Comparison of Winter Farrowing Techniques on 4 Farms for High Value Pork Production for Niman Ranch

Final Report for FNC01-379

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2001: $14,481.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2004
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $24,309.00
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


Dave Serfling (44) has a farrow to finish operation producing 800 hogs per year, 80 head beef herd with feedlot, sheep, chickens, and rabbits on 350 acres. He has been involved in Sustainable Agriculture since 1988. Serfling uses managed grazing and resource-conserving crop rotations.

Dwight Ault (73) had a farrow to finish producing 1000 hogs per year utilizing pasture and modified Swedish system. His son left the operation in 2002. Dwight is slowing scaling back his farm with the last pigs to be raised in 2004. He has also farmed organically in the past.

Glen Bernard (48) is a youth counselor who also produces 400 hogs per year in farrow to finish on pasture and straw. He has also raised organic pigs.

Arvid Jovaag (61) left hog production in 1998 and started again because of this project. He has rotationally grazed his beef herd and has a diverse crop rotation.

1) The objectives of this proposal as found in our application include:
a. Facilitate the Niman Ranch market to continue to grow in the North Central Region by supplying more winter farrowed pigs by more farmers.
b. Assist existing Niman Ranch suppliers to expand into year-round hog production
c. Help more farmers in the North Central Region become familiar with the Niman Ranch alternative
d. Enable the four farmers in this project to investigate what works best on their individual farms as they raise pigs to meet Niman protocol
e. Publicize the fact that pigs can be raised without antibiotics to farmers and consumers

2) Process:
Research of winter farrowing techniques on four farms was conducted over two winters for this project. What makes this project unique is that all four farmers sell to Niman Ranch Pork Company of Thornton, IA. Niman Ranch Pork Company is endorsed by the Animal Welfare Institute and uses that fact in their marketing campaign. The Animal Welfare Institute has formed an acceptable protocol for pig behavior that they endorse and Niman Ranch requires.

The biggest practical requirement in this protocol is no use of farrowing crates. The entire standard can be found at Square footage requirements vary depending on the system used. Another challenging standard for Niman Ranch producers is raising pigs without antibiotics. This project was completed to determine if farrowing under these conditions could compete with conventional farrowing’s productivity. This is not a statistical analysis of a research project. rather it will consist of data and observations from the four farms and farmers. An examination of each farm’s facilities and management techniques will follow. The Ault farm near Austin, Minnesota is an old traditional 40’x60’ barn that had a 2” thick coating of urethane sprayed on all walls making a very “tight” barn. Ventilation is accomplished by 12”x12” doors into the second level hay mow. A exhaust fan is also set to come on if the natural ventilation does not keep the temp below 50 degrees. The Ault farm currently uses portable 6’x7’ A-frames that replace Swedish style boxes. No heated creep areas or supplemental heat were provided. Temperatures and relative humidity were monitored during the winter of 2002-2003 inside and outside the A frames. These results will be discussed following the table on page 6.

The Bernard farm near Rushford, Minnesota used a 100 year old barn with 18” thick stone walls. A temporary wall of straw bales was constructed to give a farrowing area of 35’x45’. No additional ventilation was done in this barn because of numerous cracks and holes in the walls. Too much “natural” ventilation is a continual struggle. A propane heater is used, but there are no heated creep areas. Farrowing is done in temporary pens approximately 15’ by 18’ and usually includes two or three sows per pen. Some pens have dirt floors. Litters are then mixed with more litters at three weeks of age. A major challenge for the Bernard farm is when sows in the same pen farrow simultaneously.

The Jovaag farm uses a traditional stone walled barn that uses both supplemental heat and heated lamps in creep areas. Once again the farrowing area is ventilated into the hay mow by access doors. The farrowing pens are 12’x6 ½’ including a 2 ½’ by 6 ½’ creep area with a 250 watt heat lamp. The bulb is changed to a 125 watt at approximately 15 days post farrowing. An open center aisle runs the length of the barn in between the farrowing pens. The pigs also have access to an outdoor lot if the weather is favorable.

