Several recent events have sharpened the focus on pig care. Videos on the Internet or television have exposed terrible pig care, and they were viewed with disgust by the pork industry and society.

While those images represent a very small minority of the pig production units and people, they cast a bad light on all. But the people on the front lines of pig care can change those perceptions. These are the people that breed and farrow sows, care for nursery pigs, operate grow/finish barns, manage pigs as they move to harvest and many other jobs. Last month this column outlined ideas for an on-farm pig care and welfare program, of which pig handling is an important part.

Proper handling practices have positive effects on pigs. Australian researchers showed that aversive handling dramatically impacts reproductive performance. The researchers raised gilts under three handling regimens:  pleasant (the human stroked the gilt upon approach), minimal (gilts were ignored during daily chores) and rough (the human gave the gilt a one-second electrical shock on approach). After first mating, gilts exposed to pleasant handling had a pregnancy rate of 88 percent; gilts exposed to rough handling had a 33 percent rate. The gilts remembered these bad experiences, which impacted conception.

Similar responses have been observed with grow/finish pigs. Pleasant handling resulted in a 12 percent improvement in daily gain and 6 percent better feed efficiency compared to rough-handled pigs. Inconsistent handling (one session of rough handling for every five sessions of pleasant handling) was just as detrimental to growth as continuous
rough handling. 

So, pleasant, gentle handling applied consistently by all workers on a farm can encourage optimal pig performance. Certainly, low-stress, quiet handling during loading and transport reduces carcass bruising, and pigs exposed to pleasant handling throughout their lives will load with less stress. Low stress during loading and immediately before harvest will minimize quality issues like pale, soft and exudative, or dark, firm and dry pork. Both compromise pork products’ appeal and value.

Several practices can help move pigs and reduce stress for people and pigs. Here are some worth adopting:

  • Positive attitude — Maintain a positive attitude about working with pigs and realize that pigs sense pain and distress and have very long memories. 
  • Be patient — Often moving slower gets the job done faster. Slow, steady, quiet movements by stockpeople will reduce the chance that pigs will get frightened and panic.
  • Use proper equipment — Use stockboards, rattle paddles, flags and tarps to move pigs rather than sticks and electric prods. 
  • Facilities — They must be properly maintained to allow efficient movement of pigs. Consider retrofitting facilities as needed. 
  • Lighting — Maintain consistent lighting throughout alleyways, loading chutes and trucks, and see that it’s similar to the light in the pigs’ living space. Avoid dim and bright lights to prevent shadows and glare.
  • Small groups — Move small groups of pigs (three to six animals) at a time. The stockperson driving the pigs from behind should be able to reach the lead pigs with a paddle or flag. Gently coaxing a lead pig that balks is more effective than trying to push the trailing pigs to get the group to move forward.  
  • Eliminate distractions — Maintain consistent air flow, flooring type, colors and gate design in alleyways and load-out chutes. Use solid partitions closest to the chute entrance to keep pigs from stopping to “talk” with other pigs. Remove brooms, shovels and other objects for pigs to stop and investigate. 
  • Consistent handling — Be sure all stockpeople use positive handling practices throughout the pig’s life and during load-out. Pigs will learn to relax and will be more likely to enter a new environment.

Anyone handling pigs should attend a Transport Quality Assurance certification program. The pay off will be improved pig movement and reduced worker stress.