A unique design rolls isolation, acclimatization, breeding and gestation into one building.

Breeding gilts is no picnic. They are young, tempermental and hard to handle. But there are ways to work around these obstacles.

ing facilities, one person can run this innovative system with relative ease. This wasn't an engineering masterpiece. Instead, it was the collaborative effort of taking a good system and making it better.

The final product, the Gibson-Rood System, (see drawing, page 32) was designed by Dick Rood, pork production manager, and Sasha Gibson, a reproductive consultant from Fairmont, Minn. The 400-head building was put into action in February 1998.

The building has three basic sections. At one end are six holding pens to keep gilts until they're bred. The circular center area consists of a series of gates that open both ways. Breeding stalls are off to the sides of the main area. Each section has four stalls for gilts, with a boar placed directly in front of those gilts to provide full stimulation during breeding. This way, the gilts get more nose-to-nose contact with the boar. When a gilt is bred, the boar stays put for about 45 minutes to keep the stimulation going, this aids with uterine contractions. The far end of the building has 104 gestation crates to house the bred gilts for the first 30 days after breeding.

The concept is fairly simple and efficient. Once the gilts are 5 to 6 months old, Rood and his employees choose the ones they want to use for breeding and bring them into the facility's isolation, acclimatization and breeding area.

As they leave the finishing barn, but before they enter the development area, the gilts go through a complete vaccination regime. Gilts are vaccinated for such diseases as swine flu, pseudorabies, leptospirosis, erysipelas and parvovirus. "The overall herd health level is very good," notes Brad Thacker, a veterinarian from Iowa State University, who has been the farm's consulting veterinarian for 20 years.

Once the gilts enter the development facility, they are exposed to cull sows for about two weeks, then brought into the center ring of the breeding barn for boar exposure. In groups of 15, the gilts are free to move around, but tend to congregate toward the vasectomized boars.

As the gilts develop their first heat cycle, they are placed in a new group with other gilts that have cycled for the first time. This makes the management easy as all of these gilts should cycle the same week. The employees hang a card to indicate 18 days from the date the gilts were found in heat.

After that, they return to the circle area for another round of boar exposure. Once the third heat cycle is detected and recorded, the gilts are placed in a crate to the side of the circle and given at least an hour to rest before being bred. This also gives the employee a chance to catch up on other chores and bring the proper semen doses in for breeding. After the final breeding, the gilts move into gestation crates. Thirty days later, pregnant gilts become part of the main breeding herd. The gilts end up being isolated in this breeding area for eight to 11 weeks.

"The main thing we've changed, and with the biggest benefit, is to make sure the gilts have at least one observed heat before they're mated," says Thacker. All gilts are now bred by artificial insemination.

"Initially we used natural mating to breed the gilts during the second heat, but now we're doing it all by AI to improve conception rates," he notes.

Before the new building, the farm's number of pigs born alive was just more than nine pigs per litter in gilts. Now it's close to 10. Farrowing rates are up, as the numbers will tell you.

From a herd health standpoint, Thacker says Gilt Edge's operators haven't changed protocols much. Raising their own gilts allows the animals to be exposed to the porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus during the late-nursery/early-finishing time frame. Thacker draws blood samples once every three months when he makes a farm visit to monitor the PRRS exposure.

"The key to this gilt building and system is to give the workers more control in handling the animals, and not make the system a hindrance," says Rood. This design meets both of those needs.

"This system allows you to get more gilts in heat by providing more movement and boar exposure," adds Gibson. It also helps to use young boars, about seven to 12 months old, because they tend to be more active and interested in the breeding process, thus peaking the gilts' interest. Plus, these younger boars tend to be smaller, about 350 pounds, so there's less chance of injuring the gilts.

The one drawback of the floor plan is that it takes up a lot of room, especially the center ring. But you could reduce or eliminate some of that space.
The system's big advantage is that it makes it much easier and safer for one person to handle the animals and perform the procedures, says Dirk Toay, breeding/-gestation manager. Previously, employees ran the vasectomized boars in front of the gilt pens or into the pens with the gilts, which made heat checking difficult. Whereas, the Gibson-Rood system is set up with gates on each section that can open toward the front or back.

The employee, usually Larry Luebke, assistant breeding manager, can bring the gilts and vasectomized boars into the circle area, providing a much easier time to check for signs of heat. There is more room to move, and any gilts not in heat tend to move out of the way of the others.

The added space makes the whole process safer, plus, if there is a problem, Luebke can quickly exit through any gate. He also has panels and paddles overhead to protect himself if needed.

Gibson points out if both you and the pigs have more room to move, it isn't as stressful as a cramped pen. Also, the setup allows for a lot of contact with the pigs, putting them more at ease with people.

Besides the building layout, Gilt Edge made a few other improvements. First, they added new lighting to make the room bright. Plus, the room is kept extremely clean. Besides a complete power-washing twice a year, employees hose down the room a few times each week. This not only limits dust, which is a big contaminant, it also shows they have pride in their work area, says Rood.

Finally, the fully slatted flooring inside the building offers more options to make design changes in the future than with partially slatted floors, notes Thacker.

Rood cautions that this building configuration doesn't guarantee breeding success. It allows the employees to expand their capabilities, but doesn't necessarily mean you'll improve conception rates. "This design isn't for every farm, but it works for us."