Study compares hoops and confinement barns for finishing hogs. New research by Iowa State University (ISU) can help you decide whether to put up hoops to finish hogs or stick with conventional confinement barns.

Researchers set up three hoop buildings and one confinement barn on the ISU Rhodes Research Farm in Rhodes, IA. They divided 582 single-source, terminal-cross pigs into two groups. One group was raised in hoops, the other in confinement.

The researchers looked at cost of production and pig performance in each type of structure. Both showed similar results.

"The pigs grew at basically the same rate, showed similar gain and ate about the same amount of food," says Dr. Mark Honeyman, animal scientist at ISU who headed the project.

This is the first valid comparison of hoops versus confinement barns in the United States, according to Dr. Tom Baas, ISU animal scientist. He says that previous studies either were done on different farms, used different genetic pigs or used buildings that were not in the same condition.

Performs about the same. The average starting weight of the pigs was about 100 lbs. From January to March 1998, both groups were fed to a market weight of about 250 lbs. The groups had similar growth rate, average daily gain, average daily feed intake and feed efficiency (see table).

"When we talk about lean gain, which is what we should look at, there was a slight advantage to confinement, but not much," Baas says.

There also was a slight difference in feed efficiency, which researchers attribute to the timing of the study. In the winter months, the pigs in hoops may have eaten more to keep warm. The theory will be tested on a different group of pigs this summer.

The percentage of pigs with lung and snout lesions in the hoops was more than double the percentage of pigs with lesions in the confinement group, which Honeyman says may be because the hoops provide more circulating air and more room for the pigs to move around.

Costs about the same. The overall cost of production also was about the same for the two structures, based on budgeted figures. Total cost/pig marketed was $101.46 for confinement barns compared with $103.95 for hoops.

Costs did differ, however, on individual items. For example, building costs were almost triple for confinement barns. On the other hand, hoops had about twice the labor costs, slightly higher feed costs and a cost for bedding.

Bottom line. So what does the study mean for growers looking at hoop buildings? "It's basically saying that the two types of buildings are close enough, and it comes down to your likes and dislikes, management style and capital availability," says Dr. James Kliebenstein, ISU ag economist.

Baas agrees. "Hoops are a valid option to finish pigs as long as you know the pros and cons," he says. For example, hoops require less capital, but they also may be more labor intensive and require a ready source of cheap bedding. An estimated 200 lbs. of bedding are required to grow one pig from 50 lbs. to market. Interest rates are another factor. Lower rates would favor a capital-intensive option. On the other hand, lower feed costs may favor the hoop system because of the higher feed volumes required.

Baas says to base your decision on your long-term goals. "Hoops are a low-investment, shorter-term option, whereas confinement is a more capital-intensive, longer-term commitment," he says.

The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture helped fund the project. For more information, contact Dr. Mark Honeyman at Iowa State University, Dept. FIN, B1 Curtiss Hall, Ames, IA 50011, 515/294-4621.

Mark Honeyman, animal scientist with Iowa State University, says to consider these factors when shopping for a hoop building:

Look at the company that is selling. Ask yourself, Is it reputable? What size do you need? Size according to 12 sq. ft./pig, which will take the pig all the way from weaning to market.

Look for galvanized hoops or arches as opposed to hoops made of regular steel to prevent rust from forming as a result of condensation in the hoops. Rust roughens steel, which can then tear the tarp.

How long is the tarp guaranteed? Look for a guarantee of at least 3 to 5 years. Is the tarp welded (glued or melted together) or sewn? A welded tarp provides a stronger hold.

Is the tarp ratcheted or laced down? Ratchets make it easier to keep the tarp tight.

Consider the different end, ceiling and shape options, and choose the one that meets your needs. For example, do you want a translucent or solid roof? A rolling door or quarter panel for the end? A rounded or pointed roof?

New feeding crate lets you raise sows in hoop buildings.

Sioux Steel has taken a gestation crate you'd normally find in confinement barns, shored it up to about the width of a sow and added a gate to create a feeding crate for gestating sows in hoop buildings.

"It gives you the feeding control of confinement barns but in an environment that fosters freedom of movement for the sows," says Garry Empey, ag systems sales manager with Sioux.

Animals raised in hoops are typically fed on demand in troughs or upright feeders. The problem with that setup, Empey says, is that sows fight, and the faster eaters get more food. Sows need a constant rate of feed to create healthy litters.

Confinement barns have solved the problem with gestation crates that separate the sows until they are ready to farrow. But when sows are locked in, they can get out of condition and are less likely to have multiple breedings than when they are in a natural setting like hoops, he says.

The new feeding crate works to solve both problems. The animal stays in the crate just long enough to eat, about 10 min. After eating, it is free to roam the expanse of the hoop.

A key to making the crate work for hoops is the floor plan. Because the crates are only 20 in. wide, they can be lined up in two rows, 32 crates each, for a feeding capacity of 64 sows. Rotating wings on the end of each crate snag the gate and lock it in place. All 32 gates can be opened and closed at once with a push of a handle.

Feed is delivered through a coreless auger feeding system which drops 41/2 to 5 lbs. of feed into the trough of each stall. It comes with manual override that allows you to vary rations according to each animal.

Dr. Danny Burns, a veterinarian who also runs a hog operation in Maryville, MO, has tested the crates since December 1997.

Burns has three hoop barns with 140 sows each and reports that feed costs are 20 to 25% less than the costs of feed for sows fed on concrete slabs in outside lots. Sows have maintained an 80% conception rate year-round in the hoops due to reduced stress from fighting and from outside temperature extremes.

The crate was shown for the first time at Husker Harvest Days. No price is available at this time.

For more information, contact Sioux Steel Co., Dept. FIN, 1961/2 E. 6th St., Box 1265, Sioux Falls, SD 57101-1265, 605/336-1750 or circle 238.