Maternity pen tips

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What is the future of farrowing crates?

The way farrowing crates should be constructed is under discussion everywhere, especially in Western Europe. In particular, the design and floor space of farrowing crates is a complex question that is still unclear. How do I make my farrowing house future-proof, what is the best choice for the farrowing pen layout, and how do I as a pig farmer get the most out of my farrowing house with new techniques? These are recurring questions on which there is little objective and coherent information to be found. We would like to advise you about this free of charge.

I want to build my farrowing house but what do I need to consider in general?

Of course every entrepreneur wants to move forward rather than stand still, but you also want to build for the future so that not everything has to be changed in 5 years' time. In some countries the minimum floor area of the farrowing crate has already been laid down and there is already clarity, but in other countries there is still plenty of discussion about the frameworks to be laid down and no firm agreements will be made in the coming years. However, what many people forget is that this discussion does not stop at national borders. For example, there are clear signals that if piglets from country A are delivered to a pig farm in country B, the piglets must also be bred in accordance with the requirements of country B. And it is not easy for pig breeders from country A to be fully aware of the requirements in country B. We can help you with this.

What does VERBA as a producer of feeding troughs know about farrowing crates?

Because we, VERBA, as a Dutch pig feeder producer, work closely together with farrowing designers and research centers all over Europe, we experience this discussion at first hand and have a feeling for the direction sow farming is taking. Which farrowing system, which floor areas and which farrowing pen variants are being considered are topics that we are very much involved in from the sidelines in various European countries. By keeping our eyes and ears open and compiling this information we can help you with objective information.

Which farrowing crate system should I choose?

First of all it is important which farrowing system you choose. Only then can you proceed with your plans. For now we discount conventional farrowing crates. The traditional farrowing crate is less future-proof for pig farming in Western Europe and is expected to be phased out gradually. In some countries a free-range farrowing crate is already mandatory, such as in Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. Moreover, there is already a lot of experience with traditional farrowing crates, so we can add little information here. We therefore focus entirely on more future-proof farrowing crates, and these are free-range farrowing crates.

There are two choices in free-range farrowing crates. You can choose either a free-range farrowing pen or a free-range farrow-up pen. Of course, this depends on your construction options.

They are both good systems that are future-proof, but free-range farrow-up pens are, in our opinion, the more future-proof of the two. In addition, we expect that a free-range farrow-up pen will give you a higher return on investment. We will explain why below.

With free-range farrowing pens, you move both the sow and piglets to other pens after the farrowing period. With free-range farrow-up pens, you only move the sow after the farrowing period, but the piglets stay in the same crate up to 25 kilograms. Thus, you keep the brood together and do not have to move them. A pig is a creature of habit and does not like change. Every change leads to unrest, and unrest leads to limited growth. And this difference in growth can be great. But there are more differences between free-range farrowing pens and free-range farrow-up pens. Below, we list the advantages and disadvantages of free-range farrow-up pens over free-range farrowing pens.

  • More rest for the animals. You can keep the animals together in the same farrowing pen (up to 25/30kg) without having to move them to the piglet section. This gives a lot of peace and this benefits the pigs and their growth, in many ways. This is a recurring benefit.
  • Peace of mind for you. Much less labor is required because of not having to move the piglets to the piglet rearing department. In addition, you don't have to clean farrowing pens because of the more because that link is theoretically completely out of the way. This is a recurring benefit.
  • Economic advantage. Because there are no more farrowing crates to clean, you save on labor and on rinse water that ends up in the manure pit. This is a recurring benefit.
  • Investment advantage. You do not need to set up separate piglet pens. This is a one-time benefit.
  • More future-proof than free-range farrowing pen because of higher animal welfare due to keeping the toom together in the same barn. Also consider future measures regarding tail biting. This is a recurring advantage.

What are the main disadvantages of the free-range farrow-up pen compared to the free-range farrowing pen?

  • Due to the higher investment in relation to more required free-range farrow-up pens, this has a payback time of about 6 years. This is a one time disadvantage.

What floor area do I need to consider for a free-range farrowing pen?

The surface area of farrowing pens is also a discussion in every country. Free-range farrow-up pens that have already been built are at least 6m2. However, we hear that the square footage is getting bigger instead of smaller. In Germany, the law will be a minimum of 6.5m2 per free-range farrowing pen. In addition, the number of piglets born alive continues to increase and there should also be sufficient space for them. We recommend a minimum of 7m2 per free-range farrowing pen to ensure future-proof construction. In addition, in Germany, for example, there is a requirement that there should be sufficient freedom of movement for the sow and that the piglets should be able to walk freely behind the sow. This also affects the floor area required.

What kind of flooring should I have?

