Transport losses — dead and non-ambulatory pigs at the packing plant — are a multi-factorial problem. Growers, loading crews, truck drivers and animal handlers at the packing plant influence these losses, and attempts to reduce them require teamwork and communication among all of the parties.

Management strategies to reduce transport losses need to include training programs for handlers and drivers, preparing pigs for transport, preparing facilities for load-out, improving loading crew and driver communications and minimizing animal stress throughout the marketing process. So, let’s take a look at each of these areas.

Implement Training Programs

Implementing training programs and developing standard operating procedures for pig handling and transport can go a long way in reducing related losses. The National Pork Board’s Transport Quality Assurance program is recognized as the pork industry’s best practices for swine handling and transportation, and thus, all handlers and drivers should become TQA certified. 

By developing standard operating procedures, you establish expectations for your production system and ensure consistency across all loading crews and drivers. If you take the time to develop SOPs, make sure that the protocols are being used to train all employees. Also, conduct internal audits to check for compliance with those SOPs and to retrain handlers and drivers whenever non-compliance issues surface.

During the past seven years, Elanco Animal Health has assisted numerous pork producers across the United States by providing training programs for loading crews and drivers. This includes developing presentations for handlers and drivers, a loading-density calculator, electronic SOP templates for pig handling and transport, and a load-site assessment form that can be used to conduct internal audits. There’s also a free monthly e-newsletter called Hog-Handling Update that shares practical tips for pig handling. (For more information on these resources, call (800) 428-4441.)

Prepare Pigs for Transport

Swine finishing facilities typically run 200 to 400 feet long, and often the loading chute is located at one end of the building. As a result, pigs located at one end of the barn may have a long distance to move during the loading process. That may not seem significant, but keep in mind the typical movement that grow/finish pigs experience is within a familiar pen and walking from the feeder to the waterer. 

Therefore, when it comes time to move pigs down a long alley, the trip and surroundings will be dramatically unfamiliar. Plan to prepare finishing pigs for the marketing process by walking the pens daily, routinely moving pigs from their home pen to the load-out area during the grow/finish period. Pre-sort market-weight pigs from pen mates prior to loading, and withdraw feed 16 hours prior to loading pigs.  

Prepare Facilities for Load-out

Prior to marketing day, the first step of loading pigs is preparing the facilities for the task. Make sure there is adequate lighting in the load-out area, as pigs prefer to move from dark to well-lit areas. Reduce all visual gaps between the trailer, loading chute and building because pigs will see these gaps as a distraction and may even try to escape. Inspect walkways, doorways and loading chutes to make sure these areas are free of sharp objects that may injure or bruise pigs during loading. Replace any broken cleats on the loading chute. Place solid partitions on the gates near the first two pens by the doorway to further minimize distractions as you move hogs to the chute. Spread an absorbent material (wood shavings, barn lime, rice hulls) in the load-out area to prevent pigs from slipping and getting injured. 

Also, if you are loading out of a tunnel-ventilated barn, drop the curtains and turn the fans down to minimal ventilation prior to loading. This helps reduce the amount of wind blowing into the building. 

Improve Loading Crew and Driver Communication

Prior to loading hogs, the loading crew and driver need to discuss the clean/dirty line boundaries, pig weight, number of pigs to load, where the pigs are coming from in the barn and the load’s final destination. Loading crews and drivers should adjust load size to accommodate the pigs’ weight and the trailer length. 

Additionally, the loading crew and driver need to develop a loading strategy to minimize the distance that the pigs are moved during loading. If it’s not possible to minimize loading distances, consider loading the pigs from the front of the barn onto the trailer’s top deck. Load the pigs from the back of the barn onto the bottom deck.

Minimize Stress throughout the Marketing Process

Pre-harvest stressors have additive effects on the pigs’ physiological responses during handling and transport. So, removing just one stressor during the marketing process can improve the pigs’ well-being. Just as importantly, research has demonstrated that the majority of stressed and fatigued pigs will recover after two to three hours of rest. Therefore, prior to loading pigs, designate a resting pen that you can use to sort off any pigs showing signs of stress (open-mouth breathing, skin discoloration and/or muscle tremors) or that are having difficulty walking. 

Also, handlers and drivers should move pigs in groups of four to six pigs at a slow and calm pace by using sorting boards and plastic livestock paddles. It’s well established that aggressive handling with electric prods increases the rate of non-ambulatory pigs. Therefore, electric prods should only be used as a last resort. If electric prods are necessary, do not exceed two shocks per pig from barn pen to trailer compartment. This recommendation is based on a study that reported no differences in rectal temperature or blood acid-base balance for market-weight pigs moved at their own pace for 164 feet through a handling course using plastic livestock paddles or that received two shocks from an electric prod. As such, we recommend that only the person moving pigs out of the doorway should have access to an electric prod. If more than two shocks per pig are needed to load, then your facility design and handling procedures should be re-evaluated.

Other stress-reducing strategies include not mixing unfamiliar pigs during transport (if feasible), using loading densities of 55 pounds to 58 pounds per square foot, optimizing the environment (temperature, drafts, bedding) inside the trailer and avoiding unnecessary stops during transport. Before every load, drivers need to evaluate the weather conditions and adjust their trailers accordingly in order to provide a safe and comfortable environment for the pigs. For more detailed information on proper trailer settings, see NPB’s TQA Handbook.