#12 Transition to Pen Gestation

posted on Wednesday, December 21, 2016

As 2016 comes to a close we’d like share our top 12 highlights of our billion pound journey along with some of our lows. We’ll roll these out one by one, in no specific order, and hope you enjoy the series. Most of all, we’d like to showcase the accomplishments of our caretakers, and thank all of our employees and contractors for one heck of a year. Read on for the first installment....

“I’ve never been more proud of these managers who have lived through a 14-month upheaval, completely changed how they managed breeding and gestation, re-trained themselves and their teams and never once took a step back in production,” said Noel Williams, Chief Operating Officer for Iowa Select Farms, in talking about our ten, 4,200 head sow farms that were transitioned to pen gestation this year.

“The message was clear from our customers on where we needed to be,” said Williams. “It’s a sensitive subject, because as producers we want to always do what is right for the animals and their nutrition, their health, their productivity and overall care, but at the same time we have customers who want us to change, so we have to listen, understand and work together on these things.”

“To start, Williams and his production and construction teams looked hard at the existing sow farms to see what was possible, knowing there was a lot more life in the barns built 20-24 years ago. They also researched options, touring other sow systems and working with members of the Production Well-Being Advisory Committee to find a solution that would allow sows to gestate in an open pen setting, versus in individual maternity pens where caretakers could keep an eye on body condition, feed intake and overall health. And more importantly, protect sows from the aggressive ones trying to establish dominance in the pen.

After assessing electronic sow feeding, free stall, trickle and drop feeding systems—along with determining what was possible inside the existing barns—the team developed a design for pens of 12 sows. The design utilized the current feed troughs paired with 18 inches of stantion and also included a caretaker walk-through between the pens. After that, it was all about gilt development and how to transition from the GDUs into the remodeled sow farms.

“All of our gilts were already in group housing which was an advantage,” said Dan Dean, Senior Sow and GDU Supervisor. “Transitioning from stalls to pens goes all the way back to gilt development, and our GDU and sow teams did an outstanding job of managing growth rate, second estrus, age and weight correctly, teeing up successful gilt introduction into the pen gestation farms.”

Dan said the GDU managers placed a greater emphasis on gilt selection, placing higher requirements for sound legs and feet than in the past. “We also maintained pen integrity through the first farrow,” said Dean, meaning the gilts were bred in stalls and immediately moved into pens of 12 at the GDU, then kept the same pen mates at the sow farm.

After farrowing and lactation, sows are moved to a stall, bred, and then placed back into a group pen upon confirmation of pregnancy. Employees manage a drop feeding system where they keep a sharp eye on body condition and adjust the feed allotments accordingly. “Sows are creatures of habit,” said Dean. “Even though there are no longer stalls, they still eat and lay in the same spot, which allows us some control in making sure their nutrition needs are met.”

While the gestation areas of the farm were being remodeled, the parity sows were moved to finishing farms (without drop feeder capabilities) where they were on full feed, which actually helped to reduce sow aggression. “We didn’t want to go backwards or create gaps in production,” said Williams. “Our transportation and caretaking teams stepped up to make sure the sows were carefully moved and welcomed into a new, but comfortable, environment.

Our caretakers stepped up and managed through not one but ten of these remodels this year, carefully moving 42,000 total sows to and from finishing farms with minimal issues around health, nutrition or overall aggression when they returned to the remodeled sow farm. All accomplished without a textbook and thousands of moving parts and daily decisions to be made. “It was a phenomenal effort by these teams of caretakers, who made every effort to make sure the sows were comfortable and well-cared for in their temporary ‘off-site’ homes, while at the same time determined to keep their farms and production moving forward,” said Williams.

Mary Kraft, the first sow farm manager to go through the pen gestation remodel, not only led her 13-person team through the transition but has also helped advise her fellow farm managers on potential pitfalls. “We knew it would be different and we knew there would be aggression, and the rest we learned day-by-day, minute-by-minute.”

“Our biggest fear was the well-being of the sows,” said Mary. “But we trained ourselves to be more observant of ‘at risk’ animals and established a sick pen to move sows away from the aggressive ones.” Mary said her team also spent a lot of time looking at legs and feet for signs of lameness, and assessed body condition every day.

Bill Bergquist, manager of Sow 3, another farm that transitioned early, agreed. “We had to put even more focus on the daily care, observation and management of the sows when they were first put into group pen settings. The initial turn was not only different for us but difficult, but after that we’ve found it to be a very good environment for the animals and the farm is running smoothly.”

“We kept feeding time consistent, and also used it as a tool to minimize aggression,” said Mary. “When we sprinkled it on the floor the sows were less focused on each other and more on the feed. We also walked through the pens every day, sometimes twice a day to keep as many sets of eyes on the sows.”

Mary and her team also kept an extra watchful eyeful on older parity sows (sows who have birthed 4, 5 or 6 litters) and admitted that this part was the roughest to manage. “They were used to their stalls, but every time they returned from farrowing they got a little more comfortable in the group pen,” explained Mary, who also stayed away from mixing gilts with sows and tried to group together sows with similar body conditions.

Despite the construction and support teams in and out of her farm, the additional movements and learning a completely new way of breeding and gestation management, Mary and her team landed in the #3 spot on the SelectPride ranking for that time period, a remarkable achievement.

“In fact not one of the ten sow farms that completed the pen gestation remodel this year has taken a step back in performance or production well-being,” said Williams. “This tells me if you have a good plan paired with great managers and teams who care tremendously for their animals and their farms you can do anything you put your mind to.” #billionpounds