Your best efforts in genetics, breeding, nutrition, animal health, housing and more go into each hog you market. You want to maximize the number of animals through your system and be rewarded for your work. Now, are you up to the last test?

Transporting animals poses one of the last threats to your investment. Losses can result from shrinkage, penalties due to bruising, injured animals or even “dead-on-arrivals.” In addition, transportation has grown into a major area of concern for animal-welfare activists.

“Animal -rights groups will target transportation   over the next several years,” warns Jennifer Woods, livestock-handling specialist.

Highly regulated and restrictive animal transportation laws in Europe offer a warning of what could unfold in the United States if the pork chain fails to adopt best transportation practices. “Europe’s emotion-based animal transportation laws are made by people who don’t have the knowledge of what goes on in the industry regarding animal well-being,” Woods says. “We need to step up and pay more attention to livestock transportation. He who controls transport will control the industry.”

While there’s no way to completely eliminate animal stress from transport, you can avoid excess stress. Meat quality suffers, non-ambulatory pigs are docked and bruising reduces yield. Pale, soft and exudative pork can result, which reduces quality and reduces your check. 

Careful management of the loading and off-loading crews will reduce animal stress and limit your transport loss.

Start with load-out

Start by reviewing animals to ensure that they are fit to travel. “You cannot load animals that are sick, injured or weak,” Woods says. Avoid transporting animals that can’t move without suffering — such as sows in late gestation, crippled animals or animals in poor body condition. Animals unfit for transport must be allowed time to recover first, or you must euthanize them on the farm.

See that your crew avoids rough handling such as striking pigs with objects, or excess noise or commotion. This usually occurs with untrained or poorly trained handlers. Understand that training for those protocols is an on-going process. “People forget and revert to their old ways,” Woods says. “Cull handlers with bad attitudes.”

Observe handlers often; the best managers get out and watch the crew load. If you’re still using electric prods to load animals, work toward taking them away. Prod use often indicates poor training or poorly designed facilities. Paddles, capes and sorting boards are better tools. Patience also pays off.

If pigs are unfamiliar with the people doing the load-out, the stress level will rise. Instead, the barn crew should do the load-out, and they should wear the same color coveralls as for their daily tasks. Also, pigs that are used to handlers walking the pens tend to face less stress during the load-out process.

Eliminate sharp corners, protruding objects and blind alleyways. Embrace the pigs’ herd instinct. They like to travel side-by-side and actually behave better with a buddy.

Ideally, use loading ramps with an incline of 10 degrees or less. Every degree of increased slope results in a 4 percent increase in heart rate, Woods says. Footing is critical. Replace broken cleats immediately, and make sure the ramp is stable. “You need to repair things right away,” Woods notes. “Keep the facility in good repair. Budget for it and maintain staff for it.”

It’s best to withdraw feed two to four hours before loading animals to reduce motion sickness and vomiting. However, provide water up until transport and immediately after unloading. If possible, avoid mixing pigs from different locations within the same trailer compartment to reduce fighting and stress.

Watch the weather forecast for shipping days and consider re-scheduling when excessive wind chill, heat or cold are predicted. 

On the road

Death loss during transport can cut into your check. A survey of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture’s packer membership showed that about 80,000 hogs die in transit annually. It’s estimated that 70 percent of those losses occur on the truck, with the balance occurring immediately after delivery at the slaughter plant.

Focusing on handling techniques, reducing pig stress, proper loading density and weather factors will help you minimize transport loss and improve animal well-being.

Matt Ritter, technical consultant, Elanco Animal Health; and Mike Ellis, University of Illinois, examined the effects of trailer design and seasonal variability in transport losses on more than 17,000 market-weight pigs. “As expected, death rates spike in July and August — the hottest time of the year — as pigs have difficulty in coping with heat stress,” Ritter says.

Another key finding: It took almost 16 minutes longer to unload pot-belly trailers than straight-deck trailers. Signs of stress during unloading also were higher with the pot-belly trailers. “However, we found no effect of trailer type in this particular study when we looked at total transport losses,” Ritter notes.

A common question is how many pigs should be loaded onto a trailer? “Over-crowding is a significant cause of stress and leads to poor animal welfare,” says Terry Whiting, Manitoba Agriculture Food and Rural Initiatives. “Don’t load heavy market pigs (267 to 300 pounds) at more than 60 pounds per square foot per hog or you’ll have dead pigs.” He stresses that this guideline must be honored in each trailer compartment.

While trailer ventilation is under-studied, it’s widely accepted that it’s critical to reduce animal stress and loss. In hot weather, fans may be necessary to help with ventilation.

“As we continue to improve trailer design, we also need to focus on drivers,” Ritter says. “The driver effect is more important than the trailer effect.”

Hire experienced drivers with thorough training in animal handling. The National Pork Board’s Transport Quality Assurance program is a must. “Become familiar with it; take the course yourself, and require your drivers to take it,” Woods says. (See sidebar.)

