By Andrew Campbell
When it comes to pig farms, let’s be honest for a minute: The public perception of a large pig farm isn’t always the best. That’s why it was so important for me to visit one. And while I thought it might be difficult to find a farm willing to tour me around, John & his family were eager to invite me in. In fact they were just the second farm I asked (the first one said they’d love to have me, but were busy with construction in one part of the barn). After all, and as you can see in the video, animal care is a very important aspect of their farm and one they want to make sure they show off.
Treating animals well isn’t a question of how big or small a farm is. Instead it’s about the people working day in and day out to make sure animals are safe, comfortable and have everything they need. So come for one of my most popular tours of the series, inside a large pig barn. But don’t forget to bring your shower cap – because at this farm – you need to shower before you start your work!
On this farm, I have to shower before I come to work. Why do I have to shower before I enter the barn?
To keep the animals healthy and to prevent the spread of disease. This is referred to as biosecurity – a set of procedures that help protect animals-and humans!- from disease or harmful germs. Showering or changing clothes and shoes before entering and after leaving the barn prevents disease from spreading at a farm and also from traveling to another location.
What is a farrowing room and why are sows housed in a farrowing crate?
A farrowing room is where the sows (females that have had piglets) are housed right before, during and after birthing a litter of piglets.
A sow is housed in a farrowing crate for the protection and safety of the sow and piglets. If there are any problems during farrowing a farmer has easy access to the sow so that the necessary aid can be given. After farrowing, the farrowing crate is a clean, safe and warm environment for the piglets to live in. Farmers can give one-on-one attention to each sow and easily check on the piglets to ensure their health and safety.
The farrowing crates on John’s farm are lift crates. When the sow stands up, the crate lifts up 9 inches, creating a barricade that prevents the piglets from going underneath the standing sow. Pig farmers have to be very careful with sows as it is very common for sows to accidentally lay on top of their piglets and suffocate them. Having lift crates can save up to 75% of the pre-weaning mortalities. When the sow lays down again, the lift crate lowers so that the piglets have access to the sow to nurse.
Beside the farrowing crate is a heated mat that the piglets can stand and lay on. It keeps the piglets warm at 30° Celcius. When piglets are first born, farmers also put a heat bulb over the mat for extra warmth.
How long do the sow and piglets stay in the farrowing room?
The sow and piglets stay in the farrowing room until the piglets are weaned (when they start to eat food other than milk). The piglets are weaned after 23 days, or about 3 and a half weeks. The piglets then go on to a different area called the nursery, while the sows head back to a pen with other sows.
What is a gestation barn?
A gestation barn is where the sows stay for their full gestation of 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days (114 days). John and his family have around 125 sows in the gestation pen with about 10 sows entering the gestation pen and 10 sows leaving for the farrowing room each week.
Why are there smaller groups in the gestation barn? Why aren’t they in the same pen as all the other sows?
Small groups of sows are mixed together prior to bringing them into the bigger pen in order to discover their order of social dominance. Sows are never entered into the large gestation pen as individuals because then they’ll all be fighting as individuals. Farmers bring them in as a group, so sows stay together as a social group in the larger pen. They stay together as a group for about four or five days and then are moved into the bigger pen together as a group.
It means that group of sows are already socialized and have determined which sow is the dominant one before they get entered into the larger pen with the E.S.F (electronic sow feeding) station. The E.S.F automatically identifies the sows by their radio frequency identification ear tag and feeds them exactly what they require during their stage of pregnancy.
Let’s talk about the feeding system, which I think is pretty fascinating. How do you feed a group of 125 sows in here?
Sows walk into the E.S.F. (electronic sow feeding) station. They get identified by their individual radio frequency identification ear tag number and sows will be fed an exact portion tailored to their feed requirements. A sow’s feed will be increased at day eighty-five because the sows are getting bigger and require more feed and more nutrition at that stage for their developing fetuses.
Once the sow is done eating, they exit the E.S.F. station into a corridor that ends with two doors. One door leads back to the large gestation pen. The other door is for when farmers have to sort pigs out in case there is a sick animal or to take them out for vaccination or to simply move them into the farrowing room. Farmers input a sow’s radio frequency identification ear number into the computer program and choose to “sort individual animal”. As the sow walks down the corridor, it will be identified in the gate. The gate will swing the other way and the sow will be in the correct pen for the next morning.
What are gilts? And why are they housed in a separate area?
Gilts are the females being raised to become sows but have never had piglets. The area is set up with a boar in the corner to detect gilts coming into heat (when they are ready to be bred). The gilts are in a separate area because they are being trained to walk into the E.S.F. and to use the gate systems in a low stress environment.
On to the finishing side of the operation, which includes piglets that have been weaned from the sow and moved to the nursery. What goes into taking care of pigs in a nursery?
This is stage one of the finishing process. The piglets in the video were weaned five days ago.
In the nursery, piglets have good, clean water and access to the feed. The nursery is heated to 30° Celcius and the floor also gets a little extra heat. During this stage, piglets are separated by weight so farmers can feed the piglets more precisely to what their bodies need. Heavy piglets go on one side and lighter piglets go to the other side. The smaller piglets might stay on a higher protein feed for a few extra days to help them catch up, plus there is also less competition with bigger animals when the smaller ones are all together.
As the pigs and their nutritional needs change, they are moved into a different area of the barn. What goes into looking after these pigs?
Farmers walk through the barn twice a day and check to make sure the animals are healthy. They check that the animals are getting the feed and the water that they require and that there are no problems inside the rooms. At this stage farmers are starting to market the pigs.
The room is divided into several areas that the pigs cycle through, the loaming area and three feeding areas. The loaming area is where all the pigs can be social and lay down. To get to the three separate feeding areas, the pigs have to go through an automatic sorting scale, which classifies the pigs by weight. Once the pig is weighed, a one-way gate swings open to one of the three feeding areas.
There are three different feeding areas so that farmers can feed pigs precisely for their stage of growth. The feeding area that they’re going to eat from is determined by how much they weigh. When the pigs finish eating they leave the feeding area through a one way gate leading back to the loaming area. Pigs continuously cycle through the loaming area and feeding area and all that information is sent to the computer. Farmers can keep track of all the animals, exactly how fast they’re growing and when they are ready for market.
When you get them to market, you walk them down a hallway and onto a special truck and they are heading where?
Once pigs are ready for market they are sent to a meat packer. John & his family send their pigs to a co-operatively owned meat packer called Conestoga Meats. That’s a packer that is actually owned by 170 farmers. There are strict rules for trucking pigs to market and the drivers are well trained to handle and care for the pigs during transportation.