Handling and moving pigs can be a stressful event. It also can open the door for injury. However, these negatives can be avoided with a few animal-handling rules and some common sense.

A pig’s experience with humans often plays an important role in how it cooperates during the handling and moving process. Positive daily interactions with people help, but it’s the handler’s attitude that makes the biggest difference.

“Researchers in Australia have shown that a livestock handler’s attitude about his job can have an impact on the animal’s well-being,” says Sherrie Niekamp, National Pork Board’s animal welfare director. “If the handler’s attitude is poor, it will be reflected in the interaction between the handler and the animal.” 

Pigs that have had regular, positive interactions with people will typically be less fearful and easier to handle. Positive interactions include daily pen walking and calm, quiet, patient handling. Of course, negative interactions — aggressive handling, loud noises and such — can impact the pigs’ well-being and can make them far more difficult to handle. 

Animals can perceive vaccinations and other treatments as negative interactions with handlers.  In those situations, finish the job without delay or interruptions, as it will help minimize risk to the handler and stress on the animal. If possible, use different workers to treat animals than those who move them.

Understanding general pig behavior also plays a big role in handling pigs properly and can help minimize injury risks. “Successful handlers can predict with accuracy what a pig’s reaction will be in most cases and use that knowledge to their advantage,” Niekamp adds.

Here, she offers several pig behavior characteristics that can help you be more successful in handling or moving pigs:

  • Moving pigs is best done when the person is positioned at the edge of their “flight zone,” behind the point of balance — which means just behind the pig’s shoulder.
  • Pigs are herd animals and feel safer in groups.
  • A pig may resist moving from a light area to a dark area.
  • Pigs may act cautiously if they have to move between areas with different flooring types. This also is true with temperature or wind variations. 
  • Pigs may balk at perceived threatening situations such as shadows, different colors, standing water, drafts or any situation that is not normally encountered.
  • In almost all situations, pigs will tend to look for escape routes when entering an unfamiliar area.

Injury risk is real

Whenever you’re in an enclosure with pigs, always be aware of your potential for injury. While pigs can step on your feet and cause pain or injury, your knees are the most vulnerable as pigs are just the right size to do some damage in that area. There’s the potential of being squeezed against a wall or fence, with some serious crushing weight. Of course, bites are a concern, particularly with boars and sows or when mixing older hogs.

To help avoid handler and animal injury during loading and unloading, keep alleys and pathways free of obstructions or loose objects. See that flooring is dry, and add lime, shavings or other aids if needed.

Move pigs at a normal walking pace; it will keep them calm, less stressed and easier to control. Do not crowd or rush animals to try to keep them moving. It will have the opposite effect.

Non-ambulatory (downer) animals require immediate attention.  “This is a complex issue that may have several causes such as nutrition, genetics, injury or transport stress,” Niekamp says. “Use stretchers, sleds or hand carts to move the animal out of the way quickly. Never kick or drag these animals. Move them to a spot where they can safely recover or be humanely euthanized.” And don’t try to move the animal yourself.

Moving pigs can be made easier and safer with the following handling aids:

  • A witch’s cape or matador’s cape works well for all sizes of pigs.
  • A plastic paddle can help limit the line of vision and direct the animal.
  • A lightweight sorting board is used to “create a wall” and, therefore, directs the animal’s movement. It’s appropriate for all ages of pigs.

Because they cause a high stress level, use of electric prods should be minimized or avoided completely.  They should never be used in sensitive areas such as the animal’s eyes or genitals. In well-lighted facilities, pigs should move easily from area to area. If you find your staff is having problems, it signals poor handling techniques or poorly designed facilities.

Think of animal handling as the “front line” of your operation. Select workers with a calm temperament and good attitude for the task. Have your veteran handlers indoctrinate the new ones to pass along their wisdom, experience and skill that the job requires. Train your animal handlers to expect and anticipate common pig behaviors and make sure they are aware of the risks when moving pigs.

Watch these workers periodically or arrange for someone else to review their techniques. Understand that people tend to do a better job when they are being tested, so look carefully for potential problem areas. If you find an aggressive handler, assign him to a job elsewhere in the operation, if possible, where he won’t have detrimental consequences. You may find he’s less aggressive doing another task.

In the end, focus on improving your pig handling and moving practices. That includes the peoples’ attitudes. It can make all the difference.

Special attention for special areas

While some animal behavior and worker response issues are common across all production phases, some differences surface as well. A little attention to detail has its benefits. Sherrie Niekamp, National Pork Board’s animal welfare director, shares the following practice tips for various production stages.

Neo-natal Pig Handling: Piglet processing, including castration, ear notching, tail docking and needle-teeth clipping, open the handler up to potential punctures, cuts and other injuries. Take care to properly restrain the pig. Keep all cutting instruments protected and under control at all times.   Sows can become aggressive when their young squeal and may try to charge or bite you if they get the chance, so keep your hands away from their heads. 

Weaned Pigs: Weaning is stressful for a piglet due to changes in diet and surroundings, so it’s important to concentrate on making the move low stress. Move pigs in groups of 20 or fewer. You can move these young piglets by herding them or picking them up and moving by hand or cart.  To pick up a piglet, grab the rear leg above the hock or hold it under the rib cage. Remember, the sow may try to bite you, so watch your location.

Of course, toward the end of the nursery phase, the pigs will be too large to lift or hold, so herding is the option. 

Grow/Finish: If you are mixing new hogs into a group, they must establish a new dominance order. This can create aggression and fighting, especially around the feeding area.

Keep an eye on the group and remove any pigs that are disadvantaged. Breaking up fights should be done with sorting boards, not with your hands, and don’t get between fighting pigs.

When moving market-weight pigs, they are most easily controlled when moved in groups of three to five.

Breeding Herd: Group-housed sows can be aggressive as they establish their dominance order, or when they’re not feeling well, so always be careful around these large animals.

During natural mating, a sow and boar in the same pen can be aggressive toward each other or you. Never get in the middle of a confrontation.

Boars can become agitated during heat detection walk-bys. This can lead to aggression, so the handler must be alert at all times. Make sure all gates are secured and there are no loose objects lying around.  During heat or pregnancy detection, be careful not to get your hand between the animal and the side of the pen or stall. When housed in a pen, other sows may investigate you and some may be aggressive.

When collecting boar semen, boars can easily slip off the mount. Handlers must be alert so they don’t get stepped on or get a hand caught between the animal and an immovable object.

There’s no question that successful animal handling requires skill which, in most cases, increases with experience. Yes, a firm hand is necessary but so is patience and a good understanding of animal behavior.