Archive for the ‘Enrichment’ Category

In December, 2018 OMAFRA, Ontario Pork, Ontario Pork Industry Council, and The Prairie Swine Centre, with support from industry, held a London Swine Conference special seminar in Stratford, ON. Its objective was to help pork producers address challenges of sow management, in particular challenges related to group housing.

Videos of presentations are available on the London Swine Conference YouTube site (click here). Read more information about the seminar and our sponsors by following this link to the LSC website: www.londonswineconference.ca/index.php/gshms.

Following are the presentations on the program. Click on the titles below to watch the videos. 

Best Mixing Practices in Group Housing

Health Management in Groups

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Both the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pigs, and the new Canadian Pork Excellence program require that pigs of all production stages be provided with enrichment. In 2018 we included two different articles on enrichment for pigs in Pork News & Views; the first in August 2018 called “Environmental Enrichment to Improve Pig Health and Performance” and the second in December 2018 called “Enrichment for Nursery Pigs”. I highly recommend reading these previous articles if you have not yet done so!

As producers and industry representatives have become more aware of enrichment requirements, and more commercial products have become available as ‘pig toys’, we began receiving questions such as “what is the best enrichment option for my pigs?”, “can I use commercial pig toys with group housed sows?” and “how long do commercial pig toys last?”.

Every barn is different, and what works for one may not be the best option for another. Producers need to evaluate all possible options and determine what they would prefer to use. For example, natural items such as wood blocks can make great enrichment items for sows, but they can also cause some splintering and could potentially end up in the manure pit or caught in the sows’ mouth. Many producers use wood successfully, whereas others have had issues. Other natural options include rope or burlap, which pigs of all ages love! However, as pigs can be quite destructive, they do not last very long (although they are much cheaper than commercial toys). Since natural items tend to not last very long, many producers are considering the use of commercial toys. They cost more but may last longer.

We couldn’t find a lot of information on commercial toys for group housed sows, so we decided to test a few different ones out on farm. With the help of a South Western Ontario producer, and donated toys from several different companies, we installed commercial toys into a sow barn with electronic sow feeding and monitored how long the toys lasted, general interest levels in the toys, and if there were any challenges encountered with the different toys. Table 1 shows the different toys that were installed in the barn.

Table 1: different commercial toys that were installed in the group housed sow barn

Toy NameToy DescriptionDonated
Price *
Bite- Rite BlueHanging plastic cone
with replaceable rubber
chew sticks. Blue size
designed for finisher
Glass-pac Toy- $44
Sticks- $6.21
Porky PlayHanging plastic toy with
in different sizes.
Tri-StarHanging plastic disc
with replaceable chew
Toy- $21.95
Sticks- $1.75
MS Schippers
Yellow Ball
30cm polyethylene
plastic ball which can
be hung or filled with
and used on the ground.
MS Schippers
AntiBite Ball
Small polyurethane
rubber ball that can
be hung or mounted.
Easyfix AstroNatural rubber
suspended toy
designed for finishing
pigs and sows.
Easyfix $31
Easyfix Luna 142Natural rubber spiked
ball designed to go on
the floor of the pen.
Green size for finishing
pigs and sows.
Easyfix $51
Future Cow
Calf Ball
Extra strength vinyl
suspended ball designed
for group housed sows.
Easyfix $120

*Prices may vary from those listed in tabs

The barn had 2 large group pens. 150 gilts in one pen, and 240 sows in another. In addition to that, we also used a few smaller pens containing 10 gilts or sows located beside the large group pens. The farm has Topigs sows and DNA semen and a Nedap ESF system.  Three toys were suspended in the large sow pen, and 2 toys were suspended in the smaller gilt pen, all in open areas of the pens away from feeders and drinkers. Single toys were suspended in the small pens, with 2 toys suspended in the gilt training pen (one on each side of the ESF training system).

Toys were suspended from ceiling trusses using ¼ inch zinc chain, 4” eye screws (5/15”) and ¼” quick links. Toys were attached to 2’ of chain using a quick link. This was then attached to 5’ of chain hanging from the ceiling. By using a quick link 2’ above toy height, the toys could easily be adjusted up or down, and removed if needed, without having to reach the ceiling. Shortly after the trial began, quick links at toy level and mid-chain were replace with carabiner style clips, as sows were able to loosen the quick links easily. Approximate cost for the hanging set up (chain, eye hook and links) was $28 per toy, which is reusable long-term. Barn staff were asked to observe interactions with the toys daily and keep records of how long the toys lasted. They were also asked to record any challenges they came across with the toys.