During the summer of 2001 the Serflings remodeled their 1989 starter hog house for a winter farrowing hog house. It had been a nursery to grower combination building; hence it was dubbed a “starter” hog house. The starter hog house is 30’x48’. It is a conventional one story hog barn. The hog house has a 7’x4’ gutter that is cleaned with a tractor loader. It also has a homemade plywood feeder that runs the length of the building. It was divided into four pens each with a 12’ by 12’ bedded area next to the gutter. The remodeling included installing a ceiling with 6” fiberglass insulation and chimney ventilation. The ceiling insulation improved a roof with 4” of fiberglass insulation and an open ridge. The chimneys are 2’x2’ with a sliding plywood baffle. Sidewalls are insulated with 6” fiberglass. Ventilation doors on two walls use 1 ¾” Styrofoam insulation. Waterers and feed troughs were modified to accommodate pigs from 10 lbs to 500 lb sows. The feed trough was 10” deep with a 3 ½” lip with solid dividers each 15”. Small pigs would climb into the trough with their front legs but would not be able to be trapped with the solid dividers. The waterers were trough style also with lower heights for the small piglets. The building has a 110,000 BTU LB White Heater. The Serflings built pen dividers from home sawed oak boards that allowed them to make three farrowing pens in each 12’ by 12’ section, giving them a total of 12 pens in the building. The 48 square foot pens were constructed as trapezoids allowing the sows more room to turn around and making an obvious choice for the creep area. The creep area is heated with a 250 watt bulb for at least 15 days and then switched to a 125 watt bulb. The pens were made to be dissembled. A 2’ by 2 ½’ piece of plywood was used as a door that would be dropped in to keep the sow in or out of her farrowing pen.

Consultants on Niman Ranch Protocol:
- Paul Willis and Lori Lyon

Consultants regarding AWI Protocol:
- Marlene and Diane Halvorsen

Consultant on remodeling:
- Dave Munkel

Consultant regarding remodeling:
- Joe Hahn

Consultant on ventilation:
- Larry Jacobsen

- Harmony Vet Clinic

Power Point Computer Consultant:
- Wayne Monsen

Outreach advisor
- Wayne Martin

Academic Advisor/Swine Production Professor
- Dr. Mark Honeyman

Ag Engineering Professor
- Dr. Hay Harmon

Participating farmers
- Dave Serfling

Hired labor
- Jeremy Larson

Part of our results has to include the growth of Niman Ranch Pork Company during the duration of this grant. As noted under Project’s Impacts, at the start of the project there were 120 Niman Ranch producers marketing 1,000 pigs per week. At the end of our project there were over 300 Niman Ranch farmers producing 2,500 pigs per week.

Our project has had a role in the growth in Niman Ranch Pork Company, as evidenced by our outreach efforts to Niman Ranch producers and other farmers as noted in the outreach section.

Production results include the temperature and relative humidity data collected at the Ault, Jovaag, and Serfling farm during the winter of 2002-2003. The monitors took readings every half hour. The monitor failed at Bernard farm. In the winter of 2001-2002 the temperature and relative humidity data was collected at the Bernard farm. Comparisons for the entire winter would be misleading, because each farm allowed the barns to be empty without supplemental heat at various times during the winter between farrowings. Observations for this study will concentrate on temperatures during the week of farrowing at each farm.

Analysis of Temperature
Date of 1st week of farrowing, Farm, Aug Outdoor Temp (F), Temp (F) in avg, max, min and Humidity (%) in avg, max, min.
1-14 to 1-20-03, Ault in A frame, 6*, 34.5, 39.5, 25.9; 75.3, 94.8, 60.1
1-14 to 1-20-03, Ault in barn, 6*, 03.4, 34.9, 23.3; 78.9, 88.2, 65.8
12-28-01 to 1-3-02, Bernard, 13**, 36.9, 42.5, 30.9; 61.7, 73.4, 50.4
12-1 to 12-7-02, Jovaag, 25*, 52.0, 53.7, 49.7; 51.5, 63.8, 42.2
12-1 to 12-7-02, Serfling, 23***, 46.7, 56.6, 37.2; 64.1, 74.9, 51.0
1-10 to 1-16-03, Serfling, 7***, 45.6, 64.2, 32.5; 56.6, 74.4, 25.7
2-17 to 2-23-03, Serfling, 21***, 52.5, 67.6, 30.1; 61.0, 92.8, 32.8

*, Austin location
**www.crh.noaa/gov/arx/climo/data, Winona location
***, Rochester location

As is evidenced by our data our four farmers are utilizing much lower critical temperatures than a conventional farrowing barn even with supplemental heat available for the little pigs with the use of the farrowing crates.

