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Deep Straw Bedding for Happy Pigs and Happy Farmers

By   /  April 13, 2015  /  3 Comments

The Swedes had it right: raise pigs so that the pigs are happy, and everyone wins. Here’s a look at how their switch to deep straw bedding for pigs created environmental benefits, and improved pig and human quality of life, and profitability.

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Because of changes in environmental regulations and animal welfare rules, Swedish farmers had to make some changes to their hog management. They came up with a system for housing groups of sows on deep straw bedding that provided multiple benefits, from improvements in manure management, to warmer, more comfortable sows, to reduced labor, costs and odor. Check it out and see how you might adapt this method to your own hog operation.

Movable Hoop Houses – Or No Houses at All!

Here's one example of a bedded pack building

Here’s one example of a bedded pack building

Before you even figure on housing, you need a good source of clean straw for bedding. For a group of about 8-12 sows plan on putting down two round bales to start, and then an additional round bale to add each week. You’ll also need equipment to remove and spread the manure. It’s valuable stuff, and you’ll want to get it back into the field.

Installing a deep straw bedding system is a lot cheaper than a typical confinement system, with costs ranging from 30-40% lower, to even less if you are retrofitting an existing facility. This appeals to Iowa State researcher Mark Honeyman who says, “If you want more flexibility, you need a lower cost option. In a rapidly changing industry, why not create a system that’s flexible rather than one that locks you into a certain production system?” That’s pretty much what we think about most things, and it seems particularly true here.

Deep straw bedding may be used for farrowing, and it works really well when paired with pasture. Farmers pasturing their hogs come up with ways to configure pastures and huts to make the most of their time and resources. By pre-sizing paddocks and watering systems, everything runs more smoothly. Many farmers still provide supplemental grain, making up 60-70% of the cost of raising the hogs. Some farmers experiment with having their hogs graze grain and alfalfa, reducing costs of harvesting and feeding out. One farmer plants several rows of corn alongside pasture, providing shade and windbreaks, along with supplemental feed.

For farrowing on pasture, or just housing them, make sure the huts are portable. There are numerous options for fencing, with some preferring steel wire, and others going for rolls of electric netting on fiberglass posts. Something different might work for you.

Piglets on pack. Photo courtesy of USDA-ARS

Piglets on pack. Photo courtesy of USDA-ARS

Healthy soil can help deal with the parasites, but you’ll still want to move the huts. Don’t use floors on them and move them regularly. They should have easy entrance and exits. Kathy knows a farmer in Canada (B.C.) who dispensed with the housing altogether, and makes deep straw piles for his pigs out on the pasture. They root into the piles for warmth. When he calls them for feeding, they come piling out of the straw, like clowns out of the clown car.

Manure Management for Soil, Smell, and Heat

One of the first benefits from deep-staw bedding for hogs was manure management.  Solid manure mixed in bedding makes a better fertilizer because the deep pack composts while it’s in the barn and the pigs’ feet mixes in their manure. The manure and the composting pack become a heat source for keeping the pigs warm, making this a great system for cooler climates.  Last but definitely not least, the system is also not as smelly as other management methods. Deep straw bedding cuts the odor, improving life for both the workers and the neighbors.

An added bonus is that ventilation in in this system is so much better. In the conventional systems, ventilation systems are a must, and you’d better have a back up power source, because if the power goes out, noxious gases will be deadly. Not a problem for deep straw bedded packs.

Farmers switching to deep straw bedding from conventional confinement systems reported being happier, and felt their hogs were happier too. Labor was about 18 hours per sow per year, with less time needed for building and equipment repairs and cleaning, along with lower culling rates.

Healthy Hogs 

Pigs on PastureDeep straw bedding did seem to be healthier for hogs, with lower medical costs. But internal parasites are still a problem, so you’ll want to make sure you develop and maintain a strong management program. Once the sows are managed to avoid crushing the piglets, the mortality rate for pigs on deep straw can be less than 1%.

Hogs fed on the pack need about 10% more feed, in part because it doesn’t all get into the hogs. Their feed is usually provided in troughs alongside the pack, and there’s some waste there, but it all goes into compost. Pigs on the pack also may need more feed to gain the same amount of weight as their confined cousins. Probably because they actually get to move around, expending some energy. (Prancing porkers on pack chew more chow.) Some have estimated they may need to consume up to 10% more feed, but this may differ from farm to farm.

All in all, deep straw bedding seems to be the Sealy Posturepedic for pigs, and easy on the pocketbook for producers. Perfect.

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  • Published: 2 years ago on April 13, 2015
  • By:
  • Last Modified: April 14, 2015 @ 11:19 am
  • Filed Under: Livestock, Pigs

About the author

editor and contributor

Rachel's interest in sustainable agriculture and grazing has deep roots in the soil. She's been following that passion around the world, working on an ancient Nabatean farm in the Negev, and with farmers in West Africa's Niger. After returning to the US, Rachel received her M.S. and Ph.D. in agronomy and soil science from the University of Maryland. For her doctoral research, Rachel spent 3 years working with Maryland dairy farmers using management intensive grazing. She then began her work with grass farmers, a source of joy and a journey of discovery.

3 Comments

  1. Donald says:

    “Hogs fed on the pack need about 10% more feed, because it doesn’t all get into the hogs.”

    Does this mean no feed troughs are used? Feed poured on the ground? or spillage out of troughs can be 10%?

    Thanks

    • Rachel Gilker says:

      Hi Donald,
      Thanks for the great question. The article has been updated to include an answer. In general, troughs are used, but some may be spilled on the pack, depending on the location of the feed troughs. Also, some have found that pigs on pack need more feed to gain weight.
      Thanks for reading!
      Rachel

      • Donald says:

        I would guess they don’t convert as well because they are spending energy looking in the pack for spilled feed. 🙂 Rooting and being happy. Thanks.

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