One year with db.Klara

Loose farrowing pens = more relaxed sows with freedom to move around and go outside

Andreas Kopf from Bellersheim in Hesse has been running an organic gilt production unit with loose farrowing pens and outdoor areas for well over a year. He now has experience of using the new system in all seasons. How do the sows and piglets cope with the outdoor area? Is it difficult handling loose sows?

Mr Kopf, how are you getting on converting the housing and switching to organic sows?

We have more or less finished, we are just setting up a new finishing unit. We have been certified by Bioland and Naturland (two leading German organic farming associations) and are now receiving plenty of requests from customers throughout Germany for db.Klara organic gilts. Some breeders have already purchased several animals from us. It's going well. All organic farms have open-air housing and would like to have the corresponding genetic profile to suit this system. We’re even having to slow down a little because we don't always have enough sows to meet the high demand. But from March 2018 we will be able to meet the demand in full.

How did the sows and piglets use the outdoor area in summer?

The pigs seem to like the outside area of the pens. In winter the piglets didn't go outside until they were about a week old, but in summer most of them went out on day two. My fears that in summer the sows would increasingly farrow outside have luckily proved unfounded. Only two sows attempted to farrow outside during the whole of the summer. It happened on a very warm day and when we noticed that the sows were starting to farrow outside, we simply drove them gently back into the pen so they could continue farrowing inside. It was really not a problem.

In fact, with the outdoor housing area we had significantly fewer problems during the very hot weather. When the sows got too hot indoors, they simply went outside and vice versa. Given more freedom of movement, the sows seek out the most comfortable place. You can tell they are happy.

Loose farrowing pens and crushing losses: What are your experiences?

The textbooks say that piglets are more likely to be crushed by the sow in loose farrowing pens. And this is in fact something that we are not immune to. We no longer have the opportunity to restrain the sow for long periods of time. All we have is a swing gate in the farrowing area which we can use to block the sow’s access if we need to get to the piglets. And if the piglets are lying all over the pen and the sow is free to roam around, there is naturally a greater risk that they will be crushed by the sow. We are trialling many approaches to reduce these losses. At present we are installing a second piglet nest in each farrowing pen. The nest is heated from above with an infrared radiator and the floor is lined with straw. Maybe we put the first piglet nest in the wrong place and that's why all the piglets were not always in it. We are testing several different options to further improve the pigs' well-being.

What tips do you have for farmers thinking of switching to an organic system?

A steady routine is extremely important for the animals as well as for the management of the farm. For example, we sometimes find that sows transferred to group-suckling pens come into oestrus while still suckling. This throws the whole group into confusion. At the moment we are still very busy with renovation work so we sometimes fail to spot the right moment. This is something we clearly have to sort out. I have also discovered that our new system is more labour-intensive, so we have just recruited a new female colleague. This will obviously cost us more money, but more and better care of the livestock will also boost their performance.

Would you make the decision to switch to organic guilt production again, knowing what you know now?

I'm glad I decided to switch to organic farming – more so every day, in fact. The pigs have become much calmer since we converted the entire housing system. When people told me that before, I never believed them, but it's true. A few of the sows were still a bit nervous straight after switching from the conventional system to the organic loose farrowing pens, but certainly not any more. Previously, the entire group of sows would stand up when you went into the pen, but now they don't even bother. This makes us all very relaxed, pigs and people.

Herr Kopf,
thank you for talking to us!