Yes, according to a new study by Iowa State University researchers. While the results tend to favor confinement facilities when compared annually, hoop structures can be competitive in certain situations.

Researchers compared the two types of grow/finish production systems with six groups of hogs. Three groups of hogs were fed during the winter season and three during the summer. Each facility finished out two groups of pigs annually, with seasonal comparisons made by starting hogs in the spring and fall.

For all but one of the groups, researchers placed the hogs on feed over a four-week period. Through that period, a supply of hogs was placed in each of the three hoop structures and the confinement facility.

The take-away message is that “pork production in hoops can compete with other systems,” says Jim Kliebenstein, Iowa State agricultural economist. “Pork can be produced in a number of ways, but a lot depends on the availability of finances, labor and management resources.”

That’s evident when you take a look at the results (see table), but there are a few things to keep in mind. It’s easier to standardize the pigs’ living conditions in a confinement building since you’re not dealing directly with weather changes. So that needs to play a role in the decision-making process. In summer, the pigs fared better in hoop structures than in confinement facilities. But they didn’t do as well in the winter months.

Also, a confinement facility offers greater opportunity for a uniform pig flow with all-in/all-out systems.

Certainly, confinement production systems have higher initial investment costs than hoop systems. According to the study, investment levels for confinement facilities can range from $150 to more than $200 per pig space, depending on several factors. You have to consider the facility’s life expectancy, repair costs, manure-handling equipment costs and financing options.

Confinement systems have a longer life expectancy, about 15 to 20 years, but upkeep and repairs are more expensive than for hoop structures.

Interest rates also play a role, with high rates increasing the confinement building’s cost the most.         

The high facility cost per pig space makes it imperative for producers to keep a confinement building full, without sacrificing average daily gain per pig.

On the flip side, hoop system costs will average $40 to $70 per pig space. They normally last around 10 to 12 years – about two-thirds of the confinement facilities’ lifespan. However, the lower investment cost also reduces the pressure to keep the hoop units continuously full. That can offer the producer some flexibility.

Producers can elect to use them for other purposes, such as storing machinery or crops. Kliebenstein points to one Iowa producer that uses uses confinement facilities to finish hogs, but is considering hoops for slow-growing or sick pigs. It allows those pigs to finish growing, yet the producer is able to keep his confinement facility full and running without interrupting or slowing pig flow.

While initial investment costs vary, you need to consider pig performance and other production costs in the decision-making process.

Confinement systems usually have superior pig performance and lower variable costs, such as feed costs, compared with hoop facilities through the year.

Feeding trials bore this out. The hoop structures scored an advantage of $1.43 per hog net income over the confinement facility during the summer. However, the confinement facility had a $6.93 per hog net income advantage during the winter. The end result was a year-round advantage of $2.75 per hog for the confinement groups. However, given the lower level of investment, the rate of return in investment was higher for the hoop system.

Besides feed efficiency, hogs reared in confinement have slight advantages in average daily gain over the year. They also have less growth variability within groups of pigs and between groups of pigs.

Management required is another consideration. Both types of systems are management intensive, but the requirements fall into different areas. Confinement facilities require more management to control mechanical ventilation, which demands more technical knowledge from the producer, employees or consultants. Whereas hoop structures require strong animal husbandry skills and individual animal management since the environment is less controlled. Ultimately, this will increase labor demand compared with those of confinement systems.

In addition, confinements can more effectively reduce the risk of parasite infestation because they are thoroughly disinfected between groups. Other health issues are still being reviewed.

Animal marketing is another area of consideration when comparing the two systems. The Iowa State study shows yield premiums for the confinement hogs were 0.99 percent higher, putting the total premium at $0.24 higher per carcass hundredweight as sold on Excel’s scale. Lean premiums will vary depending on the packer that you sell to.

This is especially imporant if you’re a contract grower. Kliebenstein admits that from a contractor’s standpoint, raising hogs in hoop structures presents more challenges if you’re committed to placing and marketing a certain number of hogs a week.

Overall, confinements do come out ahead in the cost per pig profit, but there are opportunities for producers interested in using hoop structures – or other alternative systems.

“When you put a production-management system together, and all the pieces that accommodate that system, there are many ways to cost-effectively produce pork in a number of systems,” says Kliebenstein. “Systems such as hoops can open up opportunities in niche markets. Specific attributes can be tied to pork raised in confinement facilities, hoops or pastured pigs.”