The final stage in the finisher can expose hogs to a variety of stress factors in a very short time that can jeopardize the effort and investment you spent on getting them to market weight.

Although hog transport losses in the United States average less than 1 percent, they still cost the industry $46 million annually, notes Matt Ritter, animal-handling specialist with Elanco Animal Health. But as high feed costs pressure margins, any loss has a big impact on your bottom line.

Faulty facility design, rough handling and other transport issues can increase animal stress levels and can drive up transport losses, including dead and non-ambulatory pigs at the packing plant.

The two most common types of non-ambulatory pigs are the fatigued and injured. Fatigued pigs display physical signs of stress such as open-mouth breathing, skin discoloration and/or muscle tremors, while injured pigs have a compromised ability to move due to injury or structural unsoundness.

A review of 23 field trials shows that more than 80 percent of non-ambulatory pigs are classified as fatigued. Spotting a fatigued pig and allowing it extra loading time is crucial in reducing transport losses. Fatigued pigs often are unable to keep up with their contemporaries at any given stage of the marketing process. Research has demonstrated that the majority of these pigs will recover fully when given a 20- to 30-minute rest period. The growing concern is that these pigs are increasingly lumped in with “downer animals” when developing policies and legislation.

Attention to pen size and pre-sorting of market-weight pigs has shed some light on how to reduce transport losses and get pigs over the last hurdle with less stress. Research has shown that using large pen configurations with finishing pigs and manually pre-sorting 18 hours prior to loading can reduce both stress on pigs and the time required to load trailers.

The research, conducted by Leah Gesing and Anna Johnson, animal scientists at Iowa State University, compared pigs raised in pens of 32 animals and not pre-sorted to pigs raised in pens of 192 and pre-sorted prior to loading. They recorded 66 percent fewer losses among pigs raised in the larger pen configuration and manually pre-sorted, compared with pigs raised in the smaller pens and not pre-sorted.

The researchers are quick to point out that additional studies are needed to assess the variable factors in the trial as well as potential growth performance differences among pigs raised in large pens.

“By implementing pre-sorting prior to loading, stress responses during the loading process such as open-mouth breathing and skin discoloration in the market-weight pig were significantly reduced, and it took less time to load the trailers,” Johnson says. “However, there was a monetary and time commitment to pre-sorting the pigs.”

Transport losses among pigs from the small-pen/non-pre-sorted group exceeded the estimated national average, Johnson notes. “However, if your transport losses are currently less than the 1 percent national average, pre-sorting may not result in a big advantage.”

Acclimate Pigs to Movement
Regardless of your pen size, having people routinely walk in the pens or handle pigs reduces transport losses. It has been demonstrated that previous handling reduced total transport losses from 0.38 percent to 0.07 percent when compared to pigs that were not handled. 

Alan Evers, hog grow-out manager with Coopers Farms, Fort Recovery, Ohio, suggests walking pigs in aisles prior to load-out. “Our goal is to walk the pigs in the aisle once in the nursery stage and once in the finishing stage,” he notes. “It makes pigs easier to handle.”

The practice has resulted in a calmer process with less stress on pigs and people at loading time. Coopers Farms also has a hot-shot-free policy at loading. As the first step in this effort, Evers recommends tracking and monitoring hot-shot usage, then identifying problem areas and adjusting them.

Coopers Farms has replaced electric prods with plastic paddles, which has reduced the number of pigs slipping or falling. Evers says it may increase loading times, but he’s working on ways to improve loading efficiency.

Another pre-loading practice at Coopers Farms includes moving pigs to holding pens near the front of the barn where they rest for 10 minutes to 60 minutes before loading. “This breaks up the marathon and is especially beneficial for those pigs from pens located farthest from the chute or those bound for the truck’s upper deck,” Evers says.

While the optimum size for a holding pen has not been studied, Johnson says it ideally would be large enough for all pigs to be able to lie down at the same time.

Removing restrictions in alleyways also makes the loading process smoother. Eliminating curves in the approach to the chute and trailer will aid pigs’ movement. Evers recommends that loading crews pay attention to pigs’ natural movement tendencies, which he terms the “bubble concept.”

“It starts with a handler’s position in the pen,” Evers says. “This position determines which way the pigs will circle past and sets up a natural flow.” He uses the bubble concept to hold pigs along gate lines to control the number of animals being selected for loading.

Clear the Way
Before loading, clear the alleyway and ensure that conditions will not distract pigs and make them balk. “Walk the route before you move pigs and pick up items that may stop a pig or pigs from moving forward,” Johnson says.

Check lighting and shadows, including floor and alleyway transitions.  If you really want to find solutions, get down to the pig’s level and consider using a video camera as an objective set of eyes.

“Make sure that the loading ramp is free from obstacles and that the ramp is in good repair before attempting to move pigs,” Johnson says. 

Since pigs prefer to be near a pen mate, the ramp should be wide enough for two market hogs to walk up at the same time. “Make sure there are no sharp turns for pigs to maneuver,” she adds. See that the flooring prevents slips; that the lighting is soft, but sufficient; and there are no drafts or abrupt lighting in the pig’s face.

If a pig seems to be struggling with the process and is moving slowly, it should be sorted off, placed into a small, empty pen and allowed time to rest. Pigs that can move well, freely and without any issues can be loaded on either the top or bottom deck.

“Pigs needing more attention and time should go on last and be carefully loaded into the ‘dog house,’ since they have the shortest distance to move both on the farm and at the plant,” Johnson adds. “However, if pigs are non-ambulatory, they should never be loaded.”

Smaller Groups Go Easier
According to the industry’s Transport Quality Assurance guidelines, the optimum number of pigs to load at once is four to six. Loading pigs in smaller groups results in fewer total losses (0.6 percent versus 1.3 percent) than pigs loaded in large groups. They also require less time to load.

Make sure the loading crew is well trained and stays calm. This also applies to the trucker who hauls your pigs from farm to plant. Finding out how your pigs are unloaded once there is smart as well.

When planning new barns, Johnson recommends paying extra attention to loading facilities. “When building a new facility or retrofitting an existing one, think carefully about loading animals — it seems to be overlooked in some facilities.”

Clearing the last hurdle may take extra time, consideration, caution and quick reaction to pigs that may experience difficulty during the marketing process. In the end, preserving your investment in getting a market hog this far is worth the extra time and effort you spend.