Routine care and feeding of hogs has become easier and more efficient, thanks to steady improvements in equipment. Today, and in the future, you can expect many additional gains thanks to the continued availability of new automation.

The benefits that automation offers are becoming clearer as more products come on the market and the agricultural labor supply continues to tighten.

“When repeating a simple task hour after hour, staying alert is difficult for anyone, no matter how dedicated they are,” says Ron Thibault, who heads an engineering team at Osborne Industries, Osborne, Kan., to develop and perfect automated hog equipment. “Monotony leads to inefficiency and mistakes.”

He believes the best use of time in hog units for competent, conscientious employees is to mechanize tasks when possible. This has the added benefit of ensuring that the job is performed consistently. He acknowledges that automation is only useful “providing the investment is within reason and the cost is justified.”

In a recent presentation, Thibault listed some general advantages that automated equipment – from various manufacturers – offers you today:

  • Reduces manual labor.
  • Provides relief from tedious, repetitive chores.
  • Improves use of on-farm talent.
  • Facilitates information-based production.
  • Makes group housing efficient and practical.
  • Improves animal care and well-being.
  • Can reduce labor requirements, depending on the segment of the operation.

Thibault recommends adopting automation in phases. Start with equipment that needs to be replaced, and do it when it’s financially feasible for you to introduce such products.    

“Before replacing old, worn-out equipment, consider proven automation alternatives that are available. Then, before making a decision, look critically at the cost/benefit value of the new automation,” he says.

Thibault’s experience, “making the decision to adopt the new method is actually the biggest obstacle.” 

He points to a hand-held data logger as an example. “While $1,500 to $2,000 may look high, payback can be fast, by eliminating data-entry time and error-prone paper records. At the end of the day, data is easily and accurately transferred electronically to a personal computer.”

He believes a hand-held data logger built to hold up under difficult farm conditions will eventually drop to $1,000 to $1,500.

Group feeding of gestating sows and finishing hogs can now be handled automatically, Thibault says. “For example, an electronic tag in the ear of each sow ensures that she gets exactly the right amount of feed while housing her in a group setting. You can still maintain – or improve – performance and get the added bonus of group handling to avoid animal-welfare pressures.”

Among the producers introducing automation into their operations is Prestage Farms in Sampson County, N.C. They are taking a cautious, cost-conscious approach to selecting automated equipment, and testing it on a limited scale.

“We want to make sure it pays for itself one way or another,” says Zack McCullen, vice president of swine production for Prestage.

Automatic sow feeding
McCullen and others at Prestage are especially enthusiastic about their experiences with automated sow feeding.

What they like most is that it lets them tailor the amount of feed given to individual sows at each feeding – even changing it every day. A time clock releases feed simultaneously to all sows in the room, which helps reduce noise levels.       

On Prestage Farms, a nursing sow gets 16 to 20 pounds per day, divided into four feedings. (Sows are weaned when pigs reach 16 to 21 days of age.)

“We monitor feed consumption once a day as we walk through the building to check sows. At that time, we can fine-tune the amount (each one) receives,” says McCullen.

One benefit of this has been that nursing sows’ feed consumption has increased versus when they were fed three times a day. “As a result, piglet weaning weights are higher,” says McCullen. “Conception rates also have improved appreciably.”

He notes that the big advantage has occurred in labor savings. It now takes two less people to run a 2,000-sow, farrow-to-wean farm. “The system also is more consistent than humans. It never gets tired or sick and is always dependable,” says McCullen.

Prestage Farms has had no significant maintenance problems with the three brands of automatic sow feeders it uses on various sites.

Automatic weigh-sorting
Even the most experienced stockperson’s eyes cannot compete with the accuracy of electronic scales. The scales greatly minimize the stress on hogs and people compared with eyeballing, marking and sorting pigs. For that matter, it’s even less stressful than weighing pigs in most conventional scales.

McCullen says that while electronic sorting has advantages, and is certainly intriguing, the Prestage folks still have questions. For this reason, the company is conducting a test in a retrofitted 735-head finishing barn that contract producers Tony and Ronnie Matthis own. Prestage wants to find out if the benefits of automatic-weigh sorting justify the sizable investment.  It is a cooperative, four-way project between manufacturer Osborne Industries, distributor Hog Slat, the Matthis family and Prestage Farms.

“The 14-year-old building was ready for retrofitting because the concrete slats and pens were worn out and needed replacing,” notes McCullen. To put an automated weigh-sort system in a new building, including pens, costs $6 to $10 more than for a conventional building with a feeder-fill system.

Pigs go into the building with a weigh-sort system at 45 to 50 pounds. Gates are kept open until they reach 80 to 90 pounds; then the automatic system is turned on. Prestage’s target market weight is 255 to 260 pounds.

Weights of individual market hogs can be sorted to within a few pounds. Narrowing that weight window does pay off, emphasizes McCullen. “It reduces sort discounts. Also, by giving smaller pigs a better environment to gain weight, they can reach market sooner. We have found that you can narrow the marketing time substantially, closing out a group sooner than the usual two or three weeks.”

Switching from a conventional finishing-house floor plan as recommended eliminated a 3-foot central alley. This increased animal space, but McCullen says it also creates a potential safety hazard for people who have to work in the building. A single pig’s curiosity can make working around it a challenge, certainly that multiplies when there’s a group of them surrounding you. “Workers have to be extra careful not to slip or be injured by animals,” he notes.

Two or three days before a load of pigs is marketed, they move into a holding area, which is one of the innovations Prestage is testing. Others include various pen arrangements for a two scale-gate system.

