Comparison of Finishing Pig Performance in a Hoophouse Building vs. a Conventional, Slatted, Curtain-Side Building

Final Report for FNC96-131

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1996: $1,775.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1997
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


We are a family farm operation. We are a corporation consisting of my dad and mom, 2 brothers and their families, and myself and my family. We farm 1100 acres and produce corn, soybeans, oats, and winter wheat. We have been ridge tilling our crop ground for 10 years. We raise 1700 veal calves a year, and we have a 200 sow farrow to finish operation which produces 4000 pigs a year. In addition to ridge tilling our ground, other sustainable practices we have implemented include grass waterways, grass headlands, narrow strip intercropping, and banding herbicides.

Our goal was to compare economic and production differences of finishing pigs in different finishing environments. Pigs were raised in low cost, deep bedded “hoop houses” versus a conventional, slatted, curtain sided building which is the pork industries norm for raising hogs today.

Our existing confinement building was used in this trial. In additions, three hoop buildings were constructed. Three groups of pigs were raised in each set of buildings during the past year following our normal management practices. Data was kept on each group and the data was compared at the end of the study to provide results.

- Bruce Weis assisted in recording data in the confinement building, and he also managed the building.
- Neil Wubben, Mitchell County Extension Director, assisted in the promotion of the field day.
- Roger Schlitter of Farm Credit Services provided advertising and refreshments for the field day.
- Rick Exner, PFI Coordinator, assisted in planning and promoting the field day. He also increased publicity about hoop building construction by putting our step by step picture album on the internet.
- Dr. Mark Engesser conducted and evaluated the slaughter checks for us.
- Joan Dierenfeld input the Pig Champ data
- Val Weis assisted in photography, poster making, typing, and record compilation.
- John Streit, Wayne Fredricks, and Vine Morische assisted in field day demonstration. They offered insights into their hoop house operation.
- June, Val, Dave, Greg, Renae and Lisa Weis assisted in construction of the hoop houses and in day to day operation.
- Paul, Bruce and Mark Weis assisted in construction of the hoop houses

Confinement Building:
Our confinement building was built in late fall of 1993, and it is located at my dad’s farm. It is totally slatted, curtains on both sides, with a ventilated deep pit underneath. Building costs were $200 per pig space at 8 sq ft/head. It is designed to hold 2 rooms of 330 head each. There are 12 pens in each of the two rooms, each holding 25-28 head. Pigs are split sexed and are fed different rations according to their weight and sex. Crystal Springs wet-dry feeders are used for feeders and the water source. My brother runs this unit and it takes him 6 minutes per room per day to check the pigs and the feeders. Clean up time take 4-5 hours per room to scrape and power wash. Manure from the pit is cleaned out in the spring and the fall with a 3300 gallon liquid manure spreader. Time to pump out is approximately 1 day. LP costs for heating from October 1996 through March 1997 ran $2633 for 5275 gallons.

Hoop Buildings:
The three units were built the summer of 1996. The buildings are Bio-tech and are each 30 ft by 72 ft. The company rates them at 200 head each at 10.8 sq ft/head. We don’t put that many in each, but instead fill them with one farrowing room of pigs, either 15 or 18 stalls. Cost of the building came to $11,200 per building, including fill, water, electricity, and fencing. I do not have an accurate cost on labor since we worked on the project all summer with different family members at different times through the summer. I have talked to several people and would estimate the cost at $2000-3000 per building to have someone else build them for you. At 150 head per building, cost is $75/head. At 180 head per building, cost is $62/head, and at 200 head per building, cost is $56/head. Pigs are fed in one large group and fed a gilt ration according to their weight. The 2 feeders used in each building are Osborne and we have 1-6 hole Smidley waterer in each building. The feeder brand and type would depend on the size and weight of the pig you are bringing into the building. The Osbornes are a good feeder, but small pigs seem to have a hard time learning to turn the paddles to get feed out. The 6 hole waterer probably isn’t necessary and a 4 hole waterer would probably do. The cement pad was poured flat, but I wish I would have sloped it in toward the bedding slightly to get rid of urine, manure, rain and melted snow. Some companies recommend sloping the concrete toward the outside of the building, so that if your waterer breaks, the water will run outside the building.

I have used large round bales of different types of bedding including straw, Japanese millet, corn stalks, and soybean straw. Paper could also be used but the main idea is to use bedding that is available to you and is as cheap as possible. I think it is important to have multiple sources of bedding in case something happens that you can’t get all your bales baled -- Such as last fall with cornstalks when it was very wet with an early snow and cold. Ideally, you should store your bales inside for best quality. I think that at a minimum you need to cover your bales to protect them from the rain, snow and ice. Getting your bedding baled has to be a top priority; it isn’t something you can put off until later. We’ve bedded the hoops from both ends, but usually do so from the north end. We use 2-3 people to bed, since I have good help from my two boys, 1 drives the tractor with bale spear, and 2 of us moves bales in the building. When the pigs are small, we bed once or twice in the first month, then once a week for the next one and a half months, and then two times a week until market time. It takes us 5-10 minutes per bale, depending on the weather. Bedding gets done a lot by looking ahead at the weather and working around the weather, especially in the winter. I have used both small (600-700 pound) and large (900-1000 pound) bales. I definitely like the smaller bales better. You can move them easier and roll them where you want them. You also need to consider that the bales will pick up moisture from rain and snow, and from just sitting on the ground.

