As the industry continues its search for ideal gestation housing solutions, one truth keeps surfacing. Regardless of the system, it’s the care and attention given to each animal that’s most important. Simply put, good animal care is good business.

That means the place to start is to take a close look at your sow-handling techniques. “By utilizing good handling techniques and minimizing stress on sows, you will see improvement in several areas,” says Mark Whitney, University of Minnesota swine specialist. Making sure that all your animal handlers have adopted this priority is a proven benefit.

An Australian study found that training caretakers on proper sow-handling techniques reduced negative handling incidents more than 30 percent. The study also revealed that farms with trained handlers produced 1.6 more pigs per sow per year and improved reproductive performance 7 percent compared to the control farms in the study.

Environmental stress is among the first areas to address when considering post-weaning, sow-handling issues. Temperatures are often overlooked as a factor that adds stress. Pig-level temperatures exceeding 70°F can significantly increase stress and the potential for fighting. Without cooling assistance such as drippers and fans, performance will suffer.

Avoid getting animals excited as you move them into their post-farrowing housing. It can take up to a half hour for an animal’s heart rate to return to normal after rough or stressful handling. Handlers should always move slowly, calmly and deliberately. Sudden movements, arm waving or yelling agitate animals and add stress.

“If this type of stress is occurring during the wean-to-estrous cycle — three to eight days prior to breeding — you can see reduced feed intake, which reduces the sow’s reproductive performance,” Whitney says.  

Handlers must try to build sows’ trust in them. What’s more, handlers that are tuned in to the sows often can predict behavior and use the animals’ natural instincts to their advantage. Sows tend to like to stay in groups and follow a leader. Moving sows in small groups of three or four can take advantage of this social behavior to reduce stress.

Sows are easily distracted and will naturally want to stop and check out anything unusual in their path. Remove objects in the alley before attempting to move sows, and avoid situations that can disrupt or interfere with their movement.

Sudden changes in the appearance or composition of flooring also will impede easy movement. If a floor is slippery, it will cause pigs to balk and be reluctant to proceed. Open gates should be secured so that they don’t flap or close as the animals pass by.

Sudden noises increase the excitement quotient and excess noise causes animals to act unpredictably, which can increase the injury potential for either the animal or the handler.

Sows naturally like to explore, but keep in mind that they may be searching for a possible escape route. Since sows have a strong, natural urge to escape, make sure no gaps are present in pens, alleyways, ramps or chutes. Again, escape attempts can easily lead to injuries.

You can use lighting to your advantage. Sows will move more readily from areas that are dimly lit toward brighter or well-lit areas. So, if you can, dim the areas where you are moving pigs from and use brighter lighting in the areas you are moving them toward. However, ensure that lights do not strike the sows directly in the eyes or they will avoid the area.

“At all costs, avoid the use of electric prods when moving sows,” Whitney says. “Prod use has been shown to severely reduce reproductive performance.” Don’t even have them available for use in the gestation barn.

Use sorting boards when moving pigs. A hinged panel can be helpful to separate animals for sorting purposes. Shaker paddles also can help move animals. Handle sows with patience and respect.

If you are considering making changes in your sow facilities, be sure to make alleyways wide enough for sows to comfortably move through, but not wide enough for them to be able to turn around. “We don’t want sows to be able to turn around when they are being moved,” Whitney says. Swinging gates at certain intervals can be helpful in preventing sows from backing up and retracing their path.

How you handle sows after weaning and especially around the time they are re-bred will have a significant impact on the number of eggs fertilized, attached and ultimately, the number of viable fetuses. About 10 to 14 days post-breeding, the fertilized eggs begin to attach to the uterine wall. “From 10 days after breeding until about four weeks after implantation occurs is perhaps the most sensitive period during which you need to minimize sow stress,” Whitney notes. “Any stress at this critical point can prevent embryos from implanting and can result in the sow aborting the embryos that have attached.”

In group housing, fighting is probably the biggest potential stressor when sows are re-grouped after farrowing. “If possible, you should avoid grouping sows right after weaning,” according to Whitney. However, if this isn’t an option — and that’s increasingly becoming the case — he recommends mixing sows according to weight and parity. The ultimate goal is to reduce the amount of fighting, competition and injuries that occur during the critical periods surrounding breeding.

If grouping is done by weight and parity, it should reduce bullying, but close observation during feeding times is recommended. “Make sure that the more timid sows are eating enough to increase their body condition and to help ovulation and fertilization rates,” Whitney says. This may involve trying different feeding systems or setting up feeding stations.

Handlers certainly can be a major source of stress on sows. Emphasize to workers the importance of positive interactions between them and the sows, and the fact that they need to work to avoid negative interactions. “If you consider the person a ‘hothead,’ he or she is probably not a good candidate to be working in the gestation barn,” Whitney says. Find a place where the worker has less direct interaction with animals.

Handlers must have patience, be even tempered and calm. A person’s demeanor or overall understanding of the animal’s instincts probably can’t be changed in the short term, although training can help in the longer term.

Emphasize that handlers need to give the animals their full attention while they’re in direct contact with them. Always remain standing, never trust an animal fully and always be aware that a sow or boar can present a significant safety hazard. Handlers should be aware of escape routes to follow if a dangerous situation develops that threatens their safety.    

To reduce stress during vaccinations and treatments, use restraints on the sow that ensure the animal’s and the handler’s safety. Remember, sows can retain unpleasant or painful experiences for up to a month. Therefore, have someone other than the regular barn crew do the injections or draw blood. Some farms use a separate crew to treat animals, even going as far as wearing different color clothing. 

Keeping sow productivity high has never been more important than today. Take time to evaluate your sow-handling techniques and review your handler training programs. By minimizing stress on sows, you can see a significant improvement in reproductive performance.