As you can see from the Ault farm recorded a 4 degree temperature increase at the top of the A frame as compared to the main barn. The A frame had a 1” gap the full length of the A frame at the peak. This may help to explain the fact that the relative humidity did not have a consistent differential between the A frame and the main barn. The Ault barn was able to achieve an average of 24 degrees above outside temperature without any supplemental heat.

The Bernard farm was able to achieve an average temperature rise of 23 degrees above outside conditions.

The Jovaag farm had the most consistent temperature and the lowest humidity. It should be noted that during the monitoring period the barn was only at 50% of capacity.

The Serflings had the most variation on temperature and humidity. Their barn had the highest stocking density. It also may have had some outlier readings taken by the monitors during cleaning which occurred every 3rd day.

Jovaag and Serfling tried to keep their barns just warm enough to avoid chilled newborn pigs. This also encourages the little pigs to utilize the heated creep areas. It appears that 50 degrees in a bedded environment is near the pig’s critical temperature for farrowing. Both farmers tried to attend farrowings and would move newborns to the heated creep areas until dried off. Serfling now turns the thermostat 10 degrees higher during periods when he can’t attend the farrowing.

The Bernard and Serfling Farms were able to keep energy cost records. The Jovaag’s LP tank was not used solely on the hog barn. The following table summaries those records.

Energy Cost Comparison- LP
Gallons LP/litter, Gallons Lp/pig, cost/litter, cost/pig
Year 01-02
Bernard Farm, 18.5, 2.6, 16.61, 2.37
Serfling Farm, 3.68, 0.35, 4.34, 0.42

Year 02-03
Bernard Farm, 24.5, 3.2, 25.00, 3.29
Serfling Farm, 3.57, 0.47, 3.57, 0.56

Energy Cost Comparison – Electricity
Electricity/litter Kwh/litter, Electricity/pig Kwh/pig, Cost/litter, cost/pig
Year 01-02
Serfling Farm, 160.0, 15.3, 11.20, 1.07

Year 02-03
Serfling Farm, 175.8, 19.1, 12.31, 1.34

Energy Cost Comparison – Total
Cost per litter, cost per pig
Year 01-02
Bernard Farm, 16.61, 2.37
Serfling Farm, 15.54, 1.49
Ault Farm, 0.0, 0.0

Year 02-03
Bernard Farm, 25.00, 3.29
Serfling Farm, 15.88, 1.90
Ault Farm, 0.0, 0.0

The Ault farm used no supplemental heat therefore had no energy cost. The Serfling farm had the smallest and best insulated barn as evidenced by the reasonable energy cost and the higher temperatures that he could keep the barn at. As with most productivity measures numbers of pigs per litter has the greatest effect on efficiency. The supplemental heat cost per litter could easily pay for itself with one more pig per litter saved.

Results for the four farms:
# Born Alive, # at commingling, # at weaning
Year 01-02
Bernard, 12.8, 9.3, 9.0
Ault, 8.7, 8.0, 7.8
Jovaag, 12.4, 10.1, 9.7
Serfling, 12.1, 11.4, 10.2
56 farms in Minn. Farm Management, 10.1, N/A, 8.7
USDA 2000 NAHMS, 10.0, 8.9, 8.6

Year 02-03
Bernard, 10.0, 8.3, 7.6
Ault, 10.7, 8.0, 7.8
Jovaag, 11.0, 9.9, 9.5
Serfling, 10.1, 9.6, 8.7
56 farms in Minn. Farm Management, 10.1, N/A, 8.7

