"The difference between the best and worst pork operations is the people," says Julie Morrow-Tesch, animal behaviorist with USDA's Agricultural Research Service, West Lafayette, Ind.

This holds true especially when you're handling sows. Granted, you need to be attentive with all pigs, but sows sometimes need extra care.

"Breeding stock reach maximum performance if they are relaxed with their handlers," says Temple Grandin, animal handling and behavior specialist at Colorado State University.

A sow can get excited in about 15 seconds, but it takes 20 to 30 minutes for her to calm down, she adds.

One way to reduce sow stress is to make sure anyone working directly with the sows has positive interactions. That means start by training workers what to expect when working around sows and how to handle the animals.

Grandin says sows will associate bad things with a place, something you carry or the clothes you're wearing. To avoid potential problems, if you have to give shots, only wear red coveralls to do that job. When you're finished, change clothes so sows aren't expecting the worst.

"We try to team someone with a lot of patience with sows with someone who doesn't have as much," explains Chris Hendren, breeding manager for Forkner Farms in Richards, Mo. If one person is getting frustrated when a sow won't cooperate, the other person can step in and help keep things calm. That prevents the sow and employee from getting upset.

To be a good animal handler, Morrow-Tesch says, involves a combination of the following:

  • Knowing the general temperment of your sows and their basic needs.
  • Gaining an attachment with the sows and being patient with them.
  • Developing a good relationship with your sows.
    "We start when they're young," Hendren explains. "If you treat pigs with care, they will respect you and you'll learn to respect them."
  • Recognizing that each animal is different and some may require more time and special attention.
  • Realizing when the sows aren't acting normally – for example, quickly noticing if a sow is experiencing an abnormal amount of discomfort just prior to, or during, farrowing.
  • Organizing your working time so you can give all sows the attention they need and still tend to your other duties.
  • Recognizing your priorities and being willing to attend to individual sows even if it disrupts the schedule.

"We always try to handle sows gently, whether they're 35 days pregnant, gestating or farrowing," says Everett Forkner, owner of Forkner Farms.

Keep in mind that once a sow is bred you shouldn't move her within the first 30 days. This can help prevent abortions or other potential problems.

It's the little things, like using mats in the breeding and washing areas to keep sows from slipping, that help prevent injuries and make sows more at ease, Forkner notes.

"Sows that are handled in a cruel manner, even in passing, will develop a fear of people," Morrow-Tesch says. "Pigs have long memories and they will take their fear of one person to other handlers."

This may occur if pigs were shocked, prodded, kicked, slapped or even beaten. "These fearful pigs will avoid people, and some individual pigs may squeal when people are near or when people touch them," she says.

Sows handled infrequently develop a different kind of fear. Morrow-Tesch says these pigs have a wide flight zone, that's the minimum distance the pig allows a handler to reach before it runs away. These animals run away in fear of the unknown.

Then there are the sows that are comfortable around people. Their comfort is usually a response to positive experiences, such as touching, petting and talking. These animals may approach people and have a negative flight zone.

You know the type, the ones that like to chew on your boots or pant legs. This also can be a detriment, Morrow-Tesch notes. If sows are too comfortable with you, they may be more difficult to move.

When it's time to move sows, there are several things that can make the task easier. The most common is a sorting board. This is made of solid wood, plastic or aluminum with one or two handles.

When moving sows, Forkner always has his employees work in pairs. Wide aisles set up outside the building let sows move easily with two people using large sort boards (about 3 to 4 feet wide). Inside the building the aisles are just wide enough so the sow can't turn around: Forkner Farms workers use short, 2-foot-wide panels in those cases.

Place sort panels in possible problem areas, at the ends of aisles and in every room. This keeps one within reach when you need it.

Spend a little time upfront planning and preparing for the move. "It takes less time to build a gate than to deal with nervous sows," Hendren notes.

Other options for moving sows include slappers and paddles. What about electric prods? Morrow-Tesch says you shouldn't use them on any size pigs.

