Your pork operation’s success depends on many factors, but stockmanship always has and always will be important. Employees’ attitudes toward pigs can influence your profitability.

Peter English, retired animal science professor from the University of Aberdeen, in the United Kingdom, emphasizes the importance of improving your employees’ understanding of pig behavior with the objective of detecting and resolving problems faster.

Becoming a superior stockman doesn’t happen overnight. A keen intuition about animals helps, but it doesn’t substitute for hard work, long hours and a desire to work with animals. English cites the following traits as important to stockmanship:

1.  A sound basic knowledge of the needs of pigs and how best to provide for those in different situations.

2.   Competent in many skills, including observation, handling, technical aspects, caring and treatment of swine.

3.   Develop problem-detection and problem-solving abilities. This includes knowing how to detect problems, diagnose the cause, work out a remedy, immediately apply the remedy and monitor the outcome.

4.  Personal characteristics and attitude. These include having a natural affinity for animals, patience, dedication to caring and a sense of priority in giving extra attention to animals in need.

5.  Having plenty of time to pay attention to animal care. Tight labor situations cut into the time a worker can spend on the daily details.

6.  Motivation and job satisfaction. Employees that are motivated by and pleased with their jobs are more likely to pay extra attention to the animals.

One way to get a handle on stockmanship is through proper training. English developed a program that focuses on what he calls the Mill Wheel. (See graphic.) It is designed to illustrate the process of enhancing the quality of stockmanship throughout an operation.

He adopts an on-farm training approach to meet the specific needs of each operation. It involves all members of the production team.

The program emphasizes stockmanship principles and practices using slides and video training materials. It focuses on the needs of the pigs and how best to meet those needs.

Along with a classroom-like setting, the program includes hands-on exercises, such as piglet fostering strategies and the following two-hour training courses: farrowing and piglet rearing; breeding and pregnancy (including gilt management); weaner management; finishing pig management, and improving carcass/meat quality.

Individuals involved in the training program have found it motivational, and it has enhanced their job satisfaction. Most importantly, it has positively impacted pig performance. English points to a specific farm’s records reflecting productivity one year before and after training.

Herd 1

1 Year Before Training

1 Year After Training

Livebirths per litter

11.2

11.2

Mortality of livebirths

12.2%

8.0%

Piglets weaned per litter

9.8

10.3

Litters per year

2.44

2.44

Piglets weaned sow/year

23.9

2 5.1 (+5%)

Herd 2

Farrowing rate

82.8%

86.3%

Litters/sow/year

2.42

2.46

Born alive

11.8

12.2

Born dead

1.0

0.7

Piglets weaned per litter

10.2

10.7

Piglets weaned/sow/year

24.7

26.3 (+6.5%)

Both classroom and on-farm training is important, but University of Missouri veterinarian Tom Fangman believes you need to take it a step further. This means assigning a mentor who shows an employee what he or she needs to look for and how to respond.

“The concept behind mentoring is that I’m not telling you what to do – I’m working with you and sharing my knowledge with you,” he explains.

Here are some of Fangman’s ideas on developing a mentoring program. The mentor must:

  • Enjoy working with pigs, and be methodical and unhurried in his/her approach to carrying for pigs.
  • Be willing to spend time observing pigs and assuring pigs’ well-being.
  • Enjoy working with people and helping people to appreciate their work as well as the work of others.
  • Be capable of establishing a personal relationship with new employees. 
  • Be available to answer all questions and make suggestions for improvement in animal-handling techniques as the new employee takes on more responsibilities.

Management must allow a new employee to “shadow” the mentor for 2 to 4 weeks. New employees must not be allowed to feel like they have been abandoned or that their work is not appreciated. Regular recognition of a “job well done” can go a long way.

“Labor can be trained on all of the equipment, but a good stockman can spot a sick pig, treat that pig and prevent disease from spreading,” he continues. “That’s an intuitive skill. You have to be immediately aware of a pig’s normal actions and be able to tell when something isn’t normal.”

English agrees, pointing out that maximizing your “human” resources will likely be the most cost-effective way in the future to ensure high standards of pig welfare, performance, technical efficiency and business success.

The payoff of good stockmanship varies with the production phase.

In the farrowing house, employees with strong husbandry skills know how to give sows the time they need to get to a certain stage of labor and not intervene until it’s necessary. They watch respiration rates, sow discomfort, time between deliveries, and care for the baby pigs.

In the nursery, you have to watch the pigs when they’re eating, know when they’re holding back and determine why. You may need to take several pig’s temperatures, check the environment or separate animals. 

“The focus has to be on the pig and reading the pig,” says Fangman. “You have to determine if certain pigs need individual attention, then be willing and able to provide it.”

Other benefits of strong stockmanship within a herd include reduced disease morbidity, lower mortality, improved growth rates and increased feed efficiency.

“We tend to view the pigs as a population, but we succeed by working them as individuals,” notes Fangman.

That’s the essence of stockmanship.