Automatic-sorting machines have shown several advantages since their introduction a few years ago, but building a new barn to accommodate the technology was too much of an investment for many producers.

There has been increased popularity, and more focus from the auto-sort manufacturers, in retro-fitting older barns for the system.

Retro-fitting an existing facility reduces the time and money that a producer must invest in auto-sort technology. Farmweld’s FAST II Alley system can be installed in a day, and puts the sorting scale in the center or side alley of existing barns.

Osborne Industries’ Weight Watcher system allows similar installation ease.

“With our system you need to decide if you want a center alley, a side alley or no alley at all, and then everything else falls into place,” says Lyle Jones, national sales manager for Osborne. “You don’t have to do major surgery to your building to install the system.”

“If you’re remodeling a building, you may have to replace many of the gates and pens. Installing an auto-sort system may not be much more work than that,” says Jay Harmon agricultural engineer Iowa State University. “You also need to decide if your electricity is up to par; whether you have the capability for the pneumatic systems.”

Electrical capacity is important because if there’s a system failure, the gates could get stuck open, rendering the auto-sort useless.

One advantage of retro-fitting a barn is that the equipment can be installed in one day and costs about $12,000, says Frank Brummer, Farmweld’s president. That’s about half of the costs of installing the equipment in a new food-court design.

The technology’s benefit is being able to sell more hogs at your packer’s optimal weight. Reviewing your packer’s grid is crucial. The benefits will be greater for packers with a tight weight-window, like Hormel than for packers that are less specific about weight ranges like IBP.

“There is opportunity in any program to increase the throughput and sell more hogs at the top weight range,” says Brummer. “You can gain $5 to $6 per pig by increasing your throughput.”

“The auto sort should pay for itself in one to two years’ time,” says Ron Ness, a producer from Hinckley, Ill., who runs 1,400 hogs through remodeled auto-sort facilities.

A 1,000-head producer can gain $7,000 to $10,000 a year by sorting and selling all the pigs at the right weight on the right day, says Allen Schinckel, animal scientist at Purdue University.

“A producer that has specific time constraints in terms of pig flow, or systems where entire barns are marketed in a single draft may see less gain from an auto-sort system

than one with less time constraints,” says Steve Moeller, Ohio State University Extension swine specialist. “The opportunities are pig-flow driven, depending on whether pig flow is based on time or weight.”

He adds, that for producers with the opportunity to sell to multiple packers, auto-sort systems allow for more segregated marketing opportunities, like selling lightweight pigs to one packer and heavy hogs to another.

Management opportunities can arise from auto-sort systems, as well. Because of the continuous sorting of hogs, for example, you can feed different diets by weight.

“One of the big advantages is the ability to manage feed budgets more effectively,” says Jones. “By not overfeeding costly soybean meal in different rations, some producers have saved as much as $2,000 a turn (earlier this year.) You can segregate feeding Paylean by weights, allowing lightweight pigs to catch up and avoid dumping barns.”

There are other, less tangible, though still important advantages to auto sorts. Animal-welfare concerns are a growing issue, and the technology creates less fighting in large-pen systems.

“In large pens, pigs have a bigger flight zone, so they can get away from aggressive pigs,” says Harmon. “Each pig can find its own comfort area in large pens.”

So, the auto-sort technology can make for “happier pigs” but what about people?

“It makes loading pigs a lot easier, especially if you are short of help,” says Ness. “An auto-sort system won’t make a poor loading design good, but it will make any design better. The pigs become more familiar with going through gates, which makes it easier for the workers to load them at market time.”

Brummer says the labor savings for FAST Alley are worth about 76 cents per pig. Workers like the technology because they encounter fewer injuries.

Both Brummer and Jones say their new designs for retro-fitted barns do not require you to train the pigs.  Many original auto-sort systems required such training before the system was useful.

“In alley sort, if a pig doesn’t figure out how to work the one-way alleys and the scale, it is no big deal, because the pig still has access to feed and water,” says Ness. “In the food-court layout, if a pig doesn’t find its way into the court its performance will suffer.”

The alley design plays off pigs’ natural curiosity to explore their environment. Pigs are given access to the alley and they learn to use the scale as they move through the alleyway and back to the pens. Producers can be assured that pigs are using the scale by simply closing certain gates and observing what happens.

Jones adds that Osborne uses the pigs’ natural movements from water to feed and back to water. The pigs will naturally cycle back and forth from water to feed throughout the day.

Let’s say you’ve decided to incorporate auto-sort technology, but are debating whether to retro-fit existing barns or build new. The two biggest factors to consider are the condition of your current barn and whether you want to expand production or not. If you have no expansion plans, have a structurally sound building and trust the electric system, retro-fitting is probably a sound option for you.

“I see pros and cons to retro-fitting and new construction,” says Harmon. “If your building shell still has life you can get by with remodeling parts of it. Yet, anytime you build new construction, you can get it exactly how you want it.”

If the barn’s concrete is still intact and it’s just a matter of replacing gates, feeders and waterers, the retrofit costs will be small. Moeller says he can’t see putting a lot of money into the physical structure of a building to retrofit it.

You need to be ready to make changes required to use auto-sort technology. “It requires a paradigm shift in management,” says Moeller. “You’ll go from having 20 or 25 pigs per pen to 500 or more pigs per pen, and you have to be aware of the challenges that large pens present.”

Producers will need to be more observant. Pig health and condition, and treating sick pigs are common challenges of large groups. In addition, maintenance of scales and computer controls will be necessary and can be challenging. Moeller says some producers may not be up to the task of large groups and auto-sort technology. Expertise and willingness to explore new options will determine those who decide to make the change.

Next, you need to decide what type of auto-sort system works best for you. Some have food courts that offer food and water in the same location. Criticism of this type of system is that some pigs may never leave the food court, which means you don’t get true data.

Other floor plans have the feeders in one area and the waters in another area, so pigs have to exit the food court to get water. Criticisms with this system are that it doubles the traffic onto the scales and gates, and will require more maintenance. This also limits water availability to pigs.

While auto-sort technology is considered to have many upsides, the high cost, labor and time required to build a new barn were obstacles to implementing this technology. Now that retro-fitting existing barns to access the technology is catching on, it’s another management tool to consider.

Like any tool, it won’t be right for everyone, but if reducing sort loss, increasing throughput or improving management of feed budgets are goals, these systems might be for you.