Of course, the weather is less controllable. It can affect death loss, shrink and carcass losses. In very cold weather, frostbite can occur from wind chill or metal on the truck and lead to extra trim on the slaughter floor. Dry straw bedding is helpful and drivers must be constantly aware of animal exposure through open slats and board them up when necessary.

“The worst time of the year for total transport loss, which includes non-ambulatory pigs, is the September/December period,” Ritter says, “and more research is needed to know why.”

To counter heat’s effect, hogs are routinely transported at night. If transported during a hot summer day, reduce the number of hogs by 15 percent to 20 percent to give each animal more space.

Don’t use straw bedding in hot weather; use wet shavings instead, recommends Temple Grandin, ColoradoStateUniversity animal scientist. If the temperature exceeds 80º F, pigs should be sprinkled immediately after loading and whenever the truck stops for more than a couple minutes. “The driver should not stop the trailer if there’s a big line-up at the plant,” Woods notes. “It’s important to keep moving because the pigs will overheat.”

Unloading: the final stage

When it comes to unloading pigs at the plant, you’re at the mercy of the plant workers. However, a good driver will participate on your behalf and ensure that animal care is a priority.

Pigs can lose up to 5 percent of their bodyweight in a four-hour trip. A longer trip may actually be less stressful as it gives pigs time to rest and recover from the load-out. Pigs may be exhausted and certainly disoriented, so it’s important that unloading is a calm process, allowing them time to get off the trailer. If a pig is fatigued, ill or injured, it should be segregated immediately. An injured or downed animal needs to be euthanized on the trailer.

Overall, it’s important to determine who’s involved in each transport stage. Make sure that each individual understands his/her responsibilities and the required operating procedures. Provide continuous on-site animal-handling and behavior training, as well as written reference materials and instruction documentation. See that handlers and drivers have emergency telephone numbers.

Conduct a complete transport analysis of your operation. Include facilities and equipment, trailer types, drivers, load-out and unloading crews, load density, time in transport and weather conditions. Keep detailed records on each load shipped, then compare those records to transport losses incurred. Use the information to identify shortfalls, implement changes to minimize losses and improve animal well-being.

You’ll reduce your transport losses and be better prepared for possible curves in the road. “We will see audits done on our transportation practices, including load-out and unloading,” Woods predicts, “and it will be here quicker than you think.”


TQA: It’s Not Just for Drivers

An improved Transport Quality Assurance program is replacing National Pork Board’s former Trucker Quality Assurance program. The new TQA is designed to encompass everyone involved in moving and transporting pigs throughout the chain.

Packers and producers have started requiring drivers to be TQA-certified in order to haul pigs. But the new program has been broadened to include loading crews and receiving crews as well as packing plant employees.

“With the new name, we hope to avoid the misconception that the program is only intended for truck drivers,” explains Erik Risa, NPB’s education program manager. “We have a bigger target audience and want to encourage more individuals to participate.” To reach this goal, the new program includes an animal-handling emphasis.

The program also has been expanded beyond market-weight pigs. “Weaned and feeder pigs are being transported all around the country, as well as market sows and boars,” Risa says. “So, the program now addresses all production phases and encourages anyone involved in handling and transporting pigs to become certified.”

The program outlines recommended loading, unloading and transport techniques.   “We also cover animal behavior because it’s beneficial for participants to have an understanding of this while handling the animals,” Risa adds, “and it improves animal well-being.”

Additional program topics look at facilities and their effect on pig handling, biosecurity to prevent disease spread and animal fitness for transport. For example, the truck biosecurity principles review trailer washing, disinfection and proper drying protocols.

“The program provides recommendations and information on stocking densities for all weight classes,” Risa notes. “Cold and hot weather impact stocking densities, and there are recommendations on how much space is required for different weather conditions.”

There’s also information on developing an emergency response plan. “Unfortunately, accidents still happen, so the program covers how to be prepared in such an event,” Risa says.

Broadening the program’s audience has enabled the pork industry to demonstrate a proactive stance to consumers and other industry watchers, illustrating that animal-handling and transport certification are important issues. 

Anyone interested in completing the program should go to NPB’s Web site at www.pork.org. If you enter your zip code, it will identify the nearest training location; there are 230 trained TQA advisers. To become certified, you must complete the two-hour course and successfully pass an exam. For more information, call (800) 456-7675.


Transport Losses Reflect Progress

The death rate of market hogs at packing plants due to transport loss peaked at 0.30 percent in 1998. It has since dropped to 0.22 percent in 2002, where it has remained constant through 2006. (Statistics for 2007 are not yet completed.)

“Although the data do not indicate progress over the last several years, in fact, the opposite is true,” says Matt Ritter, technical consultant, Elanco Animal Health. Ritter co-authored a transportation study involving more than 17,000 market-weight hogs. Ritter points out that the numbers don’t reflect more improvement largely because in recent years, some packers have been more proactive in euthanizing non-ambulatory hogs upon arrival at the plant. Those animals are now classified as dead-on-arrivals.