Electronic Sow Feeding (ESF) systems are commonplace in Europe, and a promising solution for pig farms in North America. In Asia the market appears to be hesitant, I found out at VIV Asia 2015. Why?
The ESF systems, which allow gestating sows to live in larger groups, have been on the European market for at least ten to 15 years now. Key to the solution is that each sow gets her daily rations of feed in robust feeding stations, with the use of individual RFID ear tags.
Main driver for the success of the system in Europe (and the US) has been the public and legal push for animal welfare – i.e. keeping sows permanently in confinement during gestation is considered 'animal cruelty'. The ESF practice has proven that the usual hierarchy fighting can be reduced to a minimum with the right management and understanding of sow behaviour, thus avoiding a reduction of litter size.
So why doesn't it catch on in Asia? It's easy to point to an absence of the animal welfare push in Asia. This, however, doesn't tell the entire story. After all, now the global pig industry has had more than a decade of experience with ESF systems, it is fair to say that advantages are found stretching beyond those of 'complying with animal welfare regulations'.
Sows can be provided with a specified feed curve to meet the right needs in the stage of gestation they are in, increasing feed efficiency. In addition, the system opens up a world of data which were hitherto uncovered – a computer system monitoring exactly which sow is consuming what, and if necessary a supervisor can take immediate action.
Last but not least – farrowing tends to become a smoother process. Sows, due to the possibility to stretch their legs during gestation, are found to be generally in a better physical condition to farrow in comparison to sows kept in confinement. And I'm sure there are more advantages to be told. I've made my point, marketing ESF systems doesn't have to stop with the animal welfare story.
VIV Asia 2015
At VIV Asia 2015, last week in Bangkok, Thailand, I spoke to various suppliers of ESF systems. Interestingly, their stories all boil down to the same message: it's a matter of skills and money.
The system, they told me, is found to be too complicated for the Asian market. Or, in different words, the number of specialised, skilled staff knowing how to exactly handle the equipment is too low.
I was told that especially in China, the turnover of staff on pig farms is so high that by the time new employees might have learnt the necessary skills how to manage and feed the sows in ESF systems, they have moved on to a different working environment. After all, working in a large-scale commercial farm in China often requires living on the premises, which not everybody is prepared to do.
Funnily enough, one could reason in the opposite direction, being that with the high turnover of staff, ESF systems have to become a success, since one machine can do the work of many employees so you'd be dependent on fewer staff, trained or untrained.
So far, this doesn't seem to be a line of thought. After all, labour costs are relatively affordable, and that is when money starts talking. For the majority, ESF systems are being seen as too complicated and too expensive.
It's no wonder then, that those few farms that did make the switch to Electronic Sow Feeding in Asia both have highly skilled staff and depend on high-quality investments: often the GGP breeding farms.