Management of Pigs and People Helps Ensure Success with ESF

December 11, 2017 07:00 AM
Animal husbandry and management are important regardless of the type of sow housing you use, but they are even more important with large-group pens and electronic sow feeding.

Animal husbandry and excellent management are important regardless of the type of sow housing you use in your operation, but they are even more important with large-group pens. (Read: Tips for Training Gilts to Use Electronic Sow Feeding, part one of this series)

“This is the area where you either make it or break it,” says Walt Laut, one of the owners of Jayce Mountain Pork in Fredericktown, Mo. “You teach them one little thing every day, and if you don’t do this part right, you’re wasting your time,” Laut says.

Walt, Doug and Don Laut III own and operate Jayce Mountain Pork (JCP), along with their three sisters, their dad, and numerous other family members who work for the operation.

Sow comfort is a high priority at JCP, and so is meeting the needs of their packer-processor. Many packer companies now require pen gestation. For example, Smithfield told its contract producers in 2014 that they needed to convert to pen gestation. The response was immediate: Within 12 months, contractors had converted 71% of their facilities, and the trend continues.

Within 24 hours of arriving at JCP, gilts go through the feeding station. The training takes five or six days, he says and the gilts are moved from one side of the feeding station to the other every day, so they know the migration after they eat.

“The key to success is letting them see light on the other side of the station,” Laut says. He uses a chain to hold the gate open so gilts can see daylight. Also, as they go through the feeding station, they’re not allowed to eat all the feed for as long as they want. They move through the station every five to seven minutes, then Laut clears the code so another female can enter. The code for each sow is associated with its ear tags, so rations and quantities can be formulated for each female, which helps JCP maintain proper body condition. From the data gathered when sows eat, employees know if a sow is off feed and can follow up to see what the problem might be.

Staffing, Training and Attitude
Animal husbandry and excellent management are important regardless of the type of sow housing, but they are even more important with large-group pens. Employees must be properly trained, so JCP uses the Pork Avenue Training Portal.

Ron Ketchem, co-owner of Swine Management Service LLC, works with JCP in a consultant role. He says the training is “immersive learning with fun, realistic scenarios.” Employees work through each section, and must pass a test before moving to the next section. Two curriculums – one for farrowing and one for wean-to-market – allow producers to select the one designed for specific employees. An employee handbook guides employees through the farm’s processes.

Trainer preparation should include arranging for employees to visit farms with ESFs already in operation. “This will help trainers immensely,” Mosqueira says. “They will not only observe first-hand how it all works, but seeing it with their own eyes will give them the confidence to believe they will be successful in training their own gilts.

“I can’t stress how critical it is that employees cultivate a positive attitude,” he adds. “If people think it won’t work, there is a large chance it won’t work. I’ve seen many times that employees coming from traditional individual-housed farms can quite easily set themselves up for failure with negative beliefs.”

However, while some farms achieve almost 100% trained gilts, trainers should understand that in the early days of training, some gilts won’t eat all the feed and others won’t eat at all. An “un-trainability” rate of up to 3% is acceptable, but no higher, Mosqueira says. 

He has also found that the most successful gilt trainers possess not only confidence, but patience and a good understanding of animal behavior, along with an inclination to use the computer and take the initiative to look up information on individual females that are having trouble.

Mosqueira says PIC recommends three extra full-time employees on a 5,000 ESF group-housed sow farm during stocking, and afterwards, one more person per 5,000 inventoried sows is likely to be needed to take care of additional ESF work. This could include checking on sows that are not eating, doing basic maintenance of the system and training replacement gilts.

Training Basics
Mosqueira stresses that ESF training must be a positive experience for each and every gilt, and that adequate time must be provided for each of them to become comfortable with entering the feeding station. “Use feed at the entrance to get her curious and help her understand that this experience is about feeding,” he says. “Once a gilt is in and finds the feed in there, most of the process is over with. Let the gilt eat inside the feed station for at least ten minutes. If you’re training two pens at same time, while the gilt is eating, go to another feed station to work on the next gilt.”

Never chase the gilt, but let her enter the feeding station by herself. Chasing gilts can stress them, decreasing chances of having a successful training process outcome. However, there are also times when employees may have to move gilts along, such as after they have eaten and don’t want to leave the feed station by themselves, or if they are having difficulties entering the feed station, with half of their bodies inside and half out.

Tracking Results
Mosqueira says it’s important to record the number and percentage of gilts that are successfully trained.

“Monitor the percentage of un-trainable gilts every week and consider changes in training protocol and/or employees if it’s consistently higher than 3 percent,” he says. “Groups of pigs where the percentage is higher could be giving it another training session or culled, but definitely do cull individual gestating sows that frequently fail at utilizing the ESF system.”

Mosqueira believes ESF and other electronic/computer-based systems will create new opportunities to access real-time information for better management decision-making.

“With the proper preparation and mindset, success with ESF gilt training is very achievable,” he says.

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