Group gestation will change selection and management dynamics

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Minneapolis-- “Today’s sows are not your parents’ sows,” Tim Loula, DVM, St. Peter Veterinary Clinic, told attendees of a FeetFirst swine conference on Thursday presented by Zinpro. The most dramatic difference of course is that over the past 20 years, the sow herd has become tremendously more productive, and that requires different approaches to management, selection and animal care.

“Every week, we see sows farrow 20-piglet litters,” he notes. “That used to be a remarkable event.” Loula was offering a 30,000-foot-view, addressing some of the pressures and changes occurring within the pork industry. He specifically pointed to food companies’ growing movement to eliminating gestation-sow stalls from their pork supply channels. But whether or not a producer moves gestating sows from stalls to pens is not a simple matter of flipping a switch and making a change.

Today’s highly productive sows have required changes in nutrition, housing and handling. Moving the breeding herd out of stalls will “require big changes,” Loula adds, and ”there are always unintended consequences,” to such decisions. He referred to a recent trip to Poland, pointing out that the country had 1 million sows three years ago, but with the European Union’s impending gestation-stall ban (Jan. 1, 2013), that has dropped to 650,000 sows and a further 10 percent to 20 percent reduction is likely.   

For a transition here, U.S. producers will need to make significant adjustments, and not just in the physical aspects of housing and equipment, although flooring will be a priority. “Most producers under 30 years of age have never seen sows in group pens; they don’t know that they will fight—and how severely they’ll fight,” Loula notes.

Animal selection measures and personnel training will need to change as well. “Pen gestation floors will be hard on the animal’s feet and legs,” Loula says.  “Do your people know what good feet are (on sows)? Are you going to trim feet?” That’s a difficult task that most people in hog barns don’t know how to do it. Sow foot baths are another tool that will need to find their way into more units.

Group housing will require more rugged breeding stock. “The animal will have to be more athletic,” he adds.  Evaluations involving leg structure, bone structure, hoof and sole structure will all come into play, as will soundness of movement. Such selection criteria and final decisions will need strict application. On the plus side, he notes that genetic change does come much faster today.  

Of course, nutrition is an on-going factor and that reaches well beyond diet and ingredient costs, which is on the top of everyone’s priority list today. “If you’re not changing diets weekly, you’re behind,” Loula says. Adjusting to the changing nutritional demands of a changing animal as well as requirements that evolve during the breeding, gestation and lactation stages will all require more attention. A diet’s composition, the vitamins and minerals, as well as ensuring the animal is eating enough takes on a new dimension in group systems.

The same is true for culling. While a sow’s productivity and performance is the priority, culling for feet and legs (structure) will have to enter the picture as well.     

Many more answers are needed, but they won’t come easily. “Sow research is incredibly hard,” Loula says, as it is very expensive and it takes several years to complete. The concern always is whether the animal will pay the price during and after the transition.

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SD  |  September, 17, 2012 at 12:22 PM

Being a cattle producer rather than a hog producer, this issue concerns me significantly. While possibly less intensive production methods are used for cattle, and ours are range cattle with minimal housing NEEDS, and optimal care are used, the animal rights groups, especially HSUS and other such groups with terrorist ties eventually WILL find similar means to attack my family's chosen occupation IF they are successful with yours. Isn't it time to call for a 'summit' of some sort with the businesses which have chosen to bow to HSUS pressure and demand costly, time consuming housing changes with uncertain results? Consumers, Animal Science experts and even HSUS should be involved. Priority should be to demonstrate to consumers and food entities exactly how the pigs are now raised, and why; show and explain why it will probably be less productive, and even less safe for the pigs to make demanded changes; ask consumers and businesses if they are willing to pay the costs via higher priced food that you cannot absorb and remain in business, and maybe most important: which country do they WANT food animals to be raised in? Ask HSUS to state for the record how much they are willing to contribute in dollars to costs of making such changes, and confront them with the history of their own often recorded intentions to ultimately end all uses and production of food animal and demand explanations of why that is not shared with consumers. It all may not be very productive, but agriculture producers need to have all these people on record as to why they want the changes, their motivation and to show that they understand the often negative effect on the animals and the producers as well as who they expect to share in the cost.


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