If you want to see Dan and Colin Wilsons’ pigs, check the greenhouse, hoop house, barn or pasture. Unlike many other Iowa farms, you won’t find any pigs in a confinement shed here.
The Wilson brothers and their families believe in the benefits of pasture farrowing and using deep-bedded Swedish systems for raising hogs. The Wilsons’ pigs have plenty of room to run, root in their straw bedding and explore their surroundings. Keeping hogs in confinement pens with metal crates and wire-mesh flooring doesn’t fit with the Wilsons’ philosophy of animal welfare.
“We like working with livestock, and we didn’t want to get into a high-volume, low margin business that turns animals into production units. Our system provides a nicer environment for the hogs than a confinement barn, where pigs just eat, drink, sleep and get bored. We’ve learned to work with our animals rather than conform them to our system,” said Colin Wilson, who farms 800 acres with Dan in northwest Iowa, near the small town of Paullina.
Jumping off the confinement bandwagon
All of the Wilsons’ swine buildings, including a large greenhouse structure used for winter farrowing, give pigs room to move freely, build nests and root in bedding. “We joke that it takes us too long to do chores, because it’s so fun to stay in the barns and watch the pigs play,” Dan Wilson said.
The Wilsons’ facilities meet the Animal Welfare Institute’s (AWI) Humane On-Farm Husbandry Criteria for Pigs. These standards require that:
• Housing for animals must be designed to allow the animal to behave naturally.
• Housing must be sufficiently spacious to allow all animals to lie down and to move freely.
• No close confinement in crates is allowed, except in rare, temporary cases.
• Pigs must have continuous access to pens bedded with straw or chopped corn stover, or pasture or dirt yards in which they can root, explore, play or build nests.
• The routine use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics, hormones or sulfas to control or mask disease or promote growth is not permitted.
Meeting these animal welfare guidelines was not difficult for the Wilsons. As second-generation pasture farrowers, the brothers followed in the footsteps of their father, Ernest. When Dan started farming full-time in 1972 and Colin joined him in 1976, the pair raised hogs in many of the barns and buildings that their father used. Today, the Wilsons still use many of these buildings, which are located on Dan’s farm.
The Wilsons faced a new challenge by the late 1980s and early 1990s. Dan and his wife, Lorna, had five children, and Colin and his wife, Carla, were raising six children. Both men needed to generate more income.
“It was important to us that our wives wouldn’t have to work off the farm. Everyone we talked to was convinced that if we were going to stay in business, we would have to move into intensive confinement. We decided to give it a try. We remodeled part of a barn on Colin’s farm into a wire-floored nursery with pull-plug flush gutters and an outside pit. It was designed by an engineer and was state of the art,” Dan Wilson said.
How did the new system work? “Going from pasture to confinement didn’t sit well with us. The pigs did alright, but we hated it and hated the smell,” Dan Wilson added.
“It was a miserable place to work with pigs. Plus, when I stepped in the house, I didn’t want to smell like hogs. The pigs were also hard to move. We weren’t used to this, because pasture pigs are easy to move,” added Colin Wilson.
A trip to Europe provided the Wilsons with a new option, though. When Dan and Lorna traveled to Sweden in 1994 to tour the country’s swine farms, they were thrilled by what they saw.
“Colin and I have never bought into the philosophy that ‘bigger is better’ when it comes to farming. In Sweden, the whole focus of the pork industry was on quality of work, quality of the animal, quality of the natural environment, quality of the meat, and quality of life. I was very impressed with the deep-bedded system, rather than confinement, that Swedish farmers used to raise pigs,” said Dan Wilson.
A new system
The principles of the Swedish system appealed to both Wilson brothers, who are long-time members of Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), a non-profit organization that promotes farming systems that are profitable, ecologically sound, and good for families and communities. To visit the PFI website, click here.
In the summer of 1996, the Wilsons built a new deep-bedded farrowing and nursery building patterned after the ones Dan had seen in Sweden. The building, located on Colin’s farm, is 100-feet long and 48-feet wide and is divided into four rooms. The building accommodates year-round farrowing.
A three-foot wide walkway on one side of each room is used for moving hogs in and out and provides a way for people to move in the building. Six-foot by eight-foot portable pens (farrowing boxes) are placed along each of the long walls of the room. Waterers are located along the barn wall, and a drain takes away any spilled water.
Feeders are mounted to one side of the walkway wall. The Wilsons feed the hogs corn, barley, oats and hay grown on their farm. They are also experimenting with the high-protein grain triticale.
In the farrowing building, a 12-foot by 12-foot door in each room is used for putting bedding into the room and entering with the skid loader to clean the rooms. These doors are also used for summer ventilation, creating a cross-flow when the windows on the opposite end of the room are opened. Each room also has a ventilation system, complete with ceiling ducts and a 16-inch variable speed fan.
A day before the sows are ready to farrow, the farrowing boxes are set up in the rooms. Pens are bedded with straw, and 11 sows are put in each room. For the first 12 to 24 hours, no straw is placed in the alleyway between the two rows of boxes. This discourages sows from farrowing in the open area and teaches them appropriate dunging locations.
Each of the doorways in the boxes includes a four-inch roller 14 inches above the floor. The roller helps protect the sows’ udders as the sows enter and leave their boxes. The roller also keeps baby pigs in the boxes for a few days after birth.
When all of the piglets in the room are 10 to 14 days of age, all the box fronts and sides are removed. Then the 11 sows and their litters can roam throughout each room. At weaning, the sows are moved to a hoop building. The piglets stay in the rooms until they are 10 to 12 weeks old, at which time they go to finishing hoop houses at neighboring farms. The pigs are custom fed, but the Wilsons retain ownership of the animals.
