Pigs can be healthier and more productive with straw under their feet instead of just bare concrete, research at the University of Manitoba indicates.
A three-year study at the University of Manitoba’s National Centre for Livestock and the Environment found that group-housed gestating sows on straw had fewer leg and hoof problems and better productivity. Culling rates were lower and the sows remained in the herd longer than animals on partially slatted concrete floors.
The results suggest producers can save money on sow replacements simply by providing straw bedding, researchers say.
Ease of movement is the biggest reason why sows appear to do better on straw than concrete, said Laurie Connor, the animal scientist animal scientist who collaborated on the study.
The sows on straw had less soreness and swelling in their legs and hooves because of the cushioning effect underfoot. They also tended to have fewer problems with stiff joints and experienced less difficulty getting up and moving around, Connor said.
As a result, there was less “non-voluntary” culling among sows on straw than sows on concrete.
New sows also settled down sooner when introduced to the herd because they had straw to pre-occupy them. Sows on slatted concrete floors spent more time fighting and jostling to establish their place in the hierarchy, possibly because they had nothing to distract them.
Productivity among sows on straw was slightly higher because animals remained longer in the herd. Connor said sows are most productive during their third or fourth gestation. These days, replacement rates in sow herds can approach 50 per cent a year. Retaining sows for longer periods of time may lower replacement rates to 30 to 35 per cent. Keeping sows while they approach peak productivity not only results in more piglets; it’s also less expensive for the producer, Connor said.
With all the apparent advantages to housing sows on straw – settling down better, easier movement, fewer foot problems, lower culling and replacement rates, improved productivity – why aren’t more producers doing it?
Simply because the industry right now isn’t set up that way, Connor said.
Straw-based pig production is largely confined to outdoor biotechs. Nearly all modern production is slurry-based and occurs indoors on partially-slatted concrete floors located over manure pits.
Connor emphasized NCLE isn’t attempting to demonstrate the superiority of one system over another. It’s just trying to develop a model producers can use in loose housing.
“We’re saying, if this is the kind of facility you need to have, how can we make it work best for you?”
Connor noted producers involved in straw-based handling need to be aware of certain things. These include: manure handling capability, availability of straw, straw storage, rodent control and the possible transmissions of toxins in the straw.
Another issue is the need to change straw in sow pens regularly, which involves more work.
But it may not be as much work as some might think, Connor said. Given enough room and the right environment, pigs on straw break up their space into three well-defined areas for eating, sleeping and dunging. As a result, only a third of the area needs to be cleared out daily. [email protected]