Techniques used by your animal handlers can be costing you money in terms of lost animal performance. Every interaction between workers and pigs either supports financial returns or subtracts from animal performance.

Providing positive human/pig interaction results in an environment where pigs can thrive and fulfill their genetic potential, thereby improving your operation’s return.

At all stages, pigs should be handled with care, gentleness and patience, according to the Swine Care Handbook. Training animal handlers and all who are in contact with pigs is key to developing low-stress handling techniques.

“Focus on being a caregiver rather than a caretaker,” says Tom Noffsinger, DVM, Production Animal Consultants LLC, Benkelman, Neb. “It’s important that animal handlers understand the difference between those two words. If you take from animals, they are less able to return good performance.”

Animals that are handled gently from the start, and each time thereafter, will be less stressed any time they are moved or handled. “We have to care for these animals every day in a way we would be proud if an animal-rights organization was watching our every move,” Noffsinger says.

Easy animal handling pays off in many ways. For example, Noffsinger points out that proper handling skills improve the efficacy of vaccines, medications and trace minerals. “Administering a vaccine to an animal with a rapid heart rate will not provide near as good of an immune response,” he notes.

Being familiar with the pig’s natural responses to various stimuli will help understand its behavior, which you can use to prevent stress. For example, when a pig is removed from pen mates, its stress increases. “All livestock are herd animals, and they are likely to become highly agitated and stressed when they are separated from their herd mates,” says Temple Grandin, Colorado State University animal scientist.

Animals under regular or recurring stress are most at risk for reduced health status or performance. The first thing rough handling takes from animals is immune function, Noffsinger warns. Growth tends to be the next casualty.

Stress opens the door to disease; it can increase the virulence of resident organisms while lowering the animal’s resistance. Many organisms are found in a pig’s upper respiratory tract. Factors such as inadequate ventilation and stress increase the pathogenicity of these resident organisms, which in turn increases the disease prospect.

Calm animals make it easier on everyone. Pigs are easier to sort and to handle when calm, which benefits the pig and handlers. Handlers should never yell or shout, Grandin says. “Yelling is very stressful to pigs.”

In terms of workers, hire those who have an ability to understand animal behavior. Evaluate employees on an on-going basis. If an infraction occurs, address it immediately with the handler and supervisor, and schedule additional training sessions. Another option is to transfer the employee to a position where he or she has no contact with animals.

Low-stress handling skills must be second nature to animal handlers. These workers must be aware of the effect they have on the pigs’ health and performance before their first interaction. Research has shown that just one negative interaction can set a pig back and cost performance.

Here are some take-home reminders that can improve the human/pig interaction in your operation.

Each and every time

Take care to ensure that each interaction a handler has with animals is a positive one. “If a handler occasionally mistreats an animal, the animal is liable to be stressed every time the person approaches,” Grandin says. If pigs feel threatened or are hurt, weight gains will be reduced as they’re more likely to retreat and go off feed.

Minimize noise and commotion when handling animals. To avoid unnecessary agitation the handler should work on the edge of the animal’s flight zone. “Understanding the flight zone also can reduce stress and help prevent accidents to handlers,” Grandin says.

Before you restrain an animal or administer medication have the equipment and supplies set up and ready. Well-designed facilities and pen layouts can greatly ease animal handling and reduce stress levels.

Once an animal is restrained, avoid delays. To minimize stress on the animal, select the best trained handlers for the job since they’re likely to complete the procedure effectively in the least time.

Ease the transition

Location changes can be a major stress for pigs. It’s important that a pig’s first experience in a new surrounding is positive. “If an animal’s first experience with something new is bad, the animal may develop a permanent fear memory,” Grandin says.

Any pig that’s moved will experience some stress simply by the uncertainty involved in getting acquainted with the new environment. “Any time pigs are moved, you have to show the animals that they will be safe,” Noffsinger says.

When you bring pigs into a new environment, don’t rush them. For example, pigs will be reluctant to walk across flooring with which they’re not familiar. “If pigs raised on plastic decks are made to walk on concrete for the first time, they will balk and balk,” Grandin warns. “Given a chance to explore the new flooring before being driven, pigs will be much easier to move and experience less stress.” Those pigs will then be more likely to start eating and drinking quickly.

So, in reviewing pig performance on your operation, take a close look at your handlers’ activities around the pigs. Reducing handling stress can be an effective way to boost your operation’s performance.

Handle Sows with Care

Interaction between animal handlers and sows requires some special attention. Sows must be handled with respect and care to ensure maximum reproductive performance, as well as to assure worker safety.

The Iowa Pork Industry Center suggests the  following techniques and practices to help get the most from your sow herd.

  • Use slow, deliberate movements so as not to  excite the sow.
  • When moving sows, have the proper equipment, such as sorting boards; clear aisles of obstacles; and exercise self-control and patience.
  • If sows are reluctant to move, gently clap on the flank with your hand or tap gently on the hock with your foot. Soft rubber or hollow plastic tubes to tap sows can help move animals and make a slight noise. Never use electric prods.
  • Make sure alleyways are well lit and do not contain obstacles, shadows or glare from lights.
  • To halt movement or to direct the sow, use a sorting board or solid barrier.
  • To ensure good footing, keep floors clean and dry.
  • On a daily basis, gentle contact with the sow, such as scratching behind the ears, can help build trust.
  • Talking to the sow in a low, calm voice also can build trust and  prevent stress.