Housing for the breeding herd
Hoop buildings are another key component of the Wilsons’ total system. A 35-foot by 85-foot hoop building houses boars and the sows from weaning through midterm gestation.
The Wilsons use another 35-foot by 75-foot hoop building to store bedding. Since dry, mold-free bedding is essential to their production system, it is important to keep the bedding inside. The Wilsons do not raise enough straw to supply all of their needs, so they buy big square bales of wheat straw from South Dakota.
While sows and piglets are in the farrowing rooms, the Wilsons add about two 400-pound bales of straw per week during a 10-week period. Because the bedding is left in the building throughout this period, the bedding will start to compost and generate heat after about seven days from the time the sows first come into the rooms.
After about a week, the rooms need very little supplemental heat in the wintertime. “We have measured temperatures close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the bedding. This helps kill bacteria in the bedding, too,” Colin Wilson noted.
Since all of the manure from the Wilsons’ system is in a solid form, the brothers do not need any pits or lagoons. With the big doors on the buildings, the Wilsons can drive in with a skid loader and clean one room in a few hours. The rooms do not need to be power washed. Once the manure is removed, the walls and floors are swept down, and the Wilsons apply a light layer of lime on the floor.
When they can, the Wilsons spread the manure directly on crop ground. When crops are growing in the fields, the manure is composted and applied to the land later.
While the Wilsons keep a herd of 250 to 300 sows, not all of the sows farrow in the Swedish deep-bedding system. From late May through late fall, the Wilsons also pasture farrow.
The farrowing area is rotated to a new pasture each year. As soon as it's dry in the spring, the Wilsons set up the fences. To divide the field into 150- by 300-foot pens, they use a smooth 14- to 17-gauge wire. They include standard steel rod posts in much of the fencing, but use wooden posts for gateways and corners.
Water is brought to the site in a flexible 3/4-inch black plastic feeder pipe, and then goes to individual waterers. A homemade tractor-mounted pipe roller built from a telephone wire spool speeds the job of rolling out the water pipe and fences.
When sows are brought to the pastures, they move into a variety of farrowing sheds. The Wilsons have about 65 sheds, including A-frames and e-huts. (E-huts are also known as modified Illinois sheds. To see the Wilsons’ design for this shed, go to www.pfi.iastate.edu/OFR/Wilson_E-Huts.htm).
The Wilsons save money by building most of the equipment they use in the pasture. Materials to build an A-frame cost about $130, and materials for e-huts run about $200, Colin Wilson said. “With minor repairs, these sheds can last for 30 years,” he added.
Greenhouse expands options
While the Wilsons cannot pasture farrow during Iowa’s cold winter months, they have developed an innovative solution. They use a 32-foot by 54-foot greenhouse frame to house the pasture farrowing sheds from December through February.
“The building has a layer of standard greenhouse film under the roof, and the pocket of air in there provides insulation. We installed a radiant heater, and it usually runs only at night when it’s really cold outside. It stays about 65 degrees inside the huts, even on cold nights. We’ve had tremendous results with this building, and plan to build a couple more,” Dan Wilson said.
The natural sunlight that filters into the building is just one of the many extra benefits, Colin Wilson added. “Last winter, the pigs coming out of this building were heavier and healthier than pigs from other set-ups on the farm. The building is good for people and hogs. It’s one of the places where everyone likes to work. Raising pigs this way is very enjoyable.”
Because the Wilsons’ farrowing systems do not include confinement crates and guard rails, the brothers carefully select sows with good mothering instincts. “Before she lays down, a good sow pushes the pigs out of the way and slowly lowers herself. She doesn’t just flop down. We keep notes on the animals’ mothering ability and retain gilts from the very best mothers,” Colin Wilson explained.
The business of pork production
The Wilsons don’t sacrifice production, or profits, with their unique pork production systems.
They wean about eight pigs per litter, which is comparable to the average litter reported by USDA. While the pigs’ feed efficiency is lower than in confinement systems, the rate of gain is just as good, or better, Colin Wilson said.
The Wilsons’ $42-per-head break-even cost for their pigs is similar to other Iowa pork producers’ break-even price. The Wilsons, who market nearly 3,000 pigs each year, benefit by selling their hogs to Niman Ranch. “We used to sell on the open market, but we got involved with Niman Ranch in 1998. Our Niman premium is six cents a pound, plus quality premiums,” Colin Wilson explained.
(Editor’s note: Niman Ranch, www.nimanranch.com, was started more than 25 years ago in California. In the Niman Ranch system, livestock are humanely treated, fed the purest natural feeds, are never given growth hormones or sub-therapeutic antibiotics, and raised on land that is cared for as a sustainable resource. Many Niman Ranch hogs are raised in Iowa.)
Niman Ranch requires pork producers to follow animal welfare guidelines similar to those espoused by the Animal Welfare Institute. Niman Ranch hogs are not given growth hormones or sub-therapeutic antibiotics. To manage disease problems, the Wilsons use herbal remedies for their hogs.
“The state requires us to vaccinate for pseudo rabies, but we’ve been without antibiotics since 1998. If we run into disease problems, we use things like oregano extract. Feeding hay to pigs is an aid for ileitis,” Dan Wilson said.
While the Wilsons are strong proponents of animal welfare, they emphasize that this philosophy is different from animal rights.
“Animal rights activists believe you shouldn’t eat animals. We’re into animal welfare, which focuses on well-cared-for animals. There’s a big difference between animal welfare and animal rights. We are trying to run an operation that is good for people and for livestock. We want to create a farming operation that can be passed on to the next generation,” Colin Wilson said.