A better way: Hog farming that meets
the animal's social instincts

By Tom Frantzen

Farrowing and finishing hogs have been core activities on the Frantzen farm for over 55 years, spanning my and my father's farming careers.

In 1978, I changed the way hogs were housed and raised at our farm. A room in our barn was remodeled to hold 14 steel farrowing crates with slat floors. A small underground pit was dug to catch the pig's waste. I distinctly remember how those "modern improvements" changed the very nature of our farm. Slat floors and the stagnant watery manure beneath it created a repulsive odor. Any activity that stirred this fecal soup greatly increased the smell. At that time, I thought that this was just a part of being modern. Noxious odors were not the only bad features of the slat floors and crates.

For the next 13 years, I would struggle with countless animal health problems associated with slat floors.Sows in the crates would slip on the (very

expensive) slat flooring, causing various injuries. Little pigs suffered knee abrasions from sleeping on the hard floors. Pneumonia and injury-related health problems were common. The finishing pigs that were closely confined in a slat floored pen, as recommended by modern textbooks on pork production, did gain weight quickly, but they exhibited cannibalistic behavior. Tail biting became a serious problem. In 1994, my wife, Irene, and I spent two weeks touring Sweden with a small group from Iowa and Minnesota. The trip was organized and hosted by Marlene Halverson of the Animal Welfare Institute and Mark Honeyman of Iowa State University. The farms we visited were employing deep bedded facilities to provide low stress, humane conditions for their livestock. I was awed by the healthy and content disposition of the stock, and the farm families too!

Every time I observed my old, crowded, slat floor hog barn and the stressed pigs living in it, I too became stressed. Their social brutality (tail biting, bar chewing) was caused by failing to meet their basic social instincts. On a hoopbuilding tour, I was told that pigs have three desires: they want to run around, build a nest, and chew on something. This behavior is impossible in a metal pen on a slat floor. Early one September morning, I opened the door of my grower barn to check on the pigs. One of the pens was covered with fresh blood. Their level of stress was so high they became violently aggressive toward each other. I could take no more! I announced with a bit of profanity that my slat floor days were going to end.

Deep-bedded hoophouse facilities appeared in the Midwest in the mid 1990s. It was exciting to observe this development. Not since being on the Swedish farms had I observed a humane shelter! More exciting yet, was the promise of an economical and ecologically sound building. In a hoophouse or structure, straw-bedded pens replace metal crates and slatted floors. The straw bedding mixes with the hog waste which is self composting, creates very little odor and no ecological hazards.

Plans were set to build three hoophouses on the farm. By September of 1997 one of the houses was ready for the pigs. I was very anxious to use the new facilities. On moving day we bedded the new hoophouse with fresh straw, and lots of it.

One hundred and sixty pigs from the old grower were released into their new home. Boy, did those pigs have fun! In the new hoopbuilding they have lots of room to run, straw to chew and heaps of bedding to nest in. They ran around all day—and even in to the night. The next morning when I went into check on them, I will never forget what I found. As I walked up to the door, it was quiet, very quiet. I peeked into the hoophouse to see 160 pigs in one massive straw nest, snoring with great content! I laughed until I cried. Their stress was gone and so was mine.

Reprinted courtesy of Tom Frantzen, the Practical Farmers of Iowa and the Animal Welfare Institute.

This hoophouse sow carries straw into her farrowing hutch, building a nest for her piglets.

Sow and piglet snuggle in deep straw.

Hogs at the Frantzen farm in their straw-bedded hoophouse. The pigs root through the straw bales, creating their own nests.

A family farm sow and her piglets.

Family games: piglets climb over their mother's head.

Pigs are all-weather animals, and enjoy snow as well as sunshine.