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Pilot program aims to nail down conversion costs

Squeezing a new design into an old barn takes careful planning, 
but the Prairie Swine Centre hopes to give producers a head start 
by developing information to guide the process

A new pilot project aims to give Prairie hog producers a better handle on the cost of converting existing sow barns to open-housing systems.

“People will need to have more access to the different sow housing options that are out there, and at the moment that’s quite difficult for any producer to understand,” said Helen Thoday, manager of contract research with the Prairie Swine Centre, which has launched the project with the assistance of the University of Manitoba.

Much of the talk around the issue of open housing has been theoretical and not a practical examination of options, methods and costs, she said.

The project will examine two barn conversions — one in Manitoba and another in Saskatchewan, taking into account existing slatted areas, as well as drainage and slurry systems.

“Lots of producers are thinking about that process and not necessarily taking action, but wanting to know what the possibilities are down the line, because at this point nobody knows,” Thoday said.

In Manitoba, the barn chosen for the project belongs to the La Broquerie-based HyLife.

“There has been a lot of announcements out there about having retailers and consumers wanting loose-housed pork, so we see this as probably a specialty program that could be an opportunity in the future, so for us to do that we wanted to understand what the costs are to converting a barn,” said HyLife vice-president Claude Vielfaure. “We see this as a value-added product.”

Although a draft Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pigs released by the National Farm Animal Care Council indicates gestation stalls will only be allowed for 35 days per cycle by July 2024 if implemented, Vielfaure said that hasn’t factored into his company’s decision to participate in the program.

“It’s ongoing, so no final code has come out, so as far as what the rules are going to be has not been finally determined yet,” he said. “Our policy is we believe both stalls and loose housing are comparable as far as animal welfare.”

But making a change to loose or open housing isn’t cheap, so his company jumped at the chance to work with engineers and experts on plans for a 6,000-sow barn, he said.

Plans are being created for both barns that give the producer four or five open-housing systems to choose from, along with estimated costs for each. Neither barn operator has yet committed to go ahead with the conversion, but Thoday said that may change once producers see the plans and have a look at their options.

“I think originally, when this was all talked about a number of years ago… people were thinking maybe you could convert for about $400 per sow place and we now know it’s going to be much closer to $1,000 per sow,” said Thoday, adding recent work by the University of Guelph put the cost at $800 per sow.

It’s also hoped the project will help identify what kind of training is needed for barn managers making the move to the new system.

“It’s well and good to have a blueprint, but we need to start communicating with people that you need to manage these systems, and I think that is going to be the next step,” Thoday said.

The first stage of the project, design and blueprinting, is expected to be complete by the end of the year.

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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