convert their barns over to group housing in the next couple years, not a single hand went up.
“We know it’s coming up, we know at some point we have to do this,” said Beaulieu, a nutrition expert at the Prairie Swine Centre who spoke at a recent producer meeting at the William Glesby Centre in Portage la Prairie.
The tepid response wasn’t surprising, said Swine Centre CEO Lee Whittington.
“To be fair, we just came off of five years of losses, so there hasn’t been a lot of desire to reinvest in the industry — or ability to reinvest,” he said.
He said pork producers are still trying to digest the new Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pigs, which came out a few weeks ago and outlines an end to gestation stalls by July 2024.
“There’s a bunch of other factors at play, so let them make money for a couple of years and I think you’ll see some creative solutions coming out of it,” Whittington said.
But when those conversions take place, the silver lining is new research showing that group housing has production benefits, such as the potential for larger litters.
A study done by the centre resulted in an increase of one piglet per litter for group-housed sows that were fed using an electronic sow-feeding system, Beaulieu said.
“We don’t know why this happens, but it certainly shows that you can house sows in groups and maintain reproductive performance,” she said. “Birth weights also went up in the animals housed in groups, so we got a much bigger overall size of kilograms born with the animals housed in groups.”
Lower heating costs may be another fringe benefit.
With greater movement possible, sows can spread out to cool off in the summer and huddle closer together to generate warmth in the winter.
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“This is actually someplace where group housing… might be able to have an advantage,” said Beaulieu. “So we could maybe drop the temperature a little bit during the winter and the sows would still be comfortable.”
One unexpected finding coming from research at the swine centre is that sows in group-housing situations don’t expend more energy than those in stalls. In fact, they may actually use less energy than their stalled counterparts.
The reason? Sows in group open housing tend to take a load off more often.
“We think, because it’s easier for them to lay down, they may actually lay down more,” Beaulieu said, adding that more research on the behavioural aspects of open housing still needs to be done.
While the exact scientific explanations are unknown, the researcher noted that pigs use more energy to simply stand than other animals, so the more they lay down, the less feed is required.
But Beaulieu said the benefits won’t fully compensate for the massive cost of retrofitting a barn, or building from scratch.
“To be very frank, I don’t think the numbers we’re talking in terms of changing feed energy requirement — when you’re talking about millions to renovate your barn — would sweeten the pot much,” she said.
But there is a wide range of estimates for how high those costs are.
A new study by the Centre de Developpment du Porc du Quebec, estimates that an operation with 2,400 productive sows could retrofit a barn for as little as $278 in some circumstances.
Whittington said the major determining factor in renovation costs is the condition of the barn, particularly its floor.
“I think we’re actually getting better data now — before I think people were just plucking numbers out of the air, based on, ‘I knew a producer down in North Dakota and he did this,’” he said, adding that estimates still vary widely, going as high as $1,200 per sow place.
“It still seems like a phenomenally wide range… but if you cut into that data you would see there is actually some substance to it,” he said.