Arno van Brandenburg is the eminence grise of the electronic feeding industry. His name is well known throughout the hog world, and working with Nedap since 1984 has given him an insider view to the rise of many new technologies that have changed the swine world for the better.
When van Brandenburg started his work in the industry the technical side of pig farming was still very limited. Ventilation was pretty much the only mechanized thing in most sow barns. There were a few food delivery systems on the market that had just started, but they had not yet gained market share.
At the time Nedap was known for its expertise in precision electronic feeding systems for dairy, not pigs. They had just made the very first sow feed station, and they were looking for a person who knew something about sows. When van Brandenburg started at Nedap, their precision feeder was simply an electronic dairy feed station that had been lowered. They initially used a collar system around the sow’s neck because that was what was used for dairy feed stations, but they quickly realized that the sows were losing their collars due to their necks being as thick as their heads. They also noticed that sow biting behaviors necessitated a rear door to protect them from other waiting sows. “We added the back door and it was working for groups of 8 to 10 sows, but when we got up to 20 sows on the system it stopped working well,” van Brandenburg said, “that is when we first realized that we would need to develop a forward exit on the sow feed stations.”
Smaller Electronics, Expanded Industry Impact
As electronics became smaller and smaller, they were able to switch to smaller ear tags, landing on the current size in the mid 1990s; but that wasn’t the end of the struggles to make ESF work in the hog industry. As the world looked toward the new millenium, Nedap executives started to doubt if there was a future in commercial electronic sow feeding. The system was slow to gain acceptance and still not as effective with large, or even static, groups as they had hoped.
Change came when a company out of Switzerland experimented with a new design that put several feed stations in a row right next to one another in the same pen design, allowing for fewer sows per feed station while maintaining larger group sizes. Combining this with their knowledge of forward exit, Nedap landed on the concept of a shared central passage and the capability for central separation.
“At that moment it was a big change for us, because we knew that the system would work better and better all the time as technology advanced,” van Brandenburg said. “And that was the beginning of Nedap as we know it.”
Barn Layout Matters
With an effective electronic feeding system firmly in place, attention switched to creating even more effective barn layouts for workers and sows, improving walking lines and passages and developing data collection software for farmers. Watching the ESF industry grow by leaps and bounds over the past 20 years, van Brandenburg has seen the focus of the industry gradually shifting.
“You know it is interesting because in the beginning we were talking about group housing as the emphasis, but now we are talking more about individual feeding as the emphasis. With individual feed, you can get the maximum out of each individual animal.”
Maximizing Your Animals
Getting the maximum production value out of animals while maintaining a high level of animal husbandry has always been a passion for van Brandenburg. In his view, farmers and integrators want to be economical, but most also want to treat their animals well. As pressure for group housing came into the picture in European markets over the past 20 years, European farmers, and now Canadian and even US farmers, have been pushed to change from the stall barn model to group housing. Big groups work much better in the production environment than smaller groups. In fact, bigger groups outperform smaller groups in almost every case; but it is a significant change for many farmers, both in equipment and mindset.
“It can be hard on farmers who are used to individually treating the animal in stalls,” van Brandenburg said. “They are used to doing visual inspections of all the animals, looking to see if a pig isn’t moving and they should treat them.” But as you give a lot of freedom back to the animal, she is getting an even greater individual treatment due to the electronics. And you can individually treat her the whole way through her lifespan and still have her rooting around in a big group.”
Working With Natural Sow Behavior
With the use of an ESF system within group housing, sows are encouraged to exhibit natural behaviors. The electronics simply support the production team in caring for the animals individually and understanding what the sow is already showing through both her behavior and body condition. Tools like heat detection use the natural curiosity of the sow when she is in heat to mark and separate out open sows. The calculation rules for the heat detection were configured with the help of Wageningen University. Many farms have greatly reduced or even completely eliminated the need for pregnancy checks because of heat detection and weight monitoring. With the added tool of central separation, finding and separating out sows from the bigger group for vaccinations, farrowing, insemination or health checks is as simple as a few clicks in a computer program.
What began as a precision feeding system concept inside Nedap became a large group housing tool and is once again moving toward precision feeding. It would seem that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
As end-consumers demand more accountability in farming practices, this system has excelled. With the ability to focus not only on humane housing but also precision feeding, high production, traceability, and reduced stress on the farm workforce it is easy to see why.
“We have had to innovate because we get pressure from the customer,” van Brandenburg said, “but when you find solutions to customer problems, it can make your system even better than what you had before.”
Data and the Future
One of the largest areas of innovation in the past 10 years has been sow data collection and analysis. As a new generation of farmers come forward, they are bringing their expectation for technology with them. With computerized stations, advanced electronic monitoring, and state of the art software, sow data can be accessed in real time allowing producers to take quick action when they spot a problem in the sow barn.
One way van Brandenburg has seen this play out is with sow weight monitoring which is growing in popularity in western Europe. In January, van Brandenburg received a call from an ESF client who had just started the system one month previous who said he was worried because while everything else was working perfectly and the sows were happy and peaceful, he noticed that out of his 200 sows, he had 20 who were on the attention list due to weight loss week over week.
After confirming that the farmer had checked that the scales were in working order and reporting correct weights van Brandenburg said, “I told him congratulations! You’ve discovered you have the wrong feeding curve inside your system because they are not getting enough. An animal in pregnancy should grow around 3 kilos a week.”
The farmer asked what could be done and van Brandenburg offered to send him better feeding curves from another customer. Within a week the weight issues had resolved and his sows were back on track. “So that means that because he knew that something was not right, he was able to give it immediate attention and address it.” van Brandenburg said. “Otherwise he may have seen it two months later in the farrowing pen with light piglets. With a lot of figures in the pig business, you record what you did after it has happened and you cannot change it anymore. So if you have 15 born alive, that is nice but it will never be 16 because you cannot change it. With ESF, we try to focus on giving the farmers as much immediate information as we can so they can improve their efficiency of producing piglets, achieve better piglet weights or even healthier, faster growing finishing pigs.”
Immediate access to data is van Brandenburg’s vision for the future. “I think we are now at the beginning of seeing data become a focus. We are only at the start of the new generation of new possibilities. This is something which could change the world. It will change the world.”