For nearly six months you have fed, cared for, housed and prepared your finishing hogs. Now it’s time to send them on to market; are they ready for the road trip?

In many ways, your pigs’ fitness to transport is a summation of your management decisions, facilities and workers’ skills. There are many factors that help preserve and maintain your pigs’ fitness to transport, including genetics, employee training, facility design, nutrition, handling techniques and overall preparation.

A pig’s condition at the time of loading is one of the main factors determining if trouble will arise on the way to market. Many believe the producer has primary responsibility for providing animals that arrive at the plant in good condition. “Fitness to travel has to go back to the farm,” says Susan Church, Alberta Farm Animal Care. “It’s an on-farm issue.”

Preventing fatigued pigs is critical and requires producers and handlers to be proactive. “Our entire program is early intervention,” Church says. “Fix the problem early — and when in doubt, favor the animal.”

Watch for fitness warning signs that signal potential fatigue in pigs and take action immediately. “Signs such as labored or open-mouthed breathing, unprovoked vocalization, blotchy skin or muscle tremors are all warning signs to workers that a pig is, or may become, fatigued,” says Sherrie Niekamp, National Pork Board’s animal-welfare director.       

“Another warning sign to watch for is a pig that is moving slower than his contemporaries and is having difficulty keeping up,” says Anna Johnson, animal scientist, Iowa State University. “If allowed time, the pig may be OK and make it on its own. However, once a pig lies down, you will need to step in and help that animal.”

Pigs accustomed to human interaction will be less apt to become excited at loading and, therefore, less prone to fatigue. “Producers and barn workers have to get in those pens and move among the pigs,” stresses Temple Grandin, animal well-being specialist, Colorado State University. “This helps train pigs to get up and move away in an orderly manner.” Grandin suggests conducting this interaction several times a week during the finishing phase.

“Producers that don’t walk the pens are going to have pigs that are horrible to handle and much more subject to stress and fatigue,” Grandin adds. “Moving the pigs out into the alley and back into their pens a couple times prior to market day also is beneficial in training for fitness at transport time.”

Reducing transport fitness problems should begin with selecting the right animals for market. “The producer should walk through the barn ahead of marketing and look at each animal to determine which ones are ready,” Johnson says. “Evaluate each animal’s fitness by judging its ability to move through the marketing process. Sick or injured animals are obviously not candidates.”

Facility Design Counts

Facilities and handling practices also enter the picture in maintaining transport fitness. If not done properly, moving pigs from pens onto the truck can become the most stressful time in a pig’s life. “Market hogs should be moved in small groups of about four at a time at a slow walking pace by calm handlers,” Niekamp says. “Use proper moving aids such as rattle paddles and sorting boards.”

Keep the path clear of distractions and debris. Non-slip flooring is essential within the loading chute and ramps. Check for and do repairs before you begin the loading process.

Avoid steep inclines. “Ideally, the loading-ramp angle should not exceed 20 degrees for a non-adjustable ramp, and 25 degrees for an adjustable one,” Grandin says.

If a pig becomes fatigued in the barn and is unable to get onto the truck, it needs to be segregated from the others and allowed to rest, Niekamp explains. After one to two hours, the pig should recover. If heat is a factor, wet the ground around the pig but avoid pouring cold water directly onto the pig; it could result in shock. 

The load-out crew plays a critical role in preserving and maintaining the pigs’ transport fitness. They should be well-versed in proper handling techniques. NPB’s Transport Quality Assurance program offers certification in proper techniques.

Is Your Trucker Fit?

The person hauling your pigs to market also plays a role in preserving their fitness. Communicate with your transporter to ensure that he understands your expectations. Alert your loading crew on what to do if they see or hear any indications that could cause transport problems.

Know the intended route and the estimated time of arrival. Make sure the transporter has explicit instructions on what to do in an emergency, including your contact information. Monitor the transporter by recording each shipment including time of loading, time in transport, prevailing weather conditions and animal status on arrival. Then you can make adjustments if needed.

Your efforts to prevent transport fitness problems also pay off at the plant. “Some plants are charging a $25 handling fee for a non-ambulatory animal,” Grandin warns. “If the pig cannot walk to the processing area under its own power, the plant charges the producer $25.”

Ask to receive fitness reports on your pigs upon arrival at the plant. It provides a good check-up on your transporter and may alert you to procedures that need attention.

Careful management and handling are required to maintain your hogs’ transport fitness and it’s worth taking some extra time to make certain the tasks are done right. Preserving transport fitness can reduce fatigued and non-ambulatory pigs, which is in everyone’s interest. Your efforts can help prevent problems at the plant and preserve animal well-being as well as your reputation.

When Bad Becomes Normal

Sometimes hog transport fitness problems are slow to unfold and can creep into an operation unnoticed. “The problem with some pig fitness issues is what I call ‘bad becoming normal’ — they slowly become worse,” warns Temple Grandin, Colorado State University animal scientist.   “If producers don’t have other pigs to compare against, they don’t realize there’s a problem.”

Particularly for sows, she recommends using body-condition charts to determine an animal’s fitness before loading it for market.

One question that arises is when should a sow be shipped? “Constant observation is important,” Grandin explains. She cites walking soundness, leg lesions and swelling as important factors to judge a sow’s fitness to travel.

“There is a segment of the industry, up to 10 percent, that is still negligent in pig fitness issues,” Grandin says. “Some producers will wait until a sow is too far gone and can’t walk until attempting to transport it.”

You have to continually evaluate sow condition and soundness. “You have to get these animals to market before they get to the point where they can’t walk,” she stresses. “Otherwise they have to be euthanized on the farm.”

Fitness problems with market hogs is a different issue. Due to rapid growth, bones sometimes do not keep up with soft-tissue growth. Genetics plays a crucial role in foot-and-leg soundness and producers need to include that in their selection process, Grandin says. “A lameness problem in market hogs is usually a genetics issue,” she says.  Increased market weights can compound the problem.