Tasting Success with Electronic Sow Feeders
By Geoff Geddes
Though the lack of opposable thumbs keeps them from cracking a textbook, pigs are fast learners. As a result, high-tech systems like electronic sow feeders (ESF) are a solid option on-farm to get the most from your animals while reducing feed wastage.
For the best results, however, workers must also learn the ropes and be well-versed in such systems. By focusing on proper training, you can ensure that your pigs and your people are set up for success.
“The first electronic sow feeder prototypes were developed by European producers in the late 1980s and early 1990s,” says Dr. Hyatt Frobose, USA commercial director, nutritionist for JYGA Technologies in Garnett, Kansas.
“Over the years, there have been significant improvements in their capability, durability, and simplicity of use for the pigs and the people whom they benefit. “While there are now myriad options in terms of brand, approach, and configuration, they share a common goal of allowing pork producers to tailor the diet to an individual sow and easily locate animals who aren’t performing well.”
Ready, aim, feed
Thanks to industry advances, the flexibility to target-feed sows is critical for producers.
“Sows have come a long way since I started in the business 37 years ago,” says Sylven Blouin, animal welfare director with JYGA Technologies in Saint-Lambert-de-Lauzon, Que. “An F1 sow today (a result of crossbreeding two selected purebred pigs) is like an F1 (Formula One) racing car. You can’t just put yellow gas in that car and expect peak performance. In the same way, sows need precise, high efficiency diets that are tailored to their body condition.”
Of course, even the most sophisticated technology doesn’t just run itself, at least not yet.
Skilled, knowledgeable barn workers are vital to the successful implementation of ESF systems, and that’s where proper training is critical.
“A huge benefit of ESF is a reduced need on the labour front, as you require fewer workers to handle gestating sows,” says Dr. Laura Eastwood, swine specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs in Stratford, Ont.
That said, producers must have the right type of labour that can manage such an operation effectively.
Say hello to high-tech
“Make sure your staff is comfortable working with computers,” says Dr. Eastwood.
“If people are great with animals but want nothing to do with technology, ESF might not be the best fit.
“I’ve seen instances where farm owners thought ESF was a perfect solution, but had employees who don't use a smartphone. It’s crucial that everyone either be computer literate from the outset or at least have a willingness to learn.”
While possessing some comfort with computers is essential for ESF, it’s not the only trait to target.
“Not everyone is right for the job when it comes to ESF,” says Marsha Chambers, production specialist with Demeter Veterinary Services in Woodstock, Ont.
“The person training sows and gilts on the technology must be patient and able to move calmly through the herds.”
In making the transition to ESF, staff need to appreciate the game-changing nature of this technology and the implications for their roles in the barn.
“ESF is still fairly new for the industry,” says Chambers. “This is a different way of working with the animals. If staff and sows/gilts are not trained well in the system, it will make ESF more difficult to manage and work with.
“The focus on applying this technology is different than in a stall gestation barn, where you could walk along the backs of the sow crates and know when a sow wasn't eating or was experiencing another issue.
“Working in loose housing, depending on pen size, can be tougher in terms of identifying sows that need attention.”
Even adults need baby steps
As for the training itself, instruction should begin where any effective education has its roots: The basics.
“It’s important that your employees start by gaining an understanding of how ESF systems operate,” says Eastwood. “What is happening within the system? How does feed programming work? What needs to happen when you first introduce pigs to ESF? For example, someone must set each animal’s feeding plan so the computer will recognize them and feed them appropriately.”
Whether producers train staff themselves or have an outside expert do the job, how the instruction is performed can be just as important as the material taught.
“I do considerable ESF training for our customers, so I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t,” says Blouin. “We try and pick a quieter work day on the farm where employees don’t have to cram the training in between tasks. I keep the day short, so no one is overwhelmed with information, and adhere to a key principle of adult learning: People retain 10 per cent of what they read, 20 per cent of what they hear and 90 per cent of what they experience.”
After one or two days of training, Blouin leaves and lets it sink in. He usually calls the next day to answer any questions about ESF, and returns to the barn in three or four weeks for more in-depth training, such as reading reports and adopting some advanced techniques that have worked for other producers.
Got a problem with that?
Like any area of the farm, success with ESF hinges largely on how workers respond to problems, which makes standard operating procedures (SOPs) a key piece of the puzzle.
“We encourage farms to have SOPsS for everything they do, and ESF is no different,” says Eastwood.
“These should cover how the system is run and how to troubleshoot when issues arise. Because the technology is computer-based, every ESF setup uses multiple feeders in case one breaks down. Most companies have troubleshooting software for such an event, but there must be at least one staff member who is well versed in using it.”
By educating employees on the challenges and potential pitfalls of ESF systems, producers can increase worker confidence and leave them better equipped to deal with the unforeseen.
