As is the case with any business, the attitudes of the people in your operation have a big impact on results. But attitudes don’t just affect co-workers; animals also are effected. In fact, how animals are treated may influence overall performance far more than co-workers’ attitudes toward each other.

Renown animal handling expert, Paul Hemsworth of the University of Melbourne, Australia, has measured and studied how hogs respond to different human attitudes and treatments.

“Human/animal reactions are a common feature of modern, intensive farming systems,” says Hemsworth, “and these interactions may have major consequences on animal welfare and overall productivity.”

Routine interactions with animals that people consider harmless actually cause fear and stress that limit productivity, he says.

“Modern pig production involves several levels of interaction between people and their animals. Many of these are associated with regularly observing animals and their conditions. This type of interaction often involves only visual contact between the person and the pigs, frequently without the person entering the pen. But even this can affect the animals.
“Moving growing pigs and breeding stock involves both tactile (physical contact) as well as auditory (voice) interaction with the animals,” says Hemsworth

Greater physical interactions occur when an animal must be restrained for a management or health treatment. In these situations, Hemsworth notes, the human/animal reactions have considerable potential to influence your animals’ welfare and productivity.

“Unpleasant contact,” he continues, “includes slaps or shocks by an electric prod, even for an instant. These produce high levels of fear of humans, and is reflected in reduced performance.”

In contrast, positive handling treatments involving pats or calming strokes result in less fear within the animal, and produces far less harm to performance.

Hemsworth’s research includes studies of sows on 19 Australian farms. The operations varied widely in facilities’ age, housing systems, swine genetics, nutrition and location. On all the farms, a significant relationship was found between the animals’ fear of humans and the sows’ reproductive performance. In fact, the range in fear of humans was found to account for about 20 percent of the variation in reproductive performance across the farms studied.

Studies with growing pigs also showed marked differences in performance due to how humans treated them. “Pigs respond one way or the other – positively or negatively – to physical contact and interaction with humans,” he notes.

Specifically, Hemsworth points to several studies that show a high fear of humans due to poor handling can, on average:

  • Reduce growth rate by 5 percent. In one study the affect was a 13 percent decline.
  • Reduce feed efficiency by 6 percent

Kind, positive treatment includes having workers talk to animals, Hemsworth says. With first-litter gilts, he particularly recommends calm, regular talking as part of the preparation process.

Reducing an animal’s fear of humans is particularly beneficial when you need to move hogs, according to Hems-worth’s studies. It saves time and effort when animals are not fearful, do not balk or try to flee past the handler. Here again, a calm, slow, steady manner is key. You also can open gates and let animals wander into the aisle occasionally so the concept isn’t quite so foreign when the real time comes. Also, if you get in the habit of wandering through the pen, the animals will get used to your presence.

“When a pig is fearful and is being moved, the likelihood is far greater for it to injure itself to avoid or get away from the human,” Hemsworth adds.

These animal handling tactics aren’t exclusive to hogs. In researching dairy cattle, broiler chickens and laying hens Hemsworth has found similar results.

With renewed emphasis on animal handling and welfare in Europe, as well as U.S. food companies like McDonald’s and Burger King, it may be worth your time to review your on-farm practices.

It Starts With Education

Your operation’s profitability will only benefit from teaching workers the proper ways to handle hogs. Sure, herd health and animal productivity will benefit, but your operation also will become a more pleasant place for people to work as well. Here are some steps to take.

Start with yourself. It may do you some good to check your own animal handling practices – anyone can get sloppy and impatient at times.

You can’t assume that the people you’ve hired know how to handle and treat animals. In training employees, show how to work with animals calmly and to avoid arousing fear.

Make sure existing employees know the proper ways to deal with animals in non-threatening ways.

Once you’ve incorporated proper animal handling into your operation’s employee training phase, make periodic checkups part of your responsibility or that of the unit manager.

When you interview a prospective employee try to determine how the person will treat the animals. Also, try to gather similar information from their references.

If new employees are subject to a trial period, pay special attention to the person’s attitude on the job toward animals and his or her treatment of them.

If a worker habitually treats animals in ways that cause fear, recognize that it may indicate job dissatisfaction and/or lack of motivation. The supervisor may be able to correct the situation. If not, the employee may need to be replaced.