ESF Training for Gilts
The training of gilts (and initial training of sows) is one aspect of ESF systems that can be overlooked. The sow herd and gilt replacements must be initially trained before being put into to ESF systems. Training should not be ignored; if it is farms will re- quire increased labour to push animals through the feeder, there will be a higher incidence of returns to estrus and the ESF will not function as designed.
One to two weeks should be allowed for gilt train- ing, depending on the system design. The stockper- son(s) in charge should be those with the best ani- mal handling skills. It is essential the stockperson be patient and that gilts do not have a negative experi- ence with ESF.
A separate ESF pen should be used to train the gilts. The ESF should ideally be smaller to match the gilt size, and only 30-40 gilts should be kept in the pen rather than filling it to the maximum ESF capacity. Initially, the entrance gates can be tied open and the exit can be left partially open as well. As the gilts become used to the feeder, the gates can be gradually shut. Pen dividers should be used to keep track of the gilts using the system and to reduce the amount of space on the entrance side to encourage entry into the feeder.
A less costly training alternative is a pen divided by separated entrance and exit gates, similar to the ESF gates. Feed is on one side and water on the other, so gilts must pass through the gates to access both. To begin, the gates are left partially open to encour- age gilts to pass through. As the gilts become accus- tomed to the gates, the gates can be closed as in the actual ESF operation.
Along with learning to use the ESF system, gilts should learn to socialize before entering group pens. For gilts raised in groups, that may be sufficient. However, there is some benefit from placing gilts in a pen adjacent to the sow group they will be mixed with, especially if there are bars between pens to allow contact. Housing the gilts separately, or only with first parity sows may help to reduce aggression, and may benefit the more submissive animals.
Early in the day all gilts are moved to the entrance area, and gates positioned to give more room near the entrance.
As the day progresses, gilts move through the feeder to the exit side. Gates are adjusted to allow more space in the exit area, crowding animals on the entrance side.
Alternative training pen using just the gates from the ESF.
Gilts being trained to walk through entrance gate to ESF.
Practicing ‘low-stress’ handling during training of gilts and sows is of great importance. Gilts especially can become frightened during handling, and a bad experience at this time can result in the animal avoiding the feeder and long term problems that result in poor production and culling. Staff assigned to overseeing ESF training should move slowly and have lots of patience. Avoid pressuring animals to enter the feeder, instead encourage them to explore the feeder area by providing feed on the floor and leaving them alone to access the area in their own time. Some feeders have a training feature that drops feed inside the feeder entrance, giving pigs positive reinforcement. A tub of feed can also be placed in the feeder entrance to encourage animals to approach the area. Having good lighting over the feeder is also important as pigs will be reluctant to enter the feeder if it is dark