Straightforward system simplifies management

Straw-based housing systems that are simple to manage remain in demand by newcomers to pig finishing and those looking to update their facilities
Norfolk farmer Chris Green believes in keeping things simple, and that applies to his pig housing as well as his system of management. He’s recently put up two new finishing buildings, which he runs with his son, Geoffrey, on his seven-acre Three Gates Farm, at Great Moulton. They replaced three houses already there when he moved to the farm 15 years ago.

Although relatively efficient in terms of pig performance, the old buildings were outdated and labour-intensive, which meant a lot of hard work, especially with hand mucking out. “They were well past their sell-by date”,    Mr Green says.

The buildings, which were more than 30 years old, would have been difficult to renovate and refurbish economically. In addition, there was a tricky problem. Like many farm buildings of that age, they contained a lot of asbestos fixed to a wooden structure. So a decision was made to demolish them entirely and start again.

A specialist company dealt with the demolition and removal of asbestos, and while Mr Green admits it was very expensive, there was an immediate advantage. While having virtually the same footprint, due to their layout the two new buildings hold 200 more pigs than the previous three. This is due to the fact that the new buildings have catwalks rather than service passages, so there’s less dead space between them.

Having looked at various designs, the Greens turned to Quality Equipment to supply Suffolk-style, straw-based houses; and he was pleased with the speed of the operation. Work started at the end of November and was finished in January, despite the Christmas break, allowing stocking without any delays.

The two portal-framed buildings measure 24m x 14m and 23m x 14m, with 10 and 9 pens respectively. They hold about 400 pigs each from 30kg to 100kg. They were slightly different sizes to allow a sufficient gap for a tractor to turn around outside the smaller structure.
The full-width pens have 2.2m wide solid dung passages on either side against the outer walls and a plywood-clad overhead catwalk down the centre that also forms the ceiling of the kennels beneath.

Both buildings are Yorkshire-boarded which, together with full-height doors at either end, allows plenty of natural ventilation. There are no fans at all.

As part of his simple system, Mr Green has signed up as a contract finisher with Peddars Pigs Ltd. He says the usual bed-and-breakfast arrangements apply, with the company supplying 7kg weaners, all the feed and veterinary services, and the marketing of the pigs. Chris is paid a monthly management fee.
He likes this system as it’s relatively stress-free, avoiding the problems of sourcing sufficient weaners, buying feed and marketing, and leaving him and his son to concentrate on the actual management of the pigs.

Commissioning of the buildings coincided with a period of bitter weather so, to retain warmth, Chris and his son decided to mask off a high proportion of the Yorkshire boarding with plywood. This, he said, simply involved screwing sheets to the inside of the Yorkshire boarding, only taking a couple of hours. These will be removed when the weather turns milder.

The young pigs are provided further protection by a hinged plywood partition that drops down from the kennel roof and bolts into the side division. This effectively reduces the pen size by about a third, providing a snug area for the weaners. Additional plywood sheets extending a couple of feet down at the front of the kennel help retain the warmth. With the straw, the pigs remain comfortable from the first day.

Peddars Pigs supplies 1,750 weaners at a time for the all-in/all-out batch system. The young pigs are put into the new houses initially in groups of about 90. When they reach 30kg, however, the groups are thinned out to 45 per pen – the surplus pigs being dispersed around the existing older buildings on the farm.

Feeding is simple. Ad-lib hoppers are kept topped-up by chain-and-flight conveyors from two bulk bins neatly fitted between the buildings. Diets are changed when appropriate as they empty. Water is provided by banks of three nipple drinkers fixed to the dung passage gates on both sides of the house. These are supplemented by float-valve-controlled water troughs. Water is considered vitally important and contains an energy supplement initially to help the piglets get over the stress of moving.

Mucking out is done with a manoeuvrable Bobcat. The dividing gates across the dung passage are simply swung back to keep the pigs in, allowing the build-up of straw and muck to be pushed through to a concrete apron at the far end of the house. Currently, this is done every two or three days. Chris doesn’t know yet how frequently this job will have to be done throughout the finishing period as the pigs have only been in the houses for a few weeks.
Strawing down is done at the same time as the mucking out. But this has been well mechanised. A front-end spike attachment on the Bobcat is used to remove bales from the straw store and these are put on three-wheeled trolleys that are then pulled down the passage allowing the appropriate number of straw segments to be thrown over the gates into the sleeping area.

“We’ve always been straw-based and we’re happy with that. I think it provides a better environment, it gives the pigs something to chew on and we’ve very little trouble with tail-biting. The farm operates a straw-for-muck arrangement with other local farmers and uses about 1,000 bales a year. Being Freedom Food accredited, you have to keep pigs to a high standard now, from the point of view of welfare, I wouldn’t be ashamed to show anyone around the farm."

He estimates that the first pigs will be drawn off for slaughter at about 16 weeks and that the pens will be cleared by 20 weeks. Allowing for thorough cleaning and disinfection, he hopes that he will get a throughput of a little more than two batches annually.

One point that he has already noticed is that with the solid concrete outside walls and plastic pen divisions, there’s very little cover for rodents within the new houses. Rats used to get into the insulation in the old houses, and even in the hollow blocks, but there’s nowhere for them to do this in these buildings.

As the new buildings replaced existing houses, there were no problems with planning permission (QE provided the plans). Mr Green is working on a write-down period of 10 years. Apart from streamlining and simplifying the system at Three Gates Farm, another of the reasons for the investment was to secure a future in the pig industry for his son Geoffrey – one of the next generation of pig farmers!

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