Overall, the numbers of the four farmers do compare favorably with industry averages. Although the Ault farm had the lowest production numbers they did have the lowest energy cost and they did operate in the coldest temperatures, with probably the tightest barn. The Serfling and Jovaag farms both utilized heated creep areas. These creep areas are utilized much differently by the pigs compared to a creep area next to a sow’s udder in a farrowing create. Both farms reported that the newborn pigs needed to be 24 hours old before they would utilize the creep areas on their own. The lost by crushing after the first day was extremely minimal. The Jovaag farm had much more consistent temperatures and humidity readings. The Serfling and Jovaag farm farrowed in the highest temperatures. It does appear that the higher temperatures and heated creep areas helped in production efficiencies.

Bernard and Ault clearly had the highest death losses in the first three weeks with the vast majority coming in the first week. All four farms report how critical it is to keep sows and litters isolated from other sows and litters.

Serfling had his biggest death loss in the group lactation situation. His group size was an many as 18 sows and litters in a group. The Serfling farm has documented a 60% decrease in mortality during the group lactation since he started vaccinating for ileitis and now uses a heated creep area with 850 watts at an energy cost of approximately $0.25 per pig.

The main result of this project was to show that farmers could successfully meet the protocol of Niman Ranch and still have very comparable efficiency to industry wide averages. With that accomplished, the main advantage of this project is to give other farmers another choice in hog production. Not all farmers want to go in the highly capitalized confinement model. If they choose to utilize the Niman Ranch market, they will have the advantage of a solid floor price of 36 cents/cwt with an additional 6 cent/cwt premium. When the interior Iowa/Southern Minnesota price exceeds the floor price that price is used as a base.

The main disadvantage identified by this grant is the higher level of management required to be successful in this type of hog production.

Recommended management practices to be successful include the following:
- Sow must have dry, clean place to farrow
- Sow must be isolated from other sows during farrowing
- Attend farrowings if possible and dry pigs off in a heated creep or by some other method
- Warm any chilled pigs
- If unable to attend farrowings turn the temperature above 60 degrees Fahrenheit if possible with supplemental heat
- Keep litters separate from other litters for the first week
- Earnotch pigs and keep records so that “lost” pigs can be matched back with correct sow
- Select from large litters when choosing replacements
- Vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate, especially in an antibiotic free production system.
- Remember safety when dealing with sows in pens
- Always have an escape route planned for the unexpected
- Feed and water the sows outside of their farrowing pens to keep their pens drier and cleaner
- Lock the sows out of their farrowing pens when processing pigs, preferably while the sows are eating
- Use heated creeps to save pigs even during group lactations and it will be economically rewarding
- Use solid dividers in sow feeders so little pigs will not get caught
- Use plenty of straw to lower the pigs critical temperature significantly
- Keep temperatures at a range where little pigs want to sleep in creep areas

It has been a very busy outreach portion of our project. The SARE grant was combined with a Minnesota Department of Agriculture sustainable agriculture grant. The results were published in the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Greenbook 2002, Greenbook 2003, and Greenbook 2004 by their Energy and Sustainable Agriculture Program Staff.

Wayne Monsen from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture assisted with the creating of a power point presentation that contained pictures of all four farms and production results. It was presented at the 2003 annual meeting of the Niman Ranch Pork Company in Ames, IA. It was also presented in February of 2003 to an audience of 150 people. The same presentation was shared at an alternative swine roundtable held in Grand Meadow, MN in March of 2003 to about 20 people.

Public presentations of the results of this grant for 2004 include the Minnesota Organic and Grazing Conference held on January 24th in St. Cloud, MN. The breakout session was attended by 20 people. The presentation was also made at a Land Stewardship Project sponsored on “Pig Power” conference in Redwood Falls, MN on January 28 attended by 35 people. Also on March 2nd the program was offered at a Niman Ranch informational meeting in St. Charles, MN.

The results were also submitted to Dr. Mark Honeyman as part of Dave Serfling’s creative component in his Master of Agriculture’s degree program. Dr. Honeyman hopes to include some of the grant’s findings in his published research.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.