Bite-Rite Blue: This toy was installed in the large sow pen, as well as in one side of the gilt training pen. The sows liked this toy and groups were observed interacting with it multiple times daily. When it was first installed, the chew sticks lasted about 3 weeks, at which point they were replaced. When replaced, they lasted only 2 days, as the sows had figured out they could easily destroy them. The cone itself held up well throughout this time, but barn staff were worried if there were no chew sticks left, the cone wouldn’t hold up for long.

Figure 1a: New Bite-Rite toy
Figure 1b: Bite-Rite toy, two weeks after being added to the group sow pen

Porky Play: This toy was originally installed in a small pens with approximately 10 sows, as well as in the gilt training pen. Barn staff noted that the pigs were not interacting with this toy very often but was likely due to lack of space in the pens for pigs to play properly. The toy was then moved to the large sow pen where it held up well; however, barn staff reported it was used less frequently than some of the other toys available to them. The sows liked to play with the chain hanging below (attached to) the toy.

Figure 2a: New Porky Play
Figure 2b: Porky Play toy after 4 weeks of use in a large group pen

Tri-Star: This toy was installed in the large gilt pen. Within the first hour of putting the toy in the pen the gilts were able to remove all of the chew sticks from the central disc. The barn staff decided to leave the chew sticks off of the toy as they didn’t want them ending up in the manure pit. The gilts regularly interacted with the disc portion of the toy and the chains hanging from it. Sows can chew and bite the toy, and at the time of writing this article it has held up for 3.5 months and is still in good condition.

Figure 3a: New Tri-Star with chew sticks
Figure 3b: Tri-Star toy (without chew sticks) 14 days after being added to the large gilt pen

Yellow Ball: This toy was hung in the large sow pen. The toy comes with a plug at the top, but we drilled a small hole in the bottom and then used airplane cable to create a hanging system through both of the holes, which was attached to the chain above. For the first week or so the sows were very interested in the ball, as they could toss it up in the air and play with it as a group. Over time interest levels decreased, likely because they could not chew or bite it. However, there were always some pigs that still played with it. At the time this article was written the ball was in great shape, 3.5 months after it was added to the pen. 

Figure 4a: New Yellow Ball
Figure 4b: Sows crowded around the Yellow Ball when it was first added to the pen

Small Ball (Anti-Bite Ball): This toy was hung in the large gilt pen, and it came detached from the chain within the first hour of hanging. The staff re-tightened it and it has remained in place ever since (3.5 months so far). The usage for this toy is about the same as the yellow ball and tri-star toys, used moderately by the gilts. The gilts are able to put the entire ball into their mouth and chew it. The rubber has gradually decreased in size, but there is no signs of cracking or destruction, and there is still plenty of ball left.

Figure 5a: New Anti-Bite ball
Figure 5b: Small (Anti-Bite) ball 14 days after being added to the gilt pen.

Easyfix Astro: This toy was hung in the large sow pen. According to the barn staff, this was the toy that got used the most. The toy lasted about 1.5 months before the sows has completely chewed off the rubber projections (Easyfix has recently improved the durability of the Astro toy by using the same material as the Luna 142). The eye hook that the toy came with needed to be bigger and longer with a lock nut in order to successfully hang it without it coming off, something that was easily fixed on farm.

Figure 6a: New Astro toy
Figure 6b: Sows playing with the Astro 142 days after being added to the pen.

Easyfix Luna 142: This is the only toy that we tried that wasn’t suspended from the ceiling. We put one in with a boar located in the boar station, and the other went into the large sow pen. The sows and boar all enjoyed playing with it, however in the group pen only one sow could play with it at a time, so the barn staff preferred the hanging options as more sows could interact with the toys. The Luna lasted for about 3 months in the sow pen. There were two challenges that occurred with the Luna. First, the toy would occasionally get stuck at the window of the boar station, and when sows went to play with it they were being detected as in heat due to their heads being in the RFID zone. Second, sows figured out that they could put the toy in the door of the ESF feeder to keep it open, creating issues with the ESF feeding system.

Figure 7a: New Luna 142
Figure 7b: Boar playing with the Luna 142

Future Cow Calf Ball: This toy was hung in the large sow pen. There was very little interest at all in the toy, and thus the barn staff removed it and hung one of the other toys in its place. The sows were also able to remove the toy from the chain (which also happened when we hung this toy in a finisher pen on another farm).

Figure 8: New Cow Calf Ball

General Observations:

When the toys were first installed the sows couldn’t leave them alone. With multiple different toys in each pen, we watched sows go from one to another to check them all out. Over time interest levels decreased slightly in the toys, but each time a member of the OMAFRA swine team visited the farm there was at least 1 sow playing with each toy. In general, we found that sows and gilts preferred toys with chewable projections over balls or discs, but the balls and discs were also used regularly. The sows liked to be able to get their mouth around the toy to chew it. The barn staff and farm owner were happy with the reaction of the sows to the toys and will continue to monitor durability on the toys that were still in tact after 3.5 months.

