The Laut family finds that successful use of radio frequency identification (RFID) technology with electronic feeding with group gestation pens requires a commitment to a training program — a gilt training program.
Jayce Mountain Pork is a 3,500-sow farrow to wean operation that has large-group gestation pens with electronic sow feeders (ESFs) at Fredericktown, in southeast Missouri.
CALM TRANSITION: Gilts rest in their training pen at Jayce Mountain Pork. Training gilts is a key to successful use of electronic sow feeding in group gestation pens.
"Training gilts is a simple process if done properly, but it takes discipline," says Walter Laut, who owns and operates Jayce Mountain Pork with his brothers, Don and Doug. "We recommend any producer who wants to transition to group housing with ESF develop a plan that works for them and follow through with it."
The Jayce Mountain Pork gestation barn has pens with about 275 sows divided by parity. Each pen has six Nedap electronic sow feeders. To prepare them to succeed in group pens, the gilts are trained in two specially designed pens within the gestation barn. For all gilts, the first couple of weeks in the barn are key to their future success.
Here's what happens in the first two weeks according to the Lauts:
NEW FEEDERS: In pre-training, gilts learn to use the feeder gates, but they eat from open-access feeders.
Week 1, pre-training
The pre-training pen is divided in half, with ad lib feeders on one side and a resting area on the other. A gate just like the ones on the backs of the ESFs is built into the pen divider.
On their first day in the facility, gilts are left alone to acclimate. Starting on Day 2, gilts learn how to use the gate to cross from the resting area to the side of the pen with the ad lib feeder. At Jayce Mountain Pork, one person will spend a five- to six-hour shift moving the group through the training gates. This job isn't necessarily difficult, but it is crucial — and requires employees with the right skillset.
"The ideal gilt trainer is someone who can keep calm and focus on the gilts' behavior," says Brad Carson, sales manager for Nedap U.S. "Patience in this position is a necessity."
The work shift should be structured so the trainer can get the work done without having to rush or get frustrated.
"Under no circumstances do you want this to be a negative experience for the employee or animal," Laut says.
LESSON LEARNED: In training, gilts learn to use their RFID tags to operate the electronic feeders.
Week 2, training
Next, the gilts move into the training pens with ESFs. In this phase, the gilts learn to position themselves in the feeders and use their RFID ear tags to dispense feed.
Consistency is crucial to successful gilt training.
"The person doing this job has to be very disciplined and stick to the plan you've put in place," Laut says. "You're going to teach the animal one thing every day. As long as you do that and stick to the plan, the plan works well."
Have a backup plan
Some swine management experts suggest about 10% of gilts are untrainable. At Jayce Mountain Pork, the team has found less than 1% of their gilts can't learn to manage the ESF system. The Lauts chalk up much of that success to their employees' dedication to the training plan.
Laut says the gilts that don't learn to manage the feeders seem to be "noncompetitive" rather than "untrainable.
"They just don't have that motivation to make the walk through the large pens to the feeders," Laut says. "They don't want to do that lap."
After more than a year in operation, the Lauts are pleased with the results they are getting in their group gestation pens. The sows are calm and easy to handle, and the ESF system allows them to feed each sow individually within the group.
"Decide upfront what you want to accomplish in the training pens, and make a plan to do it," Laut says. "Then, no matter what, stick to that plan."