Flooring designs are also an interesting topic in relation to farrowing pens. For example, there is not one specific floor suitable for free-range farrow-up pens but rather it will have to be a combination of different floors. After all, in free-range farrow-up pens we are dealing with no less than 3 different life phases of the pig, namely: farrowing pig, sow and weaned piglets. There must be a section of slatted floor but also a section of solid floor. In various countries this is often linked to certain percentages or formulas of the total floor area. In Germany, for example, the law prescribes that a certain area of solid floor must be underneath the sow and that the floor may only be 7% perforated/provided with holes or gaps. The law also imposes requirements, for example in Germany, on the design of farrowing pen floors and the surface area of the lying area and closed area of piglets. For example, partially softer floors are required for the piglets in the farrowing pens. This must not be too soft, however, as this in turn has disadvantages in terms of hygiene and durability of the floor. These soft floors with good grip are quite easy to solve at an affordable price by, for example, using an Ekogrip synthetic floor plate with a 2 mm rubber top layer. We have these plastic sheets in our range and we can make them in whatever shape and size the customer wants. Also in renovation, these durable but soft plates can be laid in or on the existing floor. We also use these plates for the floor heating plates that we use for piglet nests. These heating plates can also be supplied in custom-made versions. These heating plates are also often used in renovations when other heating plates are worn out or do not heat up properly anymore because they do not appear to be oxygen-tight. These are inexpensive solutions that you can also retrofit when renovating existing floors. Practice also teaches us that if you choose free-range farrow-up pens that it is advisable to also have a section of concrete floor in the pen. This ensures sufficient claw wear of the piglets during the farrow-up period so that the piglets do not leave the farrow-up pens with claws that are too long. We have close contacts with floor producers and floor suppliers and we will be happy to put you in contact with them if you would like more information.

What equipment should I take for free-range farrowing pens?

There is also a difference between free-range farrowing pens and free-range farrow-up pens when it comes to the equipment of farrowing pens. For example, in free-range farrowing crates, part of the sow pen must be foldable, while in free-range farrow-up crates at least the entire sow pen must be foldable. Before and after farrowing, the sow must have enough freedom of movement and at least one side of the pen must be folded away. Around the time of farrowing, however, the sow will need to be temporarily restrained by folding the stall completely closed.
With free-range farrow-up pens, the whole pen will have to be folded up or moved after the sow has left, because the piglets stay behind until 25/30 kg and otherwise the pen gets in the way. 
There are many systems available on the market and we would like to hear from sow farmers about the advantages but also the disadvantages of existing models. If you have any questions about this, we can refer you to a barn manager who has the system best suited to your needs or put you in touch with a fellow sow farmer to share experiences.

What is the best system of feeding and drinking in the farrowing pens?

In our opinion, feeding and drinking is the most important aspect in your free-range farrowing pens. The right feeder certainly determines half of the success of your free-range farrowing pen, according to our customer and ambassador Brummelhuis. The feeding system that we recommend for all free-range farrowing pens and free-range farrow-up pens is the KZB stall feeder. Essentially, this is an oversized sow doser with closed back wall, beaded side wall and low floor trough equipped with a drinking nipple for the sow. The clapper hangs low so that both sow and small farrowing piglets can operate the clapper and rooting behavior is imitated. A very simple but solid system.

The sow eats from this KZB feeder during the entire period in the farrowing pen. With the clapper mechanism, the sow herself doses the feed from the storage bunker of the KZB feeder, which is 36 liters in size. The feed trough can be infinitely adjusted so that the feed output is set per stroke of the flap. Because the sow eats at floor level, she unconsciously pushes her head against the clapper and small portions of feed keep falling in front of her. The sow herself has to take care of her food by moving the clapper. This mimics natural rooting behavior, which stimulates eating enormously compared to a system where the sow is tossed feed into a trough for which she does not have to do anything else.

The drinking nipple in the KZB trough provides the sow with sufficient water. In practice, we also see here that piglets "drink along" from the sow trough at a very early stage. Because the sow drinks much more, the water always remains fresh and is eagerly absorbed by the piglets.

We received figures in mid-2021 from a German pig farmer with conventional farrowing pens and 2 test farrowing pens with the KZB in them. The sows with KZB feeders ate as much as 20 kilos more sow feed during the farrowing period than from the sow trough with doser. This greatly boosts the sow's milk yield, which in turn benefits the piglets.

In practice, once the piglets are born, they start eating from the sow's diet as early as about 4 days after birth, and the sow teaches the piglets where to get their food. This gets the piglets' saliva production going early and ensures that the intestinal flora gets used to solid food at an early stage. At a weight of about 7.5 kg, we see that on average piglets have grown up to 900 grams more than with a traditional sow trough system with doser. The piglet benefits from this excellent start for the rest of its life. There is no need to change feed for these results and this success is entirely due to the KZB feeder, it supports mother-child behavior.

