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Electronic feeding system helps produce 2,000 more pigs at Thomas Livestock

Nebraska sow operation produces 0.5 more live pigs per sow per year.

In sow units, additional live pigs born equal a higher bottom line. With feed, management and housing costs remaining the same no matter the number of pigs, the more live pigs born: the greater the profit potential for the operation.

With this in mind, the facility managers at Thomas Livestock in Broken Bow, Neb., have evaluated ways to produce more pigs per sow per year. In just one year, they have added an additional 0.5 live pigs per sow per year in their 4,000-sow facility in the Georgetown facility " an improvement that they say is possible because of the electronic sow feeding and management system from Nedap.

Steve Horton from Thomas Livestock
"The Nedap system is a good management tool...I would recommend it to other sow managers"

Steve Horton is the production manager who oversees the Georgetown Sow Facility along with 17 employees. With 35 years of experience in the swine industry and 5 years at Thomas Livestock, he has managed many types of sow facilities from gestation-crate housed sows to dynamic group settings. He has found the facility 's current group system with individual care to provide the optimal combination of labor, individual sow care and performance.

"In any system, sow performance is big, " he says. "At Thomas Livestock, all of our weaner pigs go to another one of our facilities to be finished. The more pigs we can finish, the better we can care for the sows. The electronic sow feeding system has helped us keep improving this number. And the sows are calm, the employees have adapted to the system and we can better provide individual care to the sows. "

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Thomas Livestock


The staff at Thomas Livestock looked into implementing an electronic sow feeding and management system in 2011 while exploring options to build a new facility. With their other two facilities housing sows in gestation crates, the Nedap group housing system allowed them a new option for sow management.

"We were interested in this type of sow management to compare management strategies and because the market is beginning to demand it, " Horton says, explaining that the team evaluated options for more than two years before breaking ground on the Georgetown facility. "We did our research and everything made sense with this system. "

In early 2013, construction began on the 4,000-sow unit. While the building was being built, experts from a Nedap dealer, New Standard, visited the facility and helped install the Nedap electronic sow feeding and management system. Horton explains that the installation process took about three weeks, with gilts entering the facility in the spring of 2013 and remaining in the dynamic system through gestation before entering the farrowing facility.

Thomas Livestock

A new, more efficient process

With the new system implemented, Horton and his team worked closely with the New Standard - Nedap team to create a plan for acclimating gilts and sows to the electronic sow feeding and management system. "With this process, it 's all about gilt management and training, " Horton says, explaining that his team teaches gilts to comingle in groups and then enter individual feeding stations before bringing them into the sow facility.  

Today, gilts are purchased at 21 days of age and then go into an isolation pen. The gilts stay in this group for seven weeks and are then brought to the growing facility where they stay for 12 weeks. At the growing facility, each gilt is weighed and sorted into groups of 245 by size. In these groups, the gilts are fed through the individual electronic sow feeding system.

  "The Nedap training gates that have been installed help get the gilts ready for the feeding station, " Horton says, explaining that the gilts enter the feeding station, consume their allotted feed {dispersed automatically in 100 gram increments according to imputed feeding levels after the system scans a radio frequency identification  (RFID) ear tag} and then exit through the front of the feeding station. "They start to realize pretty quickly that they need to go into that station to receive their feed. "

On the first day, Horton says that approximately 75 gilts from each group will walk through the system on their own, with the majority of the group acclimating to the system within one week. By three weeks, the group typically has the pattern perfected.

After three weeks, gilts are monitored for estrus and begin the breeding program. Horton explains that monitoring for heat is very efficient with the Nedap system as the computerized gate system sorts gilts when they are exhibiting signs of estrus.

Thomas Livestock

Heat check

"We have a "˜heat check station ' right outside of the feeding station where a boar is housed in a separate pen, " he says. "After a gilt exits the feeding station, she will normally go back with the rest of the group. If she is in heat, she will stay near the boar instead of going back to the group. "

If a gilt stays in the heat check station for a specified amount of time, the computerized gate system separates her into a breeding pen and she is bred on her next cycle. Four days after insemination, the gilt is moved back into the Nedap electronic sow feeding and management system until farrowing.

