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Group sow housing

Quick facts

  • Regardless of the housing system, sow barn managers and caretakers should work to optimize their barn’s system.
  • Proper design of facilities is an important start, but does not guarantee a successful operation.
  • Effective stockmanship is crucial to making the facilities operate properly and ensuring sows are comfortable and productive.
Sows in a group housing system.

Pork producers are encouraged or mandated to stop using individual gestation stalls and start using group sow housing. Unlike stalled systems, there isn’t a standard, well-understood template for group housing systems. A lot of factors play a role in setting up a system that works best for your farm including:

  • Pen layout
  • Flooring type
  • Feeding system
  • Nutrition program
  • Grouping strategy
  • Timing of grouping
  • Pig flow
  • Husbandry skills
  • Genetics

As a result, it’s hard to accurately predict the success of any one group housing system. There are examples of good and bad transitions. Focus on these key features to increase your chances of success with group sow housing.

  • Floor space allocation for sows
  • Feeding plans to control changes in sow body condition
  • Plans for managing sows in dynamic groups, and knowing how to mix sows
  • Stockperson skills and ability to manage groups

Floor space allocation 

It’s hard to establish an exact floor space allocation for sows to optimize reproductive performance and welfare. Space allocation depends on size or age of the sows, feeding system, group size and season.

The space occupied by a standard gestation stall and half of the aisle behind the stall is about 16 square feet. Most studies suggest this amount of space is inadequate for group-housed sows. In general, more space decreases aggression between sows and related injuries. It also increases farrowing rate (see Table 1).

Table 1. Effect of floor space allowance during gestation on litter size

ab Means with different superscripts differ (P < 0.05) Salak-Johnson et al. (2007) Floor space in gestation is measured in square feet / sow
Trait 15 sq. ft./ sow 24 sq. ft. / sow 35 sq. ft. / sow Stall
Total pigs/litter 12.4b 12.0b 14.2a 1.1b
Born live/litter 10.0 9.5 10.5 9.4
Weaned/litter 8.6 8.1 8.8 8.7

Increasing the floor space leads to an increase in building costs. Thus you won’t want to provide sows more space than they need. Increase floor space at least 10 to 20 percent when moving sows from individual stalls to groups. At a bare minimum, you must increase floor space from 16 square feet (stall size) to 18 to 19 square feet.

Group size 

Group size affects proper floor space allocation. If group size is small (fewer than 10 sows), you should increase floor space allocation by 10 percent because there’s less total free space available in the pen. Free space is the area in a pen that a sow’s body doesn’t physically occupy.

If group size is large (more than 40 sows), you can reduce floor space allocations by 10 percent because there’s more free space.

Feeding to control changes in sow body condition

It can be hard to control sow body condition and weight gain among a group. Selecting a good feeding system is key.

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Managing sows in dynamic groups

Effective competitive feeding systems require grouping sows uniform in age and body weight. Dynamic or static groups are two main approaches to keeping sows in a group housing system.

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Stockperson skills

Stockperson skills is an important role on sow farms. These skills are slightly different for group housing than individual pens.

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Lee Johnston, Extension animal scientist and Yuzhi Li, associate professor of swine behavior and alternative production, College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences

Reviewed in 2018

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