For the vast majority of pork producers, proper animal handling and well-being is a top-of-mind priority every hour of every day. With today’s consumer increasingly aware of the topic, it’s worth extra time and effort on your part to guarantee that no lapses occur.

One way to increase your vigilance is to remind all employees about the importance of proper animal-handling techniques, as well as your commitment to such measures. You can start by holding periodic animal-handling refresher courses and reviewing the information presented at job training sessions. You could break the topic down further and discuss one item each week.

Keep on constant lookout for possible animal-handling infractions every time you are in the barns. If you see any disturbing sign of rough handling, be sure to address the situation with employees and supervisors immediately.

To provide a “neutral” extra set of eyes, try operating a video camera as you walk through your operation. It could provide an eye-opening experience, as sometimes things pop out in a video that you may have missed because of normal distractions.

Chances are, a video would reveal many things that are exemplary as well as things that may need improvement. You may find some overlooked areas that need to be addressed, such as pen layouts, stocking density, floor surface issues or other hazards that you just hadn’t noticed.

Such a video could be used for teachable moments later, such as showing it in a training or review meeting to illustrate proper techniques as well as how to address common challenges. 

Management Sets the Scene

Attentive management is crucial in demonstrating and developing an animal well-being culture within a farm. “Observations made on several hundred farms, ranches, feedlots and slaughter plants indicate that the single most important factor that affects animal welfare is management’s attitude,” says Temple Grandin, Colorado State University animal scientist and animal-handling expert.

At Farmer John operations, in Snowflake, Ariz., managers make it clear that animal welfare is Job 1. “Working diligently to develop a culture that promotes and expects the best treatment and stockmanship for the animals in our care is the first step from the top down,” says Michael Terrill, DVM, Farmer John’s vice president of farm operations and livestock procurement. 

“We developed a document to describe our company’s animal-welfare and handling program, and we have defined both as top priorities,” Terrill adds. “The document illustrates efforts that are being taken to ensure that we have training, certification and compliance of best management practices in place.” 

The message that animal abuse will not be tolerated under any circumstances must be engrained in all employees from their first day on the job. Management has to enforce zero tolerance with appropriate action when necessary, and that means having protocols regarding when you end a violator’s employment.

It has to start with thorough training — long-term training. Don’t expect to accomplish all necessary animal-handling details in a session, a day or even a week. To make it part of the operation’s culture, train your managers to make animal handling, care and attention a daily priority. Think of animal handling as the “front line.” Train your animal handlers to expect and anticipate common animal behaviors and make sure they practice sound animal-husbandry techniques at all times.

Again, you could get extra mileage from your on-farm video by adding it to your training programs. It’s a great time to point out proper technique. Workers learn by seeing how it is done right. Certainly there are other industry videos available if you don’t want to try your hand at shooting some on site.

For workers that will have direct contact with animals, select individuals with a calm, steady temperament and good attitude for the task. Don’t assume that an applicant likes animals, or more specifically hogs, or else he/she wouldn’t apply for the job. Look for people who are attentive, can actually see and understand animal behavior, and who are problem solvers, as they are less likely to get frustrated with animals’ unpredictability.

Once on site, have your veteran handlers work with the new ones to pass along their wisdom, experience and skill set. See that managers and experienced workers watch for warning signs in others’ attitudes; life’s circumstances can change and influence actions at work. People actually tend to do a better job when they’re being observed.

Establish protocols that require any employee who observes a questionable or abusive action to immediately report it to a supervisor. Make sure the protocol includes options for reporting  up the chain if the supervisor fails to act. Ultimately, owners and  managers should all be informed of any reports involving animal  well-being concerns.

When it’s Time to Load

Poorly designed or outmoded facility designs can complicate animal-handling efforts. If your crews typically have trouble loading pigs, or if your transport losses are high, it may be time to revamp pen and load-out layouts.

For example, research conducted by Iowa State University, Iowa Select Farms, JBS Swift and Elanco Animal Health has shown that large pen size and pre-sorting market-weight pigs can reduce losses at the packing plant.

The research compared two facility designs in terms of loading time of market-weight pigs, physical signs of stress during loading and unloading, and transport losses at the plant. It showed that raising pigs in pens of 192 head and pre-sorting pigs 24 hours prior to loading reduced transport losses by 66 percent compared to the traditional facility design.

Regardless of size, when it’s time to move pigs out of a facility make sure pens, alleys and pathways are free of obstructions, as well as loose or sharp objects. Unfamiliar activity such as people moving around up ahead, a flooring change, even a Styrofoam cup in the alleyway, a reflection or glare will cause pigs to stop.

See that flooring is dry and that there are no odd shadows or lighting issues en-route that will make pigs balk. Pigs will move easily from areas of low light to brighter lit areas; however, they will avoid walking into bright light.

Move animals in small groups at an easy walking pace to keep them calm and easier to control. Handlers should be quiet and avoid loud noises or arm waving while sorting, moving or loading pigs. Do not crowd or rush animals to try to keep them moving. It will have the opposite effect. See that transport vehicles are maintained and equipped before you start loading pigs.

“Clanging and banging metal parts should be silenced with rubber pads,” Grandin suggests. “Any equipment operated with hydraulics should be engineered to minimize noise.” 

Stay updated on animal well-being research and recommended handling adjustments.

On-going awareness of and improvements in animal handling and well-being are part of everyone’s job in pork production and they require constant attention.