So, which toy is best? That is a tough question to answer! We found that sows played with all of the toys offered to them. Some lasted longer than others, which could be due to the level of interaction and the nature of the shape of the toy. Some of the toys are designed to be chewed and destroyed, whereas others are meant to last longer. We recommend that if you are considering commercial toys for your sow barn, get a few different ones and give the girls some options on which they want to play with!


A huge thank to you Graham Learn from Richmar Farms for providing access to the group housed sow barn, and to barn staff Jan and Yulia for their invaluable assistance with the project. Additional thanks goes to each of the companies that donated toys for the project: Easyfix, Farmers Farmacy, Glass-Pac and Ketchum Manufacturing.

For more information, contact:
Laura Eastwood,

OMAFRA Swine Specialist laura.eastwood@ontario.ca

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On Sept 6 and 7, 2016 OMAFRA along with Swine Innovation Porc, Prairie Swine Centre and Ontario Pork are hosting a Group Sow Housing Seminar in Stratford, Ontario.

Two different seminars will present group sow housing options that follow the 2014 Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pigs, along with practical solutions to the challenges of different systems, and potential opportunities related to group housing. Day 1 is designed for producers who already have a group housing system in place, and Day 2 is open to anyone interested in learning more about group sow housing.


Seminar Program (subject to change without notice)

Day 1: For Producers with Group Housing Systems
4:00 pm              Registration
4:30 pm              Dealing with Aggression and Best Mixing Practices
Dr. Jennifer Brown, Prairie Swine Center, SK
5:15 pm              Capturing Potential Through Nutrition
Quincy Buis, University of Guelph
Dr. Laura Eastwood, OMAFRA
6:00 pm            Dinner
7:10 pm              Technology: Now and in the Future
John Van Engelen, Hog-Tied Farms Ltd.
7:30 pm              Producer Panel
8:30 pm             Closing Remarks, Social


Day 2: Open to Everyone

9:00 am              Registration
9:30 am              Welcoming Remarks
9:40 am              The Barn: New Building or Rennovation?
Murray Elliott, FGC Limited
Steve Beadle, P.Eng., OMAFRA
10:30 am           What to do with Sows during Renovation (depop vs. rollover)?
John Otten, South West Vets
11:00 am           Networking Break
11:30 am           National Sow Housing Conversion Project & Breaking the Myths
Dr. Jennifer Brown, Prairie Swine Center, SK
12:30 pm           Lunch
1:30 pm              Feature Speaker – Management: How to make it work
Dr. Julie Ménard, F. Ménard Inc.
2:30 pm              Capturing Potential Through Nutrition
Quincy Buis, University of Guelph
Dr. Laura Eastwood, OMAFRA
3:10 pm              Networking Break
3:40 pm              Technology: Now and in the Future
John Van Engelen, Hog-Tied Farms Ltd.
4:00 pm              2014 Workshop Producer Update – Where they Are Now?
Doug Ahrens, Ham Land Acres
4:15 pm              Producer Panel
5:30 pm              Closing remarks, Social

Registration details will be available late July. For more information please contact:

Laura Eastwood
Swine Specialist, OMAFRA

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Centralia 2015lSpeaking at the 34th Centralia Swine Research Update on Wednesday, Dr. Lisa Becton, Director of Swine Health and Information with the US National Pork Board highlighted their efforts to be better prepared when the next health threat emerges. Lessons learned from their experiences with PED helped determine their strategy.

The US was not well prepared for PED. In 2014 the NPPC produced a resolution for a plan of coordination and preparedness for the US Swine Industry in the event of the identification/introduction of any new economically significant but non-reportable swine disease. It’s now recognized that industry needs to take enhanced responsibility for non-regulatory diseases. The US Pork Board is playing a key role in improving the industry’s readiness for emerging diseases.

She described an approach to improving preparedness in three main areas:  a Response Plan including a coordinated state-federal-industry response; a Swine Matrix Project to identify potentially important diseases globally and have information about them in hand or knowledge gaps identified, and to improve diagnostics and surveillance systems; and improved swine information sharing, including the creation of a new Swine Health and Information Center.

