The pork industry loses about $116 million each year because hogs were not handled or processed properly, according to Jerry Brooks, Swift & Company vice president for hog procurement. “These pigs were either dead on arrival (DOA); non-ambulatory, injured animals (NAI); or non-ambulatory, non-injured, fatigued animals (NANI),” explains Brooks. “We can do better.”

Packers like Swift & Company are continuously trying to improve their pig-handling procedures, and he urges truckers and producers to do likewise. The importance of taking steps to improve animal handling is not a news flash to most producers, but it’s worth repeating. “The most important way to improve  animal handling is to review, practice, review, practice,” says Brooks.

 
People getting out and walking in the pens, being involved in and around the pigs, is beneficial to improving the handling of slow pigs.

Problems that start off on the farm tend to multiply. “If you stress the pigs at your facility, during sorting, loading or while on the truck, they are going to multiply at our facility. They certainly won’t get any better,” he adds.

Factors that can affect pigs include genotype, degree of muscling, disease status, structural soundness, stress susceptibility, previous experience in loading and market weights. A problem that Brooks sees more often than anything else is the animal’s disease status. “On the kill floor we see problems with lungs, adhesions and other health issues that have caused an increase in slow pigs at market,” says Brooks.

Environmental concerns, climate factors (such as temperature, humidity, barometric pressure), facility design and management, nutrition, Paylean usage, time of feed withdrawal, are all factors affecting the movement and handling ability of pigs coming into his plants.

“The most important thing a producer can do to improve on-farm handling is to improve the human interaction with pigs,” says Brooks. “We have worked with producers a lot over the past few years, trying to improve the NANI situation— the slow pigs.” People getting out and walking in the pens, being involved in and around the pigs, is a huge benefit in improving the handling of slow pigs.

The time required to load is also a factor. The first pigs on the trailer have to sit crowded in a tight space and this will affect how pigs react to handling when they get to the packing plant. 

Chute design is another area of concern. “The biggest mistake we see is a chute that is too narrow,” says Brooks. “We see a lot of pigs lodging and wedging together in narrow chutes.”

Swift and many other packers no longer let workers in their plants  use electric prods. “Truckers don’t like this, but we see an improvement after we take the prods away,” says Brooks.

He encourages producers to shorten the walking distance from the pens to the loading area. “The shorter the distance, the fewer problems we have,” he notes. Brooks also sees fewer NANI pigs from those raised in a barn with an automated sorter.

The toughest hurdle is feed withdrawal. “We don’t have many producers that are able to implement a feed-withdrawal period,” says Brooks. “But it makes a great difference in the quality of pigs in our plant. Ideally, we would like to see pigs off feed for 12 hours. Six to 12 hours is a good time frame.”

As for tuckers, since the National Pork Board introduced a Trucker Quality Assurance program in 2002, the number of DOA pigs has dropped from 0.30 percent in 2001 to 0.22 percent in 2004.  (Go to www.pork.org to review the TQA program details.)

“We like the straight double-deck trailers,” says Brooks. “Pig space is important. Cutting back to 160 pigs on a double decker is desirable.”

Bedding is a must in the winter. It is a mandatory item for any trucks coming to any of Swift’s plants when the temperature is below 40° F.

To reduce the number of NANI pigs, the majority of what Brooks classifies as downer or slow animals, he encourages producers to be flexible. “If the weather is going to change, start loading earlier or make changes to your plan; load a bit lighter and change loading chutes.”

Tracking problem issues and knowing what’s going on in your operation as well as with your specific animals will help you reduce problems, he says. “Producers need to continuously work to improve animal handling. That means you have to measure what is happening on a daily basis, load by load. Then look for the differences and opportunities to make changes,” he says.

“We continually train our employees and do audits on a daily basis,” says Brooks. “Producers need to do that on the farm as well. Quality assurance is a must for us. The form that we use at our facilities is an animal-assessment report, which is useful in identifying problem areas.” He suggests that producers find or develop a similar assessment format. Animal science specialists and veterinarians could help develop this. NPB’s TQA and Pork Quality Assurance programs could provide some guidance as well. Building a database can help you determine why you have a large number of stressed pigs.

“NANI’s occur only when pigs are handled aggressively,” says Brooks. “We have a zero NANI incidence with gently handled pigs.” Research shows that serum-lactate levels are six times higher with aggressively handled pigs versus pigs that were handled gently.

“Pigs wedged in narrow alleys result in a high NANI incidence,” says Brooks. “If you see a pig breathing with an open mouth, just stop what you are doing. It is not going to get any better. In our facility, we clear the alley and get that animal out, either by gentle walking or with a skid loader. There are no exceptions to this.”

While the serum-lactate levels in aggressively handled pigs increase several levels, if handlers can rest those animal for two hours, the serum-lactate levels go down dramatically, notes Brooks.

Poor animal handling costs everyone, from the producer to the packer. With more than $100 million lost annually, it is in everyone’s interest to improve the course of action and the end result.