No one ever said moving 300-plus pound hogs around is an easy task. It’s not a glamorous job and it’s exhausting at times.
It can also be costly. Transport losses cost the industry approximately $46 million per year. These losses are due to a multitude of factors, such as aggressive handling, overuse of electric prods, overcrowding, stress and extreme weather conditions.
Mike Porth, director of hog procurement at Smithfield Foods, says their teams perform mid-year and year-end reviews with their suppliers to discuss losses (non-ambulatory, dead on arrival and dead in pens). These numbers are just as important, he notes, as the carcass evaluation numbers they discuss.
“Producers take five to six months to raise the pig right from the sow barn to the finish barn. With an average $150 market value per head, why wouldn’t we make sure we do everything we can to sort, load and get each pig out to the truck to the best of our ability?” he asks. “We just need to make sure we continue to spend our time well when it comes to getting our pigs sorted and loaded in a safe manner.”
Reducing pig stress safeguards meat quality, lessens transport mortality and increases safety in the barn for both the loading crew and the animals.
Here are six things you can do to keep the pigs calm in the loading process and avoid stress for everyone involved:
1. Presort prior to loading.
To reduce fatigue and stress, presorting pigs is crucial. Keep your hogs calm by moving the market-ready hogs to the front pens. This gives them a shorter walk to the chute and it will get them used to walking in the alleyway. Presorting should be done prior to loading and the pigs should also have an adequate resting period before getting on the truck to reduce fatigue.
2. Keep calm.
Moving pigs is a little like moving kids to your car. Pigs, like people, react to your mood. If a member of your loading crew is stressed or angry, the pigs will mirror this and become more difficult to handle. When dealing with pigs, focus on the job at hand and don’t let personal emotions cloud your mind and influence your actions. This will not only reduce pig stress, it will also prevent handlers from becoming unintentionally aggressive.
In most barns, three to four people should be sufficient to load a group of market hogs, depending on barn size and design. It’s important to work together to create a human gate utilizing sort boards and sounds (calling, whistling, banging your hand on the board, etc.) to encourage pigs to go down the alley and into the chute. Too few workers often results in workers chasing pigs, which is unsafe for pigs and people. Conversely, too many workers creates congestion and may increase turn attempts, resulting in confusion and stress to the pigs.
3. Create familiarity.
Make sure the pigs are used to people. Regularly walking the pens allows the pigs to get comfortable with having someone in the pens with them. This will create a more peaceful loading experience. Playing a radio in the building may also reduce a pig’s startle response to sudden noises. However, it’s important to realize that no matter how much you work with some pigs, they may be genetically hardwired to be high-strung. Do your best to reduce distractions and create an environment that won’t scare nervous pigs.
4. Avoid isolation.
Pigs don’t like to be left alone. Being isolated from the group is extremely stressful. Keeping this in mind, it’s best to point them in the right direction and let them make their own way to the loading chute. Pigs move best in pairs, so your alley should allow two pigs to move side-by-side until they get to the chute, where it should narrow into single-file width. This reduces stress and creates an easier loading environment.
A common mistake is to build the chute too wide, says Temple Grandin of Colorado State University and Collette Schultz-Kaster of Milan, Mo., in "Handling Pigs." The authors suggest that the ramp should be 34 inches wide with no more than 20-degree angle.
5. Reduce distractions.
Pigs have poor depth perception immediately in front of them and a wide range of view. Because of this, they can easily become distracted or frightened. Remove flapping material from the pigs’ line of vision, make sure the floor is dry, secure all doors or gates that could swing or slam shut and remove shiny objects from the loading area to help keep the pigs calm and reduce turn attempts. Installing solid gates to the front pens and along the loading area will also keep the pigs focused on moving forward.
6. Be observant.
Observant handlers are crucial to a good loading experience. Make sure your team can identify when pigs are being stressed during handling and take appropriate action. Signs to watch for include open mouth breathing or panting; vocalization such as squealing or barking; reddish-purple blotchy skin; stiffness; muscle tremors; increased heart rate and increased body temperature.
By using these six steps, everyone benefits and contributes to getting pigs to market in a safe and humane manner, and less stress equals more pork, Porth says.
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