Dr. Becton concluded by emphasizing that:

  • PEDV probably will not be the last emerging disease the industry faces; therefore, an emerging disease plan is essential
  • As part of that plan, monitoring of global disease issues is critical and includes pre-emptive plan for key needs for disease diagnosis and management
  • Cooperation and collaboration between all sectors of industry and government is a must

The Proceedings of the Centralia Swine Research Update are now available online. It includes summaries of all presentations on pain control, nutrition, health, and many written updates on a wide range of topics.

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Centralia 2015 logo smallOn Wednesday January 28th the 34th annual Centralia Swine Research Update will be held at the Kirkton-Woodham Community Centre in Kirkton. This year the feature speaker is Dr. Lisa Becton, Director, Swine Health Information and Research, US National Pork Board. Dr. Becton will be speaking on Preparing For The Next Emerging Disease / Lessons Learned From PED. Dr. Becton will also provide an update on PED cases occurring across the US, and review research they have conducted on feed, manure and other areas.

To round out the program, Ontario researchers and graduate students will cover topics on Zinc & Anti-Microbial Resistance, Dynamics of Nitrogen Retention in Gestating Sows, Improving sow productivity through genetics and genomics, Pain Control in Pigs, Swine influenza in nursery pigs and more.

The Centralia Swine Research Update was initiated in 1982 by staff at Centralia College to bring researchers and their work together with participants in the pork industry. The event continues to be planned and executed by a committee of industry partners, with support from OMAFRA staff. Its success over the past three decades is due to the quality and timeliness of the program, and the participation of local researchers and experts, as well as experts brought in from other parts of Canada or the US.

Registration is $20 if you’re a producer or a student, or $40 for industry reps and includes refreshments, hot pork meal and proceedings.

Registration deadline is Friday Jan 23.

For more information visit www.centraliaswineresearch.ca or phone 519 271- 0119.

Hope to see you at the Centralia Swine Research Update on Jan 28 in Kirkton.

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34th Annual Centralia Swine Research Update

Dr. Lisa Becton, Director of Swine Health Information and Research with the US National Pork Board will address “Preparing for the Next Emerging Disease/Lessons Learned from PED”, and provide an update on PED research.

Centralia 2015 logo smallWednesday, January 28th, 2015, Kirkton-Woodham Community Centre, Registration at 9:15am, Program 9:50-3:30pm.

There are also many other topics on the program including enrichment for pigs, pain control, iron requirements of piglets, and more. And even more in written reports included in the Proceedings. Registration is $20 for producers and students ($40 for industry) and includes refreshments and a hot lunch. Registration is required by January 23rd, 2015.

The full program and flyer with registration information have just been posted at www.centraliaswineresearch.ca. Thirteen years of past Proceedings are available on the website.

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One-Day either September 2 or 3, 2014 Festival Inn, Stratford 8:45 am to 4:00 pm This one-day workshop will present group sow housing options that follow the new Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pigs. Pre-registration is required, space is limited to 50 participants per day. For more information or to register contact Doug Richards at 519 482-3133 or doug.richards@ontario.ca. Workshop information.

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A lot of producers stopped by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs booth at Pork Congress to share their ideas for enrichment toys. Some ideas  included pen of pigs playing with toyblocks of wood, rope, tough dog chews, straw, rubber balls and commercially manufactured toys.  Some producers hung these on chains while others let the pigs root them around in the pen.    All pigs have a need to chew and root. By providing enrichment toys this need is satisfied and tail and ear biting may be reduced.

The need to provide some form of enrichment toys is included in the new Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pigs.  What are your pigs playing with?


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Visit the OMAF/MRA exhibit at the OPC for information about environmental enrichment for pigs, the Ontario Grading Data Explorer computer program, hog marketing, and more.


What are enrichment toys?
Materials and objects suitable for chewing and rooting are often called enrichment toys.
Why do pigs need enrichment toys?
All pigs have a need to chew and root. By providing en-richment toys this need is satisfied and tail and ear biting may be reduced.
How many toys do I need?
Too few toys will result in competition. Have enough toys in different locations so that as many pigs as possible can easily use them at the same time.
Can I make them myself?
Yes, you can make your own enrichment toys. Pick up our flyer with links to websites that provide instructions and information on enrichment toys.


Easy access to online grading data to help in decision making and in hitting production targets to improve revenue. 

Ask to arrange for a demonstration, or pick up a brochure for more information.


Take on the Hog Marketing Challenge. It is meant to be a learning experience on paper with no money or pigs involved but using real time market information. Put your market knowledge and expertise to work and learn how some marketing tools function.

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Enrichment toys for pigs satisfy the pigs need to chew and root.  By providing enrichment toys this need is satisfied and tail and ear biting may be reduced. Visit the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food booth (A3/A4 in the Agriplex) at the Ontario Pork Congress forpenning with pig toys attached more information and a demonstration.


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