At the World Pork Expo this week the hot topic of conversation (other than corn condition ratings and pig price expectations) was the ongoing gestation housing debate. While many producers were outraged at the decision process of McDonald’s, Kroger, Safeway, etc, the general consensus appeared to be a grudging acceptance of a move away from gestation crates over the next 8-10 years.
In my conversations with many producers, I had one production group that I work with raise the following question – what will be the impact to breeding herd productivity during the transition from crated gestation to alternative housing systems?
I hadn’t thought about this before. I’ve been in crate free gestation facilities and overall weaned pig production is very similar to crated gestation systems. However, everyone talks about the learning curve to learn the new system. The real question being asked – what is the cost of learning and implementing alternative systems of production?
As I thought about this, I suggested to the production group that their most likely method of implementation will be:
1) delay as long as possible so some of the biggest mistakes are made by others
2) try an alternative system on 50% of a site before jumping in with both feet.
They agreed with this scenario. When they finally make a move to a non-crated gestation system they don’t want to implement it in a an entire farrowing site at one time. They still need pigs out the door to fill wean-finish barns and generate income. Thus, they felt that trying it in 50% of a site would be a good starting point. During this trial, all of the employees and management will have a very steep learning curve and will make many mistakes along the way. I don’t think it’s unrealistic to expect this to cost the system upwards of 4-5 pigs/sow/year for 50% of the herd, meaning the overall unit suffers at 2+ pigs/sow/year fewer pigs.
Every time they implement at a new site they can expect some drop in performance as they make the conversion because it will be a new way of managing females. Long term the data available suggests that breeding herd productivity isn’t much different between crate-free and crated systems, but short term my best guess is 1-2 pigs/sow/year during the conversion.
As I am sure you’re aware many other countries are already on the group housing path and so there is opportunity to learn from their mistakes. We published a series of case studies last year that may be helpful.