I check the pigs 2 times a day. In the morning I scrap manure off the floor with a shovel and get the pigs up to check them. At night all I do is look in to make sure the waterer is working, and there are no obvious problems. This takes about 5-10 minutes a day per building. Some people never clean off the cement. This probably had a lot to do with the cement slope and getting the pigs started right when they come into the hoop. We lock our pigs off the cement the first 2-3 nights so they don’t sleep on the cement, and also to teach them to dung down in the bedding area when they get up in the morning. The amount of manure that has to be scraped off varies a lot. In most cases it amounts to less than a scoop shovel full. After a rain, it is usually more and sloppier.

Health wise, there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between the hoop buildings and the confinement building. We have seen the effects of PRRS in both buildings. Looking at the slaughter check data, everything seems to be comparable except for round worm problems in the hoops. We need to manage this with wormers with in the feed or in the water. We also have experienced ileitis problems in both the hoops and the confinement building, but it could have the potential of being worst in the hoops if not treated. We didn’t make any provisions for medicating in the water with a medicator, but I think this would be advisable. We have barrel waterers we put in if needed and have also used them to worm the pigs. As far as treating sick pigs via injections, the pigs in the hoops get smart real fast to that and almost make it a 2 person job if you need to treat them very long. Another difference we have seen is tail biting in our confinement building. We have tried numerous solutions to this, but haven’t found an answer yet. I haven’t seen any tail biting in the hoops, and they seem very content, probably due to the fact that they have plenty of bedding material to chew on.

Weather is more of a concern in the hoops compared to the confinement building. In the winter, we put plywood up on all 4 corners and put plywood on the gates. The north curtain pretty well stays closed during the winter, except for on the real warm days or when we are bedding. Our curtain on the North is designed so that there is always a 3 foot opening at the peak. This provides a constant source of ventilation. We didn’t put on a front curtain, and don’t feel it is necessary. It is more important to keep the pigs bedded down with dry bedding in a cool environment than it is to keep the environment warm and have condensation form and get your bedding and pigs wet. The bedding pack gives off a lot of heat and the pigs burrow into the bedding to stay warm. You can not expect to close the hoop up tight to warm it up inside, you need to keep the air flow moving inside the building.

We started pigs last December and January in very cold temperatures and had no trouble at all with starting the pigs. This is with pigs coming out of a 65 degree grower unit at 65 pounds. Very little snow blew in, even during blizzards, except for right inside the south gate, where the worst a 2 foot high drift formed. The bedding area, at worst, received a dusting of snow.

Summer heat is a problem, since you need to concern yourself with the bedding pack giving off heat. In summer the plywood is taken off both ends and the North curtain is raised all the way up. To cope with the heat on 90 degree + days, I sprayed the manure areas a couple times a day with a hose and spry nozzle, and also bedded them down more to insulate them from the heat. Some people put up a mister inside the building. Still the pigs were often fighting to get at the waterer, not so much because they were thirsty, but because they wanted to lay in the water. Possible a 2 hole waterer put on each side of the cement pad might prove useful to give the pigs more access to a waterer.

Spring and fall is also a hard time to manage. When do you take off the plywood or put it on? That depends a lot on the size of the pigs in your building and the weather condition at the time. You also need to keep a closer eye on your back curtain as far as manual adjustments. The fact you have bedding is a plus as it allows the pigs to seek their own comfort level and compensates for erratic weather.

The pigs in the hoops eat more feed than in our confinement building. This seems to be as much as 1 pound more per day per pig. We have been adjusting our rations in the hoops. Except for the heat of the summer, we always run 10% wheat midds in the ration to bulk up the ration. Last winter we upped this to 15% after 125 pounds was reached. We are still adjusting rations but it looks like we can maybe feed an even less nutrient dense ration. Ideally, we think we can attain the same ADG in the hoops as in confinement and make the difference in FE up by feeding a cheaper ration. We feel that there is still a lot to be learned yet of rations and feeding pigs in hoop buildings.

To clean the hoops we use a skid loader with tine bucket and a big box type manure spreader. The first hoop was cleaned out in December, and it took 5 hours with 2 people helping. The second one we cleaned out was in January, and took 8 hours with 2 people helping. This was due to the manure freezing on the top 6 inches. We had sold the building down to the last 12 pigs and decided to finish them out to slaughter weight. I thought the manure pack would prevent the manure from freezing, but that wasn’t so. It’s important to watch the weather and the forecast. In the winter, it’s better to maybe sell the top portion off and then wait and sell the rest off all at once and clean the building out right away. In the winter re-bed the buildings right after you get done cleaning it out, so the ground doesn’t freeze under the bedding. We also put back in 6 inches of lime or lime screenings every time we clean out the building. Cleaning the building in the summer was very easy due to the lower amount of bedding used. Time for 2 people was only 2 hours/building. Something I noticed this summer was a possible advantage to not hauling the raw manure right from the hoops to the field. Instead we piled it up to self compost for 304 weeks or longer. After setting that long, the material has heated up and broken the material down some more. By piling the manure you can avoid hauling during the winter or while you have crops in the field. You can haul when conditions are right for you. Odor from the hoops is minimal when there are pigs in them. If there is an odor it probably means you aren’t using enough bedding. When the manure is hauled to the field, there is an odor, but definitely less than when hauling liquid manure. I thought flies might be more of a problem with the hoops but that isn’t the case. There was no difference in flies between the confinement building and the hoop buildings.

