Dealing with aggression, finding the best design, and retraining barn workers are some of the issues producers will have to deal with when they shift to open housing
If it’s time to update your hog barn or if you’re thinking about new equipment, then it’s also time to think about converting your sow gestation stalls to open-housing systems.
“We’re working with the date of 2025, and we’re continuing to encourage producers to look at that date as well,” said Mark Fynn, animal care specialist with the Manitoba Pork Council.
Several major food chains have announced in the last year that they are moving towards gestation-stall-free pork, said Fynn, adding his organization recognizes consumers’ attitudes are driving the change.
“In general, the public doesn’t stand behind the current system of gestation housing,” he said.
Farmers believe gestation stalls are consistent with good animal welfare practices, but they also understand there is a need to provide what the market is seeking, he said.
So it makes sense for the council to work with researchers and producers to address concerns about group housing.
“You’re always going to have sow aggression, it’s just a behaviour you see between sows, but it’s a matter of trying to minimize that in a group setting,” said Fynn.
Sows often become aggressive during feeding and so one area of research is focused on the effectiveness of electronic feeding systems or free-access-stall systems, he said.
Environmental enrichment, such as the addition of hanging chains or tennis balls, is also used to lessen aggression between sows, but the jury is still out on that practice. In some instances, the toys may just be something else to fight over, he said.
“There isn’t too much research in the area of enrichment right now,” said Fynn.
The cost of converting barns is also being closely examined.
“We’re at the stage in our research where we’re trying to estimate the costs, but obviously it’s going to vary from barn to barn based on design,” he said.
The current ballpark figure is $500 to $600 per sow space.
“So that could be quite substantial depending on the size of your operation,” said Fynn.
Moving to open housing also means additional training programs for staff.
“It’s not a simple solution, you can’t just rip out the old stalls and put them in groups, it has to be well thought out and the design has to be bang on,” he added.
The silver lining is that this effort might create new marketing opportunities.
“There is a potential for some value,” he said. “But a lot of our markets, including our domestic market, haven’t really shown a strong will to pay more.”
And the thought of spending a lot of money with no return isn’t going down well at a time when many producers are suffering huge losses because of high feed costs.
“(Producers) see this huge capital cost coming and there’s this threat that there won’t be any real payback,” said Fynn. “There might even be an increase to cost of production, so it’s worrisome.”