Prestage also plans to try feeding a special diet to lightweight pigs. “We want to see if pigs that are smaller going into the building can be helped to catch up with those that are heavier at the start,” says McCullen. “This would further narrow the marketing window.”

Remote-control, boar mover
In several ways, a motorized boar-moving cart or “limo” is a great improvement over manually handling these animals, says McCullen.

He points out that on a 2,000-sow farm, two people now handle artificial insemination duties versus the three that it required in the past.

“It is easy to position the boar for nose-to-nose contact with the sow, which increases stimulation,” says McCullen. As a result, conception rates have increased 3 percent to 5 percent on farms where employees use a boar limo. Of course, there’s also the advantage of improved safety and reduced stress for the workers. 

“All of our sow farms have a boar limo, some have two,” he notes.

There are several boar-movers on the market today. The point is to find one that fits your personal style and the configuration of your facilities.

Motorized dead-animal cart
Removing a dead animal from a crate or a pen is not simply a challenge; it’s a worker’s compensation claim waiting to happen. That alone makes motorized dead-animal carts a smart purchase. Another advantage is that it again requires less labor to do an unpleasant job.

“A 100-pound person can easily remove a 500-pound sow. Because there is little physical effort, it also eliminates sprains and back injuries,” notes McCullen.

With the cart in the alley, a battery-powered winch pulls the animal carcass out of the crate and onto the cart. After fastening the carcass securely, the worker pulls the cart out to the building’s loading dock where a tractor moves the carcass to the farm’s incinerator.

In Prestage’s case, the cart’s 12-volt battery is charged weekly by the same charger used for the boar mover.

The future
Exciting automation is already available, but Thibault says more is coming. He points to some additional applications that are on the market or are being perfected:

  • Electronic estrus detection systems that maintain surveillance of all gilts and sows in a building. It shows when each will come into heat. Then, every day it shows which animals are to be bred. It eliminates teaser boars, saves time and labor while improving conception rates.
  • Visual growth monitoring.
  • Feed-bin monitoring that tracks disappearance rates. Tying it into a computer in the farm office or mill shows the amount of feed left in each bin. It projects when the bin will need to be refilled and specifies the ration.
  • Odor measuring and mapping systems.
  • Complete production system, with interactive workstations would perform many tasks. For example, pinpoint any animal’s location on the farm and its current status; dispense feed to each animal based on its requirements; identify gilts and sows that are to be pregnancy-checked on any given day.

No one can foresee all the ways that automation will ultimately benefit pork producers. Also, no one can tell you which one to consider adding to your operation. As you look at automation, remember that it makes sense mainly by liberating the manager from having to spend time monitoring the performance of repetitive tasks.

It frees up time that he or she can use more productively in management. The end result is that automation can improve the overall performance and efficiency of your operation. 

Automation: What Do the Experts Think?

Pork editors asked three swine specialists at different universities what they think about automation in the hog house. All have had considerable experience with its application. Their insights and opinions may help you determine whether you should consider automating specific tasks within your operation.

John McGlone, Texas Tech University:
Actually, all mechanical equipment is optional. The three most important, in my opinion, are ventilation, automatic feeding and manure removal systems.

Of the new and innovative equipment now on the market, it’s hard to tell which will withstand the test of time. In the past, some have and some have not, but that doesn’t keep us from trying.

The new tool that has the greatest future, I believe, is a combination of individual animal identification and electronic weigh-sort. In addition to other benefits, it has the potential to improve animal welfare, which is becoming more and more important.

Roger Walker, University of Minnesota, Waseca:
The automated boar limo is currently my favorite. It saves a lot of labor because one person can handle artificial insemination duties. Moreover, it prevents injuries to people and animals.

A close second is electronic group feeding of open and gestating sows, which we’ve used for 2 years in our 300-sow herd at the University of Minnesota Southern Research and Outreach Center at Waseca.

Each sow has an ear-tag responder that controls the amount of feed she gets. You do need to know quite a bit about computers and electronics to run the system. Also, it does not eliminate the need to check sows daily and to replace ear tags.

In a group, sows are aggressive and fight a lot until a social structure is established. More work needs to be done to reduce aggression. Also in our building, we use an electronic estrus-detection station with a teaser boar and ear-tag reader. It is not 100 percent accurate but it does cut down on the time needed to check sows.

In a pork operation, automation cannot replace personal attention to animals but it definitely can relieve workers of many repetitive, time-consuming tasks. As I see it, adoption is a case-by-case matter. Often lack of good-quality help is a big factor, but the deciding factor is always how much the producer is willing and able to invest.

Mike Ellis, University of Illinois:
Automation will have a big impact on pork production, but all new equipment and technologies will need to be proven reliable and cost-effective. New technologies will only be widely applied if they reduce production costs.

Automatic weigh-sorting particularly has tremendous potential. When its use is perfected it will greatly impact the grow/finish sector for many reasons. But there’s still a lot to learn, especially in terms of barn design and pen arrangement to optimize the system’s operation and minimize any negative impact on animal performance.

I see great opportunities for automation in a variety of other applications. Technologies for additional automation exist that are not yet fully applied to pork production. Tracking the climatic and other environmental conditions in a building will be helpful. It will be great when some of the automation is used to closely monitor barns and animal groups – even refined to the point of recording detailed information on individual animals, such as feed consumption and water intake. I also envision automated monitoring of animal behavior, especially in the sow and grow/finish areas.

As automation provides real-time information, a producer will be able to respond quickly to emergencies such as a disease outbreak.