“I have worked with over 300,000 sows in adopting ESF systems worldwide,” says Dr. Frobose. “Fortunately, or unfortunately, I’ve seen things done a lot of different ways, with varying degrees of success and failure.”
One of the main challenges he has observed is that ESF requires more stockmanship (the art and science of properly handling farm animals) than individual breeding stalls.
“As well, ESF technology is only as good as the information you give it,” says Dr. Frobose. “It needs to be calibrated to accurately deliver feed, and workers must input and retrieve individual sow information in order to reap the benefits.”
ESF systems also require sows to be individually RFID -tagged for the system to feed them. These tags incur additional cost, and at times tags fall out or fail and need to be replaced by staff.
Train & maintain
Like other farm tools, an ESF system is still equipment, which means it requires maintenance and can fail if not properly maintained over time. Life expectancy and level of part replacement will vary widely between manufacturers.
“Ideally, farms getting ready to use ESF should ask their manufacturer if some of the staff can spend time at an existing farm to learn the best practices in a real-world setting,” says Dr. Frobose. “Farms new to ESF should have multiple staff members trained prior to use, as employee turnover is a fact of life in this business.”
Once staff are up to speed on ESF, there’s nothing left to do, except for that one small detail that warrants attention: Training the pigs on ESF.
“New gilts coming in need to be taught how to access the feeders,” says Eastwood.
“Farms should set up a gilt training area, and most ESF companies will have instructions on the best way of doing that. This area will contain gates that pigs must pass through to enter the feeder, so they learn the process.”
Producers and their employees should allow about three weeks to ensure that every gilt has mastered the procedure. The animals can then be placed into larger groups, where workers must monitor them closely for the first few days, confirming that they are all eating and moving smoothly in and out of the ESF feeders.
Though orienting pigs to ESF takes time and effort, the importance of proper instruction can't be overstated.
“Optimizing gilt training and acclimation is critical,” says Dr. Jennifer Brown, a research scientist with Prairie Swine Centre. “Looking at producer records comparing group-housed ESF farms to stall housing, with comparable genetics and management, I have observed a drop in performance for younger animals working with ESF systems. This can include reproduction issues, a higher incidence of dropouts and more culling due to lameness.”
Missed feeds as gilts approach breeding and soon after insemination can impact production, so great care must be taken to limit stress on the animals.
Well-designed training pens and staff who are quiet and can encourage feeder access without causing anxiety for the pigs will go a long way to creating a calm environment.
“The ultimate goal here is to produce gilts that are confident in accessing the feeder and that will successfully farrow and rebreed,” says Dr. Brown. “Workers must do everything they can to provide gilts with the best possible care while minimizing changes and stressors.”
For example, the movement of gilts to the sow herd can involve several stressful elements, such as transport, introduction of new pens and exposure to different groups.
To limit the impact of these changes, staff should be taught to, as much as possible, maintain the same groups and group sizes in the sown barn as in the gilt development unit.
The earlier arrival of gilts at the sow barn can also make a difference by providing a longer acclimation period for the animals.
“For ESF training, early exposure to feeders is preferable,” says Dr. Brown. “Early training may involve exposure to ESF gates, and that is a good start, but it is not the same as learning to use the feeder.
“Training on ESF should be completed before breeding, as longer lead times can aid in conception.”
While most animals adapt to the ESF system quickly, some will never catch on and may need to be culled (also known as the “ultimate learning incentive!”!).
Fortunately for workers who that can’t embrace ESF, the downside is less severe, and for those who do engage with the new technology, the upside can be substantial.
“If staff are well-trained and understand what they’re doing, this will increase their job satisfaction and improve your chances of retaining them,” says Eastwood.
“A pig barn isn't always the most desirable work environment. When you can offer potential employees the chance to deal with computers and handle some cool technology, in conjunction with working with the animals, it makes the job more attractive to certain candidates.”
Given that labour continues to serve as a huge challenge for the industry, easing the recruitment and retention burden on producers could not happen at a better time.
For most farms, successful implementation of ESF is a team effort – one that begins and ends with proper communication.
“Whether they are looking to convert an old barn or build a new one, I encourage producers to sit down with the existing staff and talk about the pros and cons of various feeding systems,” says Blouin. “Each system involves different costs and management styles.”
Whereas less expensive setups require more hands-on management, costlier options are less labour intensive. The final choice should reflect the farm, the owner’s long-term goals and the input from staff who will be running the ESF technology on a daily basis.
“Ultimately, you can make any loose housing system work if you approach it properly,” says Blouin.
“It all comes down to having the right people in place who are properly trained and motivated to succeed.”
The ESF option may not be perfect, but when producers, workers and pigs are on the same page, the results can be textbook. BP