Swine Teaching and Research Unit
Today the US swine industry finds itself confronted with rapidly changing public opinion and policy on how gestating sows should be housed. Penn Vet is uniquely positioned to provide the industry with relevant scientific data collected from this living laboratory.
A Model Facility
Designed for applied swine research and the teaching of swine production medicine, the Swine Teaching and Research Center at New Bolton Center was opened in January 2001. This innovative Center provides a crucial link between Penn Vet and the Pennsylvania swine industry by serving as a model modern and humane swine facility.
The building features state-of-the-art technologies for animal comfort, animal feeding, and nutrient management. The entire facility was designed to maximize animal welfare with technologies imported from Europe and since its opening has been at the cutting edge of sow comfort.
Microchip Technology and Natural Behavior
In the barn, pregnant sows live together in a pen of 60-70 animals, each with a microchip in its ear. Using the individual microchip data, the computerized feeding system identifies a sow as it enters the electronic sow feeder, where it gets a quarter pound of feed at a time until it eats its allotment of about 6 pounds a day.
The sows, which weigh 400-600 pounds, spend much of their time resting in bays along a wall. The same animals lie in the same area every day and raise a ruckus if a sow that does not belong to a given clique tries to squeeze in.
Farrowing Room Facilities
The farrowing room facilities were also designed with animal welfare in mind. A lactating sow will spend one week in a modified farrowing crate which will protect her newborn babies from inadvertently being crushed. After one week, the farrowing crate is opened allowing the mother to have unfettered access to her offspring inside a 50-square-foot pen. This original model has been adapted by swine producers to house approximately 65,000 sows, or one percent of the country’s sow herd.
Facilities Upgrade for Optimal Care
While the staff at the swine center continues to help farmers adopt these husbandry practices, it was recognized that the design of the original facility had served its useful lifetime. In an effort to address important issues still on the horizon to both consumers and swine farmers, the facility was recently updated for the study of the latest trends and technologies being implemented in European swine production facilities.
The building features state-of-the-art technologies for animal comfort, feeding and nutrient management, primarily for 200 sows and their piglets. An additional 6,000 square feet of animal space has been added to the 10,000 square foot facility. Here the sows are bred, then deliver and rear their young.
There are two major changes to the new building. Farrowing rooms, where sows give birth, will now be completely crateless. Farrowing pens are designed with designated areas for piglet sleeping, piglet nursing/sow laying and sow elimination.
The second major change involves the expansion and modification of the gestation area for pregnant sows. The sows now have a choice of different styles of bedded areas in which to lounge and sleep. They can also use their snouts to open a door to an outside “loafing” area. The changes provide opportunities to research the need for bedding, outdoor access and alternatives to the farrowing crate.
The approximately 4,000 piglets born at the facility each year will be sold to independent producers in an antibiotic-free/welfare friendly niche markets such as provided by Whole Foods Markets or Niman Ranch. Each spring several piglets are sold to young participants of the local 4H pig clubs.
Electronic Sow Feeding System
Still in place is electronic sow feeding, a computerized feeding system that utilizes a microchip to uniquely identify each animal and ensures the daily delivery of a precise amount of food to each gestating sow. A separate computerized mixing and delivery promises fresh feed any time that an animal in the barn is feed.
Design and Construction
The new model of pig husbandry at New Bolton Center was designed by Thomas Parsons VMD, PhD, Associate Professor and Director of the Penn Vet Swine Teaching and Research Center based on his studies of European farms where customer demands have required the development of alternative husbandry practices.
The facility was constructed by Farmer Boy Ag Systems of Myerstown, PA. Equipment for the project was graciously supplied by Schauer Agrotonics, Prambachkirchen, Austria; MIK International, Siershahn, Germany; and Automated Products, Assumption, Illinois. Breeding stock for the farm were provided by Pig Improvement Company (PIC), Hendersonville, Tennessee.
Impacts of an Increased Herd Size
The increased herd size has facilitated research initiatives at the swine center where the emphasis is on how to best manage this alternative systems and who are the right animals to be reared in these facilities. Ongoing projects are graciously supported by PIC, National Pork Board, American Society for the Prevention of Cruely to Animals, Pennsylvania Pork, Producers Council, Pennsylvania Soybean Board, American Humane Association and the Swiss Village Farm Foundation.
A 1,000-square-foot classroom with windows in the center of the facility allows for observation of the animals while still maintaining a high level of biosecurity. The recent addition of a video camera through out the barn further enhances the research capacity as well as the ability of visitors to learn more about the swine center. Another feature of the facility is its capacity to meet 10-12 percent of its energy requirements through the use of solar power.