Hendren agrees. "We don't use hot shocks," he says. "If you use them, the next time you get close to the hog, it will think that's what you're doing and get spooked."

Clapping your hands, whistling, shouting or waving your arms might seem like good way to drive or direct animals. Morrow-Tesch says this can be used if you're in a bind but not as a regular method. Loud noises tend to stress sows.

Moving a bred gilt into a crate for the first time can be a wrestling match; at other times females will walk in calmly. Putting feed in the feeder and on the floor can help entice them. Again working in pairs can help.

"Some sows don't deal well with crates," Hendren says. "If this is the case, we move them to outside gestation pens. This also is wise for old, oversized sows."
Grandin notes that some genotypes simply don't like restricted movement. "Lean, rapidly growing pigs are having more trouble adapting to confinement facilities," she notes.

Keeping a sow comfortable while she is in the crate will help her attitude. That means keeping her a bit cooler than her piglets. Providing individual snout coolers is one way to do that. See that heat lamps hang only above the piglets and that heat mats are kept away from the sows. Also make sure the crates, whether gestation or farrowing, are large enough for the sow to lay down comfortably.

Any time you're working near sows have hand contact with them, Hendren recommends. For instance, if you are checking the feeder or waterer, place your hand on the sow. Treat them a little like pets – develop a friendly relationship with them. Then even when you give a vaccination, handling will be easier. "Never just walk up and surprise a sow with an injection," Forkner adds.

Another of Forkner's suggestions is to make sows stand up to eat instead of allowing them to lay down. But when you do that, don't bang the feed scoop in front of them; go behind the crate and hit the sow on the rump.

Even if you're calm, gentle and friendly around your sows, you're likely to still encounter the occasional challenge. You need to determine whether the sow is having a bad day – perhaps she's ill. Or perhaps her attitude is just bad.

"We ship sows with bad attitudes right away," says Hendren. Cranky sows may kill their pigs and put workers in danger. Considering the added time and frustration involved, they're not worth keeping around.

So attitude – yours or the pigs' – is not to be taken lightly. If you have a positive attitude, it eventually will be reflected in the sows, making them calmer and more productive.
Here are some general principles to consider when you're handling sows during weighing, sorting or moving, says Julie Morrow-Tesch, animal behaviorist with the USDA's Animal Research Service.
These include:

  • Pigs have detailed memories – they remember good and bad experiences.
  • Pigs will follow other pigs.
  • Pigs will explore as they go. Lighting, smells, surfaces, sounds and other animals affect their attention.
  • Always make sure there's nonslip flooring in pens and alleys. For example, you don't want a sow or boar to slip in the breeding area. It will make it a negative experience, and the animals may not breed properly after that.
    "There's no way you can have good handling on a slippery floor," says Temple Grandin, animal behaviorist at Colorado State University.
  • Restraint is very stressful to pigs of all ages, and the reasons for using it have to outweigh the resulting stress reaction.
  • There's a strong correlation between worker attitude and herd productivity. Proper training improves both.
    "It's up to management to train employees right," Grandin says. "There are a lot of training videos available. But just showing the video is not enough. You have to teach workers and illustrate that you're serious about good handling." For instance, if a worker hits a sow with a gate rod, there should be pre-established consequences for that behavior.
  • Touching sows is good, but make sure each experience is positive.

Paul Hemsworth, Melbourne, Australia, and his colleagues have studied how human attitudes affect herd performance. Here's some of what they found.

  • There's a 1.6 pigs per sow per year improvement in herd productivity when employees have positive attitudes toward pigs.
  • As for average daily gain, pigs handled in an unpleasant manner gained 0.88 pound per day; those handled in a pleasant manner gained 1 pound; those handled inconsistently gained 0.925 pound; and those handled minimally gained 1 pound per day.
    Feed efficiency trends were generally the same as average daily gain. The more unpleasant the conditions, the longer it took pigs to gain weight.
  • Gilt fertility also showed similar trends. Only 33 percent of gilts that were bred and handled unpleasantly became pregnant.