After 1 year I have some concerns about the hoops that maybe only time will answer. First is longevity of the cover. We already have some holes worn in ours where the ropes rub on the canvass cover. The president of Bio-tech looked at our building and said that their’s didn’t wear that much until they were 3 years old. Evidently we have a lot more wind to contend with than in Canada. Worm infestation is also a concern, but I think it’s a problem that can be handled by good management and use of wormers.

We tracked production numbers for both the hoops and the confinement building during the past year. Looking at the numbers you see probably more of a disease effect rather than a building effect. We were hit with PRRS at the start of our study and that translated into 1 very poor set of pigs in both the hoops and the confinement building. As we have learned how the cope with PRRS and its side effects we have gotten better and more reliable data. ADG was less in our hoops than our confinement. I expected this to be closer and it maybe would have been with better health. FE was higher in the hoops and was expected. With higher consumption you need to compensate by changing the diet fortification and cheapening the diet. Surprisingly the back fat and yield percentage were very close for both buildings. I expected the hoops to be fatter and lower yielding but that didn’t seem to be the case.

All in all, I think hoop buildings have a place on our farm, and probably many other small to midsize farms. They are versatile, low priced, and low risk. Even if they don’t work out for hogs, they can be used for some other livestock or for storage of machinery, bedding, or hay. They also may be revolutionizing the hog industry, due to all the versatile ways you can use them, such as for gestating sows or as a farrow to finish unit. Our confinement building is very nice, and we will probably always get better production number from it. On the negative side, there is a high capital outlay to build what is essentially a single use building. Comparing the cost of production between the buildings is hard. With confinement building we have a higher capital cost, higher feed cost (due to feeding fat for dust control, micro-aid for odor control, and extra lysine to compensate for lower consumption.) and a higher energy cost due to heating during the winter and running the pit fan, feed lines, and curtains. With the hoops we get a lower ADG, and FE, the cost of bedding and probably a slightly higher labor cost due to the need to bed.

We learned that hoop houses offer a distinct option to use in production of hogs. Economically, hoop houses are a low cost alternative to conventional confinement buildings. On a whole farm system, hoop houses affect many different areas. They have led to additional purchases, such as a large round baler and bale mover. Making bales on the ridge till system also offered additional challenges. Manure management involved spreading manure on the ground where the bales were made. Hoop houses involve a change of attitude as well as a change in management practices. Many people are skeptical of the concept, and they think hoop houses will not work. We helped decrease this feeling by offering producers and curious neighbors on opportunity to ask questions and view the buildings in operation at the field day and our open house. Advantages of this project include “real life” data, farmer to farmer sharing of data, and increased awareness of a sustainable practice. Disadvantages included differences in data due to difference in numbers of animals, disease, genetics, and sex of animals. I would like to tell other producers that hoop houses offer a low cost alternative to modern confinement buildings. There is much to learn yet about the management of hoop houses, and producers have to be willing to make adjustments in their management styles. In my estimate, hoop houses can have a substantial impact on hog production. Economically, they offer a viable alternative and are very versatile and can be used for gestating sows or as a farrow to finish unit. Environmentally and socially, they offer a distant advantage due to their lower odor, both during operation and during manure removal. From an animal rights perspective they are also more acceptable, since the pigs always have access to plenty of bedding and additional space.

In the fall of 1996, we held an open house to let people look at two newly built hoop houses in operation and at the interior the third yet to be filled building. There was much interest, with over 100 people attending, including an agriculture class from the local high school. Advertising was done by newspaper ads in 4 local papers, as well as fliers distributed to area businesses. A follow up news article was written by a local paper. That winter we were part of an article on hoop building featured in National Hog Farmer. As well as being included in the printed magazine, this article was accessible on the internet. This summer we held a field day in conjunction with Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) to discuss some of our data and also offer people another chance to view the buildings in operation. Advertising was done in local papers and with fliers. It was also in the PFI field day booklet. PFI contacted larger area newspapers, as well as ads on the radio. Several area newspapers did follow-up articles on the field day. About 50 people attended the field day. Rick Exner also plans to include pictures of our buildings on the PFI internet site. I spoke to producers at the North Iowa Pork Industry Days this December on my experiences with hoop houses. In January, I am on the PFI annual meeting program as a member of a discussion panel. In mid-January, I will also be part of a hoop house initiative meeting sponsored by Iowa State University and the Leopold Center.


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.