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Giving Thought to Hospital Pens in Group-Housed Sow Pens

Let me start out by saying that I am neither an agricultural engineer nor a veterinarian. This column is meant to generate proactive discussions to promote animal well-being that simultaneously may lead to economic benefits.

Why use hospital pens?
In caring for pigs, it isn’t a question of “if” one will get sick, it’s a question of “when”. Group housing of sows can pose a few challenges when an animal needs to be isolated and treated. It depends on the type of illness or injury as to what care the animal should receive. Minor cuts or scrapes that need attention may be treated in the pen by calmly isolating the sow, treating her, and releasing her back into the group. Bigger challenges arise when a sow becomes compromised and needs to be separated to ensure her recovery.

However, an important issue with modern barns is maximizing space per animal and return on equity (ROE) of the barn. Every inch needs to be productive. However, how do we value the space dedicated to an animal that becomes compromised to ensure their well-being and return to health within these expensive barns?

Examples & Considerations
Examples: It is up to each U.S. producer to determine their own personal investment in a hospital pen, however, producers in other countries may have a required minimum area for these pens mandated. Denmark implemented legislation in 2005 establishing the following requirements for hospital (relief) pens:

  • Accommodate not less than 2% of animal spaces and always have 1 free pen ready
  • Have a minimum of 3.5m2 (~38 ft2) unobstructed free area
  • Pens for more animals can have 2.8m2 (~30ft2 per animal)
  • Have a maximum of 3 animals/pen
  • Two-thirds of pen is soft bedding (e.g. rubber, straw)
  • Climate control with cooling and heating options.

Considerations: General considerations regarding hospital pens in the U.S. include:

  • Accommodate at least 1-2% of the pen stocking rate
  • Location should facilitate easy removal or transport of an animal, if needed
  • Being near the “vet room” or barn entrance adds convenience for caregivers to observe animal health more frequently
  • Free from cool drafts; supplemental heat and lighting is helpful.

Location & Construction
Location: Both sow welfare and caregiver efficiency can be improved by giving careful thought to hospital pen characteristics within group housed sow pens. First, how many hospital pens is ideal for your barn design and group sizes? Meeting the recommendation of space for 1-2% of the stocking density can take many forms. It could be one large pen used for an entire barn, which comes with challenges. One pen limits the ability to provide more individualized treatments and feeding if multiple cases exist; for example one sow is severely lame, some sows need to gain body condition, and a few sows have severe scratches or vulva bites. Additionally, choosing the location of this one pen has potential trade-offs. Locating it at the entrance end of a barn could mean sows that become compromised at the opposite end must walk long distances, or the farm needs equipment (e.g. sled, cart) to humanely move the sow. A Danish company was developing a mobile hospital pen for transporting sows which could be beneficial in these situations and provide extra temporary hospital space. Another option is having one hospital pen per group pen. Ideally, the hospital pen would be located adjacent to each group pen for quick sorting by caregivers and this option provides shorter distances for compromised sows to travel. This also assists with having fewer animals in each hospital pen, improving observation and limiting competition. However, more pens add construction and maintenance cost, but in the long run it could be offset by improved employee efficiency and individual sow care.

Construction: A second important question is, what features do you want to provide to improve recovery time? Sows may still require supplemental heat during illness, but likely to a lesser degree than nursery or grower pigs. Investing in pen options that provide both heat and cooling features is more important with sows depending on barn design and ventilation. Maybe this means using solid panels to limit drafts or having heat pads on-hand, or have additional fans for cooling. Floor type also impacts sows. Slats may be convenient for manure management, but they do not necessarily provide the increased cushion a lame sow may need. Investing in rubber mats or evaluating the logistics of providing natural bedding like straw or sawdust can provide benefits.

The Bottom Line
Regardless of your current group housing sow management system, a few considerations regarding hospital pens could improve animal welfare and caregiver efficiencies. Both can be economically beneficial, enhance sow recovery, and improve consumer perception of pig care practices.

Source: Heidi Carroll, iGrow

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