Innovative Research Addresses Industry Challenges

BERNIE PEET Peet on Pigs

Bernie Peet is president of Pork Chain Consulting Ltd. of Lacombe, Alberta, and editor of Western Hog Journal. His columns will run every second week in the Manitoba

The Prairie Swine Centre (PSC) plays a unique role in the Canadian pork industry as one of the few establishments carrying out practical research focused on the needs of pig producers.

Like everyone in the pork sector, it has faced enormous challenges over the past few years, being forced to close its 600-sow Elstow barn and shed staff in order to survive. But now that industry fortunes are reviving, it is getting back into top gear and rehiring some key staff. Its 2010 annual report shows that even during hard times it continued a varied program of research projects in the areas of nutrition, engineering and ethology (animal behaviour). The report is available from the PSC website


Energy cost is a big issue for producers and previous PSC research showed huge variations between individual farms. Not only is there the opportunity to save costs through ensuring heating and ventilation systems are designed, operated and maintained correctly, but there is new technology that can cut energy costs dramatically.

Engineer Dr. Bernardo Predicala has been comparing the use of a ground-source heat pump (GSHP) or a heat exchanger with conventional heating. The ground-source heating system, also known as a geothermal heat pump, involved burying 1,800 ft. of polyethylene pipe in 10-ft.- deep trenches near the barn. The pipes contained 20 per cent methanol/80 per cent water solution for absorbing heat from the ground for heating and for using the ground as a heat sink when cooling was needed. A 1,500- cfm aluminum core heat recovery ventilator recovers the heat energy from the exhaust air stream by heat transfer to the incoming fresh air stream.

The comparison was carried out over the winter of 2010-11 in rooms of grow-finish pigs. “Pig performance in all three rooms was relatively similar, although feed intake tended to be lower in the rooms with the GSHP and heat exchanger compared to the conventional room,” says Predicala. “After one heating season, the use of the heat exchanger and ground-source heat pump system resulted in a 52 per cent and 39 per cent reduction in energy consumption (Figure 1) for heating and ventilation, respectively, relative to the conventional forced-convection heater.”

He adds that more data is required to more comprehensively compare the three systems. Despite the considerably higher cost of these new approaches, such large energy savings could well mean that we need to reconsider the way hog barn heating and ventilation is engineered.


Research on pig behaviour has primarily looked at group housing for gestating sows and large groups of finishing pigs. In practice, large-group auto-sort systems (LGAS) have not been universally successful, mainly due to a lack of understanding of their design relative to the pig’s requirements. Drs. Harold Gonyou and Jennifer Brown have studied the behaviour and productivity of pigs in LGAS with two different food court designs compared to those in conventional pens. One of the two LGAS layouts was laid out with feeders located in the centre of the food court, while in the other they were placed against the walls.

No differences in performance or feeding behaviour were found for the two food court arrangements studied. However, large-group auto-sort systems pose some significant challenges to pigs in terms of eating behaviour, says Dr. Gonyou. “Because the feeders can only be accessed through a sorter scale, the cost of moving to the feeders is greater than in small pens,” he explains.

“Despite these restrictions pigs pass through the sorter and eat in a typical diurnal pattern similar to that seen in small pens.” However, he notes, pigs in LGAS pens only enter the food court two to four times each day and have fewer meals (five versus 10-15) than in small pens. They compensate by eating longer during each meal. They also move freely about the food court, eating from several feeders each day.

Young pigs, who require more time to eat, may display a higher midday rate of eating, indicative of restricted feeder space, Gonyou points out. “We believe that a key to making food courts work effectively is to make sure the pigs know that food is present by introducing them to the food court, rather than the loafing area,” he says. “The food court should be spacious enough so that pigs have access to all of the feeders, and a feeder space should be provided for every 10-12 pigs.”


Over the last 10 years there has been a trend towards higher weaning age. However, although creep feeding prior to weaning is widely practised, a PSC survey indicated that producers are still uncertain about its benefits. Nutritionist Dr. Denise Beaulieu studied groups of the heaviest and lightest pigs weaned at 28 days that had either received creep feed for seven days prior to weaning or had not. Creep feeding increased weaning weight by 130 grams/day, but this was not statistically significant.

“Also, contrary to what we had hypothesized, piglets which had not received creep feed had improved growth during the initial two weeks post-weaning,” Beaulieu says. Feed intake was unaffected and therefore overall feed efficiency was improved in non-creep-fed piglets, she adds. Overall, creep feeding had no sustained benefit in either light-or heavyweight pigs during the nursery phase, Beaulieu says.


4,342 1,663

Room Ground-source heat pump

Heat exchanger Control Heating Energy Consumption (GJ) Ventilation


2,978 4,071



7,320 5,733


About the author

Co-operator's recent articles



Stories from our other publications