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New Sow Barns for Iowa Select Farms

As Noel Williams strides down the wide hallways of the new sow barn, you might think it is a home he constructed with his bare hands – he is that pleased and proud. As he walks into a farrowing room and then a gestation room, he explains why every piece of equipment is the best design.

This new $18 million farm near Derby, Iowa, houses 6,250 sows for Iowa Select Farms. It is the first sow farm built by the company in 12 years. Three more sow farms are coming, all larger – at 7,500 sows – than this one. One in Riceville, Iowa, will be stocked May 16. The other two are in the permitting stages. By fall, Iowa Select Farms will have 200,000 sows, with plans for 210,000 by 2018.

The most important design feature with all the farms is positive pressure filtration. It means all external air is filtered before entering the barns to help prevent the spread of deadly viruses such as PRRS and PED.

“You filter all the air that comes in and push all the air out,” says Williams (shown here), chief operating officer for Iowa Select Farms. “We are doing everything we can to mitigate as much disease risk as possible.”

Evolving Tech

The positive filtration technology has been used by the company in its boar studs (which are far smaller than sow farms) since 2002, and it’s routinely used by hospitals and manufacturing. If you have ever been in the Metrodome or have walked through a hospital surgery room, you know how that air pressure feels when you open the door.

“Until recently, we have not had the ability to do larger facilities economically,” says Williams. “We didn’t have any filtered farms when PED first hit the industry in 2013. That was very devastating to our company. Some locations in Iowa have had chronic issues with PRRS over the years. Jeff [Iowa Select Farms owner Jeff Hansen] supported the decision to build new farms and to remodel sow farms in central Iowa now that we have this technology.”

Clean Air

The whole technology revolves around filters. At each end of the three barns is a filter bank room. Outside air first comes through basic filters like you would put on your furnace, gets pulled through more sophisticated filters, and then is pushed up into the attic.

The first wall of filters takes out the biggest particles. The second V-bank of filters takes out the fine particles. Fans on each end of the barns then push the clean air into the rooms and push dirty air out. Pressure in the facility is maintained at 20 to 50 pascals. There are 4,000 filters on the farm. The cheaper first-defense filters are replaced annually. The expensive V-bank filters last three to five years.

The filters have a MERV rating that shows the ability to remove bacteria and other contaminants. As the filters load up with dust, they actually catch more dust, says Williams.

“They become more efficient over time – up to a point,” he explains. Most of the particles caught in the filters are dust from the gravel road running by the farm. Because the system is filtering outside air coming in, the filters are mainly catching pollen, road dust, dirt, and corn fines.

The company will oil the gravel road running by the farm during planting and harvest to minimize dust, but there is only so much they can do about dust and dirt in rural Iowa.

Testing Filters

One of the expensive things around filtration is testing. That can be $40,000 per sow unit each year, says Williams. Iowa Select works with a graduate student at Iowa State University, Ben Smith, who designed a portable on-farm testing trailer. He tests filters on-site instead of sending them to a lab, which can take weeks to get results. “We estimate it will save us $300,000 on testing each year,” says Williams.

Filters have to be tested routinely, because if they get clogged, not enough air gets in the barn, and it becomes an issue for the animals’ well being. Between 45 and 100 filters at each site can be tested in one day.

“If we sent them to a lab, it would take six weeks to get results. This is much quicker turnaround and lower cost,” says Williams. No finishing farms are filtered at this time because of the expense.

“We’ve developed a design for a positively pressured finisher, but we haven’t pulled the trigger on that,” says Williams.

The fan controllers inside the barns run on pressure in addition to temperature. “We maintain positive static pressure in the building,” explains Williams.

Company engineers are always on call in case there are questions from farm managers about the controllers. For example, if there is a strong south wind, a building facing south may not operate properly. The engineer can adjust the pressure from a smartphone and get everything back on track.

Pen Gestation

This is a pen gestation farm, as are all the new farms being built by Iowa Select. Old gestation barns are also being remodeled for pen gestation, a system required today by many food companies and consumers. The sows are bred in stalls by artificial insemination. After they are confirmed pregnant twice, they are moved into pens, with 12 sows per pen.

There are 12 farrowing rooms in the complex, each with 84 crates. The new farrowing crates are 7½ feet long, which is half a foot longer than they were in the past. Sows are larger now and litters are bigger, explains Williams.

The targeted weaning age is 20 days.

“The 20-day weaning is longer than we’ve historically done it at Iowa Select,” says Williams. “As we went from 12 to 14 and 18 and then 20 days, there was an advantage in subsequent reproductive performance for the sows and in piglet survivability.”

The optimal wean age is still being debated in the industry, he says, with some systems weaning at 28 or 30 days old.

The barns feature hallways that are 1½ feet wider than those in older barns. This allows better sow and people traffic. The ceilings are higher, too, at 10 feet.

Some of the hallways have gates running down the middle to allow two-way traffic. “This allows pig flow and people flow to be more efficient,” says Williams.

Another new feature for the farm is mortality composting on-site for extra biosecurity vs. the need to have a rendering truck come in.

There are additional biosecurity layers, such as UV air-locking chambers to pass lunches, semen, and anything else coming in. Material stays in the chamber with UV light for 5 minutes, killing any virus and bacteria.

Transition Rooms

One of the keys to biosecurity on the farm is the gilt transition room with seven pens. “Any time we bring animals in, there is a risk of disease from the air,” says Williams.

“We are able, with seven pens, to match the compartments on a truck. Before we begin, we shut the door, drop the inlets all the way down, and create tremendous airflow out of the building so it minimizes and mitigates the risk of entry of disease coming in with the entry of animals.”

There is a weaned pig transition room with the same concept for pigs leaving the farm for finishing barns.

New Modern Concepts, a construction company owned by Iowa Select Farms, designed and built the barns. The equipment for the barns comes from Import Supply, a company in West Des Moines, Iowa, that is owned by Michael Hansen, Jeff Hansen’s son.

The farm is staffed with 17 employees.

Meeting Demand

The growth for Iowa Select is exciting, says Williams. “Jeff wants to have 210,000 sows to meet customer demand. We are excited about the addition of new sow farms.

This is the first time in 12 years that Jeff has built a sow farm. He’s excited about the business in North America, excited about the relationship we have with our packers.

He’s had a 23-year relationship with Swift [now JBS].”

Why Grow Now?

“With new plants coming online and the shifting of hogs to new plants, JBS needs our help to fill the void at its plants. Jeff is comfortable that we can do it, and he has a good relationship with our packer.”

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