Since farmers started to domesticate livestock, we have been continually looking for better materials to keep livestock where we want. We’ve come a long way. Up to the mid-1800s, stone or split-rail fences kept most livestock within a confined area. In 1864, barbed wire came to the farm and resulted in improved confinement. But regardless of what method was used to confine swine, materials have always seemed to lose against the ever-patient hog.

Whether failure comes as a result of a never-ending desire to explore, root and chew, the incredible amount of energy pigs have to push, bend or break, or simply the result of materials losing the test of time against the corrosive compounds contained in their saliva, urine and feces, hog equipment has long faced a challenge of durability and longevity. When looking to make a long-term investment in electronic sow feeders (ESF), materials for the stations and the associated penning, gates and components need to be carefully examined.

Materials options

In today’s barn construction, we see several mainstay material choices:

  • Black or painted steel
  • Galvanized steel
  • Plastic
  • Concrete
  • Stainless steel

Each of these materials has different properties that make them better or worse than others, depending on the application within your barn. Here are some useful pointers:

  1. Cold- or hot-rolled steel are inexpensive options, each containing properties that determine where they should be used. Typically, cold-rolled steel that has been pickled is used in the manufacture of hog equipment, as it has better corrosion resistance.
  2. Galvanized metal is less expensive than plain or painted steel and is dipped in a bath of molten zinc that bonds to the steel's surface in a thin layer. Eventually, the galvanized steel's coating will wear away, leaving it vulnerable to corrosives and weather. Minor scratches can occur over time, resulting in localized rust.
  3. Stainless steel is further up the cost ladder as it contains chromium all the way through so its protective layer is continually replenished. Stainless steel is also anticorrosive and will not rust no matter how deep a scratch.
  4. Concrete, where aggregate is mixed together with dry cement and water, forms a fluid mass that is easily molded into shape, either onsite or precast and delivered to the site ready to install. The cement reacts chemically with the water and other ingredients to form a hard matrix that binds all the materials together into a durable stone-like material that has many uses. Often, additives (such as pozzolans or superplasticizers) are included in the mixture to improve the physical properties of the wet mix or the finished material. Most concrete is placed with reinforcing materials to provide tensile and bending strength.
  5. Plastics are commonly used in livestock equipment today due to the almost unlimited versatility of manufacturing processes available, its ability to be cleaned and disinfected quickly and easily, the ease with which common construction tools can be used to shape plastic panels to desired tolerances and shapes, and lower skill levels required for installation and assembly.

Consider more than materials

There are many other factors that should be considered when looking at materials. Capital cost, life expectancy, maintenance cost, skill and safety requirements all need to be evaluated.

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Capital cost, life expectancy, maintenance cost, skill and safety requirements all need to be evaluated.

Life cycle cost analysis is a tool to determine the most cost-effective option among different competing alternatives to purchase, own, operate, maintain and, finally, dispose of an object or process when each is equally appropriate to be implemented on technical grounds. I have always liked to use a simple box matrix to help me and my business team make decisions on what we should purchase (see Figures 1, 2 and 3). 

pig equipment capital cost burden

Figure 1 looks at materials and their individual costs. Note that products and their individual prices can vary greatly from region to region, and these graphs are potential examples only. 

pig equipment maintenance cost burden

Figure 2 looks at the life expectancy of the products and potential maintenance costs.

pig equipment custom work cost burden

Figure 3 moves into what is becoming an increasingly important area: skills and expertise required to effect repairs, and safety requirements.

As you can see, there are many different factors that come into play when deciding on the type of materials to deploy in your new swine facility. Capital cost is always a major consideration, but when you start to look at the life cycle cost of each opportunity, a larger perspective needs to be applied. The results might not always be what you think they will be.