After farrowing and weaning, second parity sows return to the electronic sow feeding and management system in 12 groups of 278 sows. For each of these groups, there are  six feeding stations in each large group pen " for a total of 72 feeding stations in the facility.

"The second parity sows usually remember the system when they return after weaning, " Horton says, explaining that sows visit the feeding stations 1.5 to 2 times per day, with new feed starting at 2:00 p.m. each day.

"The sows know that they receive an allotted amount of feed each day and visit the stations only a couple of times per day, " Horton says. "We have large groups and six feeding stations in each pen, so we don 't see any build-up of sows at the feeding stations. "

Thomas Livestock

Real-time results and useful reports

The RFID ear tags placed on each gilt and sow and the Nedap computer system help the managers at Thomas Livestock to monitor the activity of each animal on a daily basis.

Horton and his team have set the system so it distributes 2 kilograms of feed per day to well-conditioned gilts and 2.2 kilograms of feed per day to well-conditioned sows through gestation. If the sow is thin, feeding levels are increased to 3 kilograms of feed per sow per day to help her regain condition. All changes are made by typing them into the computer system.

"If a sow eats less than 500 grams of feed per day, the computer alerts us right away, " Horton says. "We then go out in the pen and check on her and bring her to the feeding station manually. If she doesn 't catch onto the station, we put her in an individual pen and care for her that way. "

In total, Horton estimates that about five sows per week are pulled from the group for individual housing out of the 4,000. Some of these are reintroduced into the group and some are culled based on performance and group behavior.

Horton says his team analyzes several reports generated by the Nedap system each day, in addition to the feed consumption data used to make sure each gilt and sow is consuming the nutrients she requires. The "Due to Farrow Report " tells the team when to move sows to the farrowing facility, the "Pregnancy Check Report " helps sort sows for veterinary evaluation and the "Vaccination Report " allows the team to set the gate system to sort gilts and sows that are due for vaccinations.

"The reports help us manage each of the gilts and sows individually, making sure that none of them fall behind, " Horton says.

Improvements in performance and management

Now that the gilts, sows and employees at the facility have adapted to the system, Horton says he has seen significant enhancements in animal behavior and performance levels.

"The difference in sow temperament is one of the most obvious changes, " he says. "The sows have a whole different personality; they 're much more relaxed. We 've learned that if we put the sows through the system before putting them in the groups, we have very little aggression issues and, with our large pens, there is no pecking order. "

With calmer sows, the noise level in the facility is quiet, resulting in "much less stress on the sows. "

"The decrease in sow stress is a definite, " Horton says. "The employees all like the system as well. It 's a different type of management, so we have trained our employees at the unit to use the computer system. "

The combination of these benefits has resulted in increased profitability potential at the facility. Because the system disperses feed in small allocations based on what the sow eats, there is decreased feed waste. In addition, the heat check station has helped to increase the number of gilts and sows detected for heat on first estrus and sows who are found not pregnant will be culled quicker.

"The sows are calmer and we can monitor them routinely; that 's helped us improve our live pig rates, " Horton says, explaining that they have trended 0.5 more live pigs per sow per year on average compared to their two other facilities.

Future plans

Due to the success of the first installation, Thomas Livestock is considering installing a Nedap electronic sow feeding and management system in a new sow facility as well as adding additional feeding stations and sorting gates to increase production capabilities to 6,000 sows at the Georgetown unit.

"The Nedap system is a good management tool: we can produce more pigs, have a more relaxed atmosphere and monitor the gilts and sows better, " Horton says. "Once the employees are trained to use the system, it 's very efficient and pretty self-sustaining. We are pleased with the system and I would recommend it to other sow managers. "



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