Combi-pens reduce pre-weaning mortality to 9%

07-02-2013 | | |
Open crate in the combi-pen by Jyden. If sows are not feeding the piglets enough, it can help if they are set free. Exercise is good for them.
Open crate in the combi-pen by Jyden. If sows are not feeding the piglets enough, it can help if they are set free. Exercise is good for them.

Freedom during farrowing is one of the latest trends in European sow management – as could also be seen at EuroTier and Agromek. Eskegaard breeding farm in southern Denmark has decades of experience with the concept – and have been using combi-pens for several years. Results are positive – opening farrowing crates during gestation offers many positive effects for sows.

Breeding Centre Eskegaard in southern Denmark, near Haderslev, is a family-owned operation, producing 14,000 gilts per year. The farm has always had a tradition of letting sows go loose during farrowing. When production was expanded in 2001 and 2010, the managing Schultz family chose a combipen for both new farrowing houses. In this type of pen sows are kept in crates just like in a traditional farrowing system. In contrast to traditional boxes, however, these crates can also be opened – and its wings can be fastened on each the side of the pen. In other words, sows can walk freely inside the pen.

Erik Schultz, daily manager of the farm together with his older brother Jørgen, explains that the crates are being opened when sows lose their appetite or when they show signs of Mastitis, Metritis, Agalactia (MMA): “When a sow that shows signs of disease can walk around the pen, she often gets better and starts eating and taking care of the piglets again.” Opening the crate can prevent many health problems for both sows and piglets. Stomach ulcers in sows is a good example, he says. “This is a very widespread problem, but we do not have any problems with it in the herd.”

He continues to say, “If a sow starts to develop shoulder ulcers, we open her crate and give her a rubber mat in the resting area. This generally stops  the ulcer from getting worse. If not, we wean the sow and put her in a special hospital pen with special care.

And if the sows are really big we also open the crate. This increases the comfort of the big sows. And they perform better.” He estimates that 40% of the sows are set free in the combi-pens about five to six days post-farrowing. The 920 Landrace sows (Danbred) wean almost 30 piglets per sow per year. Total piglet mortality in the herd is around 9%.

Bigger pens

The combi-pens at Eskegaard have been built larger than usual, with a size of 2×3 m or 6 m2, where a surface of 5.0-5.5 m2 would be more common. Schultz says, “Our Landrace sows are bigger than production sows. So we wanted to give the sows more space. And also more space to the piglets. It is very important, that the sows are not restricted in their movements when rising and laying down in the crate. In addition, piglets should have good access to the udders. We do not want them to form two layers next to the sow.”

He continues, “In order to produce healthy and strong breeding animals they must have good conditions throughout the production phase. This starts at the beginning of their lives.” Schultz explains that the pens are side-faced. So the creep area is placed near the hallway and not in the back of the pen. In addition, the pen is elevated, in order to be able to observe both sows and piglets better. When the piglets are sleeping in the creep area it is even easy to collect and handle them. It has not been difficult to get the sows into the elevated pens. Schultz says, “Landrace sows are known to be calm and curious, so we do not have to fight with them to get them to go in and out of the pens. That is also the reason why we were not afraid that we would get problems with aggressive sows when they go loose in the combi-pens.”

Crates closed

As said, about 60% of the sows are not let loose while they are in the farrowing house. Schultz says, “If we let all the  sows loose we will have to spend a lot of time cleaning the pens. The manure of the sows can be quite dry and hard and we have to scrape it into the slurry channel manually. That will be a big task if we let all the sows loose,” he emphasises. At the back of each pen an opening of 4-5 cm is made in the slats across the width of the pen. Here the dry and hard manure is scraped down and pushed through the slats. Either by the staff or by the sow and piglets. There is a cover on this opening during the first days post-farrowing, so the piglets will not hurt their legs. When the piglets get a bit older the open slat is not a problem and no piglets will hurt their legs by falling into this hole.

Hygiene reasons also play a role in deciding to keep most sows in their crates. Schultz says, “The mess with the manure all over the pen, when the sow is walking loose in the pens would pose a health risk for the piglets. They would be exposed to a lot of harmful bacteria and other micro-organisms from the sow’s manure.”

Locked up in the creep area

Piglet mortality in the herd is impressive as on average only 9% of the piglets died before weaning in the first three months of 2012. In the same period on average 14.1 live pigs were born per litter and there were 1.6 stillborn pigs per litter. There are several reasons why, Schultz explains, one of them being that during the first two days post-farrowing, the piglets are locked up in the creep area four times a day – while the sows are eating. Schultz says, “In this way we avoid the piglets getting crushed by the sows in connection with feeding. Another advantage of locking up the piglets in the creep area is that the piglets learn that this is the place to sleep. Here the environment is dry and warm. Exactly what they need. We do not want them to sleep outside the creep area. A reduced body temperature poses a risk to their health.”

Another reason is that the closed creep area can be divided into two smaller sections. When the piglets are newly born and still small, the heat from the lamp is thus distributed on a smaller area, resulting in a comfortingly warm and dry creep. The floor is also heated in the creep area.


Feeding the sows four times a day is above average as on most Danish farms, feeding twice or three times is customary. Feeding four times leads to a good water intake – this is important for sow health and milk production. The lactating sows are fed a mixture of 8% oats and 2% alfalfa-pills in the feed to ensure a good stomach health. An Ifeed-feeder is installed for every sow in the farrowing house. Originally, in 2001 the sows were fed ad libitum. The farm, however, moved away from this regime over the years. Schultz says, “Not all sows could manage this ad lib system. They took perhaps an entire daily ration in one feeding and stood up only once a day. This was not good for their digestion and water consumption. Their milk production suffered.” He adds: “Nowadays the system feeds the sows four times a day and we make sure that they stand up every time. The Ifeed-feeder is an extra feed reservoir and the sow still decides when and how quickly she will eat the food ration we assign her four times a day, as she has to release the feed herself. Very few sows therefore stop eating.” The system leads to hardly any feed waste. Schultz says, “If a sow has not eaten the feed from the last meal, we can turn off the conventional feeding system. Out of 240 farrowing pens weonly have to empty one trough before feeding time. With the high feed prices we have seen in recent years, the Ifeed-feeders will probably have paid for themself for that reason alone.”

European legislation

Schultz is happy with his combi-pens, but hopes it does not lead to another change in European legislation. He says, “It would be terrible if European legislation would dictate that all the sows had to go loose. We can see that there are many sows that cannot go loose in farrowing pens. These sows are not aware of the piglets, they mess all over the pen and so on. The result

is higher piglet mortality and higher occurrence of diarrhoea in the piglets. Therefore we are very pleased that we still can box up these sows since we have combi-pens.”

Schultz likes to show the combi-pen to customers and other interested people. He says, “A system with combi-pens looks better than a system with traditional farrowing pens, where sows and piglets have less space. Here we can provide space and freedom to walk loose for those sows that need it. It is a more acceptable pen for many people. It is not as industrialised as the traditional farrowing pen.”

He continues to say: “It is also important that our employees feel that it is a nice farrowing house to work in. Then we can attract the good employees that are motivated and aim to make a difference. We can do that with this system.” PP

Pernille Jacobsen