Editor’s note: John McGlone, swine specialist, Texas  Tech  University, conducted an extensive, multi-disciplinary study on dead and fatigued pigs. Those findings are the basis for the four-part series presented in Pork magazine.

Knowing the variables that packers must address when handling your pigs can offer insight into the problem of fatigued pigs, as well as possible solutions.

Today, dead- and fatigued-pig rates vary considerably from plant to plant. They can run as low as 0.1 percent to more than 1 percent. Just like at the farm level, facilities and people are the main factors that contribute to those rates.

History and handling are again recurring factors. The packer is at the mercy of the pigs’ experiences prior to arriving at the plant. One truck may arrive with pigs that were comfortable at the farm and during transport. Another truck may arrive with pigs that experienced stress at the farm, during loading and transport. Packing-plant personnel cannot know which pigs have been stressed more than others. Therefore, the packer must adopt best-management practices and apply them to all pigs that arrive at the plant.

The single largest cause of increased dead- and fatigued-pig rates at the plant is rough handling as pigs exit the truck and while they’re in the plant facilities. As shown in last month’s article (see “Fatigued Pigs: The Transportation Link,” page 14), the more that electric prods are used, the higher the fatigued-pig rate. But even rough handling without using electric prods will increase dead- and fatigued-pig rates. Packers need to make every effort to implement uniform pig-handling practices, with the focus on minimizing stress. They need to look at the unloading area, the rest pens and the stunning area.

Internal audits are the best way to assess pig handling at the plant. That information must be compared with dead- and fatigued-pig rates as well as the processing-line speed. Internal-audit data should be collected at random times of the day, during each shift, and with minimal ability of animal handlers to know they are being audited. For example, the auditor should stand where he/she can see animal-handling procedures, but where animal handlers cannot easily see the auditor.

Even better, key handling areas such as truck unloading and entrance to the pre-stun area should have video cameras that auditing personnel can view from a distant office. That way, animal handlers wouldn’t know when audit data are being collected. The video records could be used to train and re-train animal handlers.

This brings up the point that each person handling pigs needs to be trained and certified. Certification should last only six months, which means that training should be re-visited every six months. It’s also wise to rotate jobs in the plant so that the same people don’t do the exact same jobs all the time. This may reduce boredom and the chance for people to develop growing frustrations that can lead to rough animal handling.

The packer should have standard operating procedures for the unloading areas, rest pens and pre-stun areas. SOPs also are needed for air temperature, floor surfaces, protocols to wet and cool pigs, space allowances and rest times (minimum and maximum.) The SOPs should be based on science and should focus on minimizing stress.

Poor facilities may contribute to increased dead- or fatigued-pig rates. Common facility issues include sharp edges, rough floors, long walking distances, uncomfortable temperatures (too warm or cold for pigs), inadequate ventilation, non-uniform lighting, loud noises, inadequate holding space relative to the number of pigs to be processed per shift, and wind currents (that cause pigs to stop.) Another common problem involves chutes that are not conducive to easy pig movement. One such example is if pigs have to squeeze through a narrow chute at any point.

But those issues can be addressed with short-term adjustments or through longer-term facility improvements. 

To help reduce fatigued-pig and dead-on-arrival rates at the plant, packers should consider implementing tactics that address the following issues:

People and Management

  • Plant leadership should embrace the concept that careful animal handling is required. They need to build a culture with this mindset throughout the packing plant.
  • Use of electric prods should be eliminated or minimized.
  • Packers need to develop, implement and audit standard operating procedures for animal handling.
  • In-plant animal handlers should be trained, re-trained and certified regularly.

Facility Issues

  • Eliminate sharp edges and rough floors in areas where pigs will be housed and expected to move through.
  • Avoid having to move pigs through sharp, 90-degree turns. Instead, implement a system that allows rounded turns.
  • Never spray pigs with water when the air temperature is below 60° F.
  • Minimize the distance that pigs must walk within the plant.
  • Create comfortable environmental temperatures for pigs in the rest and pre-stun areas.
  • Be sure lighting and floor surfaces are uniform throughout the facility. This will keep pigs moving and prevent them from balking.

While the packing plant may be the final animal-handling stage, increased awareness and proper protocols are ongoing requirements to minimizing dead- and fatigued-pig rates.

By John McGlone, animal specialist, Texas  Tech  University

Editor’s note: This is the final entry in a four-part series addressing the dead- and fatigued-pig issue on the farm, in transport and at the slaughter plant. You can access the series within the editorial archives at www.porkmag.com

Keeping Handling in Check

So, what should a packer audit include in terms of internal animal-handling practices? Here’s a look at what an internal-audit data sheet should contain. Note that the unloading and pre-stun area checklists are the same, but they need to be audited separately.

Truck unloading; note the percentage of pigs that:

  • Slip or fall.
  • Rear (pigs climbing on each other, usually due to pigs being crowded or moved too fast.)
  • Vocalizations (pigs squealing.)
  • Receipt of an electric prod touch.
  • Receipt of a slap, kick, rough touch (more than a mild touch.)

Pre-stun area; note the percentage of pigs that:

  • Slip or fall.
  • Rear (pigs climbing on each other, usually due to pigs being crowded or moved too fast.)
  • Vocalizations (pigs squealing.)
  • Receipt of an electric prod touch.
  • Receipt of a slap, kick, rough touch (more than a mild touch.)

Resting pens

  • Check for adequate space allowance for the number of pigs housed per shift.
  • Check for adequate water availability for the number of pigs housed per shift.

Plant/facililty measures

  • Audit of the physical facilities that pertain to the pigs’ space and movement paths. For example: look at fences, gates, walls and floors.
  • Number of pigs that are dead on arrival.
  • Number of pigs that are fatigued on arrival.
  • Number of pigs that are dead in the rest pens or dead on the way to stunning.
  • Number of pigs that walk off the truck but become fatigued before reaching the rest pens.
  • Number of pigs that become fatigued in the rest pen or on the way to stunning.
  • Total dead pigs (percent.)
  • Total fatigued pigs (percent.)
  • Total dead and fatigued pigs (percent.)
  • Plant line-speeds (animals per hour per shift and line-speed during the audit period.)

A Total Quality Effect

The industry’s Trucker Quality Assurance program may be having a direct and measurable effect on dead-pig rates at packing plants. TQA began in early 2002. Note the decline in the dead-pig rate at the plant that has unfolded in recent years. As more producers, truckers and packers become aware of and get involved with TQA, the more likely that downward trend line will continue.