Pig farmers with farrow-up pens using the KZB feeder report that the piglets are at the weight 1 week earlier. Another advantage is that the sow's milk yield improves and because the piglets also eat the sow's feed, the often more expensive prestarter is also used. This has a cost-saving effect. Because the piglets are also used to solid feed, they suffer virtually no weaning dip after the farrowing period. After all, the transition from milk to solid feed has already been stimulated by the mother from day 4, so there is no sudden transition for the piglets.

If you leave the piglets in a free-range farrow-up pen, the piglets will continue to eat from the same feed bowl. After all, they know where the food comes from and they can pick the piglet food out of the trough themselves by the clapper. This gives perfect results.

The sow drinking nipple is turned off and the piglets should drink from a separate drinker near the trough. VERBA can also supply drinkers for piglets or even attach them to the KZB feeder. In addition, we have farrowing pen piglet feeders with fixed trough or removable trough, which can be built into the wall and with their 10 liter storage bunker can also feed the farrowing piglets at an early stage.

Can I also use a KZB feeder in conventional farrowing crates?

The answer is simple. We are increasingly seeing the KZB farrowing crate being used in the partial renovation of existing farrowing crates, especially where the trough or water pipe is worn out. The sow farmer can benefit directly from the already described advantages by changing the feeding method. Due to the durability (stainless steel) of the KZB, it can be easily fitted into free-range farrowing crates later.

What does a KZB feeding trough cost?

The KZB replaces a piece of fence and wall, made of for example HPL (trespa), and the sow trough and a separate sow drinker. These additional costs that you would normally incur are almost comparable to the costs of a KZB trough. So the KZB trough does not have to be more expensive than a common system.

How solid is a KZB feeding trough?
The KZB feeder is not an expensive high tech system that is prone to failure. It is, like all our systems, a solid simple unique feeding trough that is 100% manufactured in the Netherlands and that does an excellent job for sow and piglet and actually leads to excellent results. We and the many users of the KZB feeder sincerely believe that there is no simpler and better feeding system for your farrowing pens than the KZB.

So what are the advantages and disadvantages of the KZB feeder compared to a sow doser with trough and separate drinker?

  • Much better milk yield by the sow. This is because the sow absorbs much more feed because of the sophisticated feeder. This is a recurring benefit.
  • Sows are more satisfied and active because they can eat small portions in a natural way. This is a recurring benefit.
  • Fitter sow. Because the sow eats more, she also comes out of the maternity pen "fitter" and this often benefits the development of the embryos of the next litter. This is a recurring benefit.
  • No weaning dip. Because the piglet is already nibbling along with its mother after 4 days, the transition to solid food is excellent. This is a recurring advantage.
  • Piglets gain weight 1 week earlier in postnatal rearing because the transition from milk to solid feed is better. This is a recurring benefit.
  • More uniform piglets, because they all have enough milk and because they can eat from the feed trough with the mother 24/7. This is a recurring benefit.
  • Certainly not more expensive to purchase than a separate piglet feeder, sow trough, drinker for the sow and finishing of the pen on which the trough hangs. This is a one-time benefit.
  • Cost effective because you need much less expensive prestarter for the piglets. This is a recurring benefit.
  • Peace of mind for you. The KZB trough is unique and special because of its simplicity. The feed trough with its bead edges is extremely solid and does not cause any failures that high-tech systems are more sensitive to. Anyone can work with this system with ease and this gives you confidence and peace of mind. This is a daily recurring benefit.

Disadvantages of KZB feeding trough compared to sow troughs with a doser and separate drinker:

  • The sow cannot lie down under the KZB trough as the sow could with a higher trough. Depending on the legislation (not everywhere the space under the trough counts as freedom of movement for the sow), in some cases you will need slightly deeper pens. However, the KZB is only 210 mm deep. This is a one-time disadvantage.

Verba can and would like to share knowledge with you about free-range farrowing crates and free-farrow-up crates, and about feeding and drinking in farrowing crates if you are orientating. If required, we can also introduce you to the right parties who will be excellent to help you move forward and meet your needs and requirements. We only work together with reputable pigsty designers. We have no interest in referring you to a company that is not specialized in free-range stalls or a company that we do not trust. There are barn furnishings companies that have truly specialized in free-range farrowing pens and produce their own systems for it.

In addition to knowledge, Verba can provide you with information on sow and piglet feeders, farrowing feeders, floor heaters, soft plastic studded panels for close area, piglet cabins, piglet nests and drinking bowls for your farrowing pens. Do you have any questions? Please contact us! We will be glad to help you. +31 (0)413-474036 info@verba.nl

Jarno Brummelhuis talks about his choice for a free-range farrowing pen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GAlbpKWcDmk

Verba farrowing pen products for several different farrowing pens: VERBA farrowing pen solutions - YouTube

Jarno Brummelhuis talks about the KZB farrowing pen feeder: VERBA KZB farrowing pen feeder - YouTube

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