Everyone knows you need three equally strong and balanced legs to keep a three-legged stool from collapsing. The same is true when it comes to loading, transporting and unloading market hogs. The producer, trucker and packer all must be equally committed to animal handling to ensure the hog's safety and a high quality end product.

The Pork Quality Assurance program has focused producers' attention on the management issues relating to pork quality. The packer has long been under the watchful eye of government inspectors. More recently, food companies like McDonalds, Applebees and Safeway have upped the ante by establishing animal handling standards for their suppliers, in some cases involving on-site audits. Until recently, truckers that haul animals have pretty much been left on their own. For some that may have been good enough, but often there's room for a refresher course.

The National Pork Board's Trucker Quality Assurance program is that course. (See "Strengthening the Forgotten Quality Link" in the November 2001 issue of Pork.)

In a nutshell, TQA is a 2-hour educational program for truckers, notes David Meisinger, National Pork Board director of pork quality. Topics include natural pig behavior, handling pigs, transporting pigs and biosecurity. Each trucker will take a written test that is sent into the NPB office for grading. The trucker must score 90 percent to receive an identifying sticker for his truck.

"It's an excellent program," says Glee Goodner, with Hormel Foods. He expects it to become a verified, audited program for the industry.

The reality is that TQA certification will eventually be required for truckers – including producers – to haul pigs to most, if not all, of the nation's leading pork packers, says Meisinger. "The program has received immediate and solid support from the packing industry,"he adds.

Improvements begin by building awareness, and in this case the focus is on proper animal handling among truckers. But building awareness also applies to producers. "Your hogs are your hogs until they get to the plant," says Goodner. "You need to know what's happening to them after they leave the farm."

So let's review some basic tenants that will help you and your trucker handle pigs in an appropriate manner. First, to be a good handler you have to understand a pig's natural instincts. For example:

  • Pigs have an aversion to pain.
  • They are easily frightened, and frightened pigs don't move as well as calm pigs.
  • Pigs have a tendency to follow each other.
  • They are visual animals, and respond negatively to contrasts.

Signs of stress include:

  • Blotchy and reddened skin.
  • Open-mouth breathing.
  • Muscle tremors.
  • Squealing.

There are genetic differences in hogs and how they respond to handling. Also, some animals still carry the stress gene. "Truckers have to be alert to different types of hogs, and understand that they have to handle some with special attention," says Meisinger.

Health-compromised hogs fall into that category. Animals that have recently dealt with disease or other ailments are more easily stressed.

Part of a successful market hog transport involves planning. You and the trucker need to be aware of weather conditions – especially during transitional seasons. "Rather than waiting until the middle of a fall snow storm to put panels on, we need to get truckers to look at the weather forecast and think ahead," says Goodner.Tell your trucker ahead of time how many hogs you want to load as well as their estimated weight.

Have your facilities ready for the trucker before he arrives. Make sure he can back up easily and tightly to the loading chute. Ensure that lighting, gating, flooring and the overall atmosphere is set up and ready to go.

Don't forget your loading crew. They need to understand hog behavior and proper handling methods, and you have to enforce those procedures. "You need to know how they're loading your hogs," says Meisinger. "That may mean watching and helping with the process until you're confident they're doing it right." You also should conduct periodic spot checks and instructions.

Heat, cold, fear, rough roads, rough handling, electric prodding, crowding, visual distractions, noise all cause stress. In a stressed animal the muscle temperature increases, which lowers the glycogen level and creates an environment for pale soft and exudative pork. What's more, improper handling can create injured and downed animals, and "slows." Producers and truckers tend to forget about slows, which are exhausted animals that can barely go on. They are considered downer animals too, and need to be prevented.

The Food Safety Inspection Service has specific rules about handling downed animals. Downer animals can not be dragged – and that includes on the farm. "In the packing plant we have to make sure that we protect any downed or injured animals," says Goodner. "We have to stop everything, get special equipment and move the animal out of the way."

He emphasizes that producers should euthanize animals that are likely to become downers versus sending them to market. This could include lame, injured, sick animals or pigs with porcine stress syndrome problems.

Beyond bruises and cuts, broken bones create tremendous trim loss. For example, in the case of a broken leg the trim can eliminate the whole ham, part of the loin and belly because of the hemorrhaging that goes with it.

So, what is aggressive handling?

  • Load noises, yelling.
  • Kicking, hitting the animal.
  • Using electric prods. "I guarantee you there will be a time when no electric prods will be used," says Goodner. Hormel quit using prods several years ago, and the packer moves 13,000 hogs a day. "The key is to move hogs in small groups and to keep the pigs calm,"he notes.
  • Moving too many hogs at a time, which causes animals to balk, bulldoze and pile up. "This is probably the biggest contributor," says Goodner. Moving three or four pigs at a time is best.

Sometimes what you see on your operation is not what you get at the packing plant. A trucker may load hogs correctly at your operation, but handle the animals differently at the packer notes Meisinger. If your kill sheets reflect concerns, talk to your packer to find ways to gain a clearer picture.

You should check your truckers' slow-and-dead ratio. "We audit two truckers per shift," notes Goodner. In the future, monitoring truckers may mean hiring additional personnel.

"We have certain standards and any trucker that presents a concern will need to change. If he doesn't, the opportunity to haul hogs will be eliminated. We just can't afford to have problems in that area," Goodner concludes.

3 factors that impact meat quality:
1. Genetics and nutrition.
2. Pre-harvest animal handling.
3. Post-mortem carcass handling and chilling in the packing plant.

Within this category one-third of the responsibility falls on the producer, one-third on the trucker and one-third on the packer.

Why TQA, Why Now?
You know that handling hogs properly on the farm is important, but your job doesn't end there. Some of the most critical handling occurs after the pigs leave your farm. That's why the National Pork Board's Trucker Quality Assurance program is such a vital link.

Here are some additional reasons why you need to make TQA a priority for your trucker:

  • Proper animal handling is the right thing to do – it's the only thing to do.
  • Consumers are demanding it. There is growing concern about animal well-being today, and the public has zero tolerance in this area. "One incident can cause you a lot of trouble," says David Meisinger, who directs the TQA program.
  • It's not just the fast-food industry demanding animal well-being. The whole food industry is getting involved and it's mushrooming.
  • Proper handling reduces the potential of pale, soft and exudative pork and helps ensure a safer and higher quality end product. Downer animals require packers to stop everything and follow certain procedures to remove the animal. Several thousand hogs a year never make it to slaughter. Another 8 percent require some major trim loss.