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Farmer educating young agriculturalists
Living with animals can be a wonderful experience, especially if we choose to learn the valuable lessons animals teach through their natural enthusiasm, grace, resourcefulness, affection and forgiveness. -Richard H. Pitcairn  


Gestation refers to the period following breeding, when the pregnant sows hang out until it is time to give birth, or farrow. It lasts about 114 days (3 months, 3 weeks, and 3 days). During this period, pregnant Truebridge sows live in really huge pens, big enough to comfortably house between 60 and 300 sows.

Sows in conventional gestation stalls.
(before remodel) Conventional Gestation Stalls
Sows in a large bedded gestation pen with nests.
(after remodel) Large Gestation Pen with Nests
Sows snuggling closely together in a nest.   Sows waiting in line to use an ESF station.
Sows form small cliques and do everything together.   Sows waiting together in line for their turn to eat.
A sow eating inside the ESF station.   An ESF station's exit gates.
ESF station reads the sow's eartag and manages her diet.   The ESF station can mark or sort specific sows.
A long view of a bedded gestation pen, with nests.   Sows resting together in their nest, heads facing the open side.
The large pen is divided into small den-like nests.   Sows sleep in a row in their nests, snouts facing outward.

Pigs have a highly developed social structure and close relationships. The basic social unit of pigs in the wild consists of a few females and their offspring. They coordinate their behavior with their friends, eating, sleeping, and even nursing together.

Within the large gestation pen, the pregnant sows self-select into intimate groups of preferred companions, which afford them both security and companionship. In a gestation room, it is easy to observe cliques of 4-6 sows moving about together, just as they would in the wild.

Electric Sow Feeding (ESF) Stations

Throughout gestation, it's especially important to make sure that each sow receives enough nutrients so that her piglets are born strong and healthy, and so she herself is in peak condition and able to provide lots of milk without extreme body weight loss. On the other hand, if a pregnant sow eats too much, it can increase the odds of complications at farrowing.

Truebridge farmers use Electronic Sow Feeding (ESF) stations to feed their pregnant sows, so they can carefully monitor and fine-tune what each individual is eating, even though she is living in a large group habitat.

In the wild, pigs emerge from their nests or dens at dawn and gather together to forage for food. For Truebridge pigs, this means congregating in the space at the front of the pen, to wait for a turn inside the ESF station. It is a lot like waiting in line at a cafeteria, and the sows do, in fact, form a rough line. They wait in line with their friends and wait for everyone to finish eating before they return to their nests.

The ESF station looks like a box-shaped solid-sided tunnel. When a sow enters the ESF station, it reads the microchip inside her ear tag and recognizes her. The computer knows exactly how much feed she is supposed to get. A metal bowl emerges from the wall next to her, and feed is distributed in 90 gram (3 oz.) increments until she leaves, or until she has eaten her full allotment for the day. There is even a water dispenser she can trigger to make a gruel or mash. If she doesn't feel like eating her daily allotment all at once, she can leave and come back as often as she likes. The computer will keep track of how much feed she has remaining.

A sow's daily ration of feed is primarily determined by a scientific feed curve. The further she is along in her pregnancy, the bigger the fetuses are, and the more nutrients they demand. However, the farmers also have handheld devices that they use to scan sows' ear tags, bring up her details, and make any necessary adjustments for individuals. They are constantly walking through the pens, amongst the sows, and examining them for any problems. If they see a sow that seems to need more or less feed, they can quickly adjust her individual feed allotment without even leaving the pen.

The computer can also provide the farmers with reports that show which sows have eaten all their feed and which haven't. This is extremely important, because the first sign that an animal isn't feeling well is when it doesn't eat all (or any) of its food. The farmer can see where the sow is located and check on her, providing any care she needs.

The ESF stations are also useful for marking and sorting the sows. The computer knows when each sow was bred and what their due dates is.

Around 3-4 weeks after a sow is bred, she can be ultrasounded to confirm that she is pregnant. But knowing which sow is which in a pen of 300 is not easy. So, the farmer tells the computer to mark her on this date. When she comes in to eat at the ESF station, it feeds her and then marks her back with non-toxic paint as she leaves. Then the farmer can easily spot her in the herd and verify she is pregnant with the ultrasound machine. If she isn't pregnant, he tells the computer to sort her out the next time she eats, so he can take her back to the breeding area, where she waits until she comes into heat again.

The ESF station sorts pigs out through a simple mechanism. When the station reads the sow's tag and knows she needs to be sorted, its exit gate flips directions so her exit path leads her to a waiting pen, instead of the main pen. Just like our cars are redirected during road construction.

The ESF station also sorts sows when they are close to farrowing and need to be moved to a private pen to give birth. It can also remove sows for other reasons, like if they abort, or get sick. Although it might seem like a simple function, it's invaluable. It would be both difficult and disruptive to find and herd a 500 pound sow out of such a large pen. And because the sows only have positive interactions with humans, not stressful ones, they are relaxed, curious, and friendly when one enters their pen.

Pigs are naturally inquisitive and intelligent, out-performing dogs and even primates in many learning tests. In one experiment, they learned to distinguish between new scribbles and ones they had seen before, as quickly as chimpanzee participants, using their snouts to move a mouse cursor and display their answers on a video screen. They can also quickly learn how mirrors work and use them to inspect their surroundings and locate food that is only visible in the reflections.

Pigs are adept at remembering the location, desirability, and quantity of food sources. Not only can they tell when another pig knows the location of something good, but they are capable of using deception to avoid sharing food they especially like. Pigs learn quickly and have a long memory, which makes them excellent students.

New gilts (they are only called sows after they have had a litter) obviously have to be trained how to use ESF stations, which is made easy by their keen intelligence and curiosity. To teach first-time mothers how to get food from the unknown contraption, a farmer puts them together in a pen and tells the ESF station to sort them into the neighboring pen, when they walk through it. The farmer puts food in the far pen and waits for the gilts to figure out that the tunnel (aka ESF station) provides a route to it. When an exploring gilt walks into the ESF station, the computer, of course, reads her ear tag and serves her food, providing a reward for her behavior and eventually teaching her how things work.


At dusk pigs separate from the main group and retire to private dens with close friends and family, or in the case of Truebridge sows, their favorite pen mates. Although the gestation pens have been built to accommodate a very large herd of pigs, they also permit natural social behavior, which involves spending much of their time separated into smaller groups.

To this end, the majority of the pen is divided into a number of small nests with solid sides. This makes it look a lot like an office floor divided into cubicles. The hallways between the cubicles are always wide enough to allow a submissive sow to pass a dominate sow without provoking her. Depending on the farm's original layout, some gestation rooms have 'standard' sized nests, accommodating 15-30 sows, while others are divided into 'mini' nests that only sleep 4-6 sows. But both sizes are small enough to allow the sows to relax in seclusion with their preferred group of intimates, giving them a sense of security and companionship.

Pigs like physical contact and frequently huddle close together as they sleep, an instinct that helps them keep warm despite their lack of a thick coat of fur. They often sleep against walls whenever possible and particularly appreciate the security of den-like structures. They sleep lined up in a row, with their snouts pointing toward the entrance to the nest, a primordial behavior intended to provide better defense.

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