Finishing pig losses during transport from the farm to the packing plant are a major concern to the U.S. pork industry. Such loses include pigs that die (dead on arrival = DOA) or become non-ambulatory (can’t walk or have great difficulty walking) during the journey. Estimates suggest that the U.S. rate of DOA and non-ambulatory animals is about 0.2 percent and 0.8 percent of pigs transported, respectively.
In many cases, most non-ambulatory animals (commonly called “fatigued”) are caused by an extreme response to transport stresses. Fatigued pigs can result at any stage, including loading at the farm, the actual journey or unloading at the plant. Because this is a stress-related phenomenon, it’s important to minimize stress on the animal throughout the entire transport process.
Transportation is a novel experience for the pig and it’s likely to present some stress. However, research shows that it is possible to transport pigs with minimum stress and low losses, if you follow some basic principles. Let’s take a look.
Good animal-handling practices: Proper handling is key to minimizing stress on the pig. It starts with well-trained, motivated people who understand pig behavior and can handle pigs quietly and calmly. Select a loading crew and train the people properly.
Well-designed facilities: The design needs to facilitate moving groups of pigs from the pen onto the trailer with minimum stress. Aisle width, potential distractions and loading ramp angle are among the critical design aspects to consider. Too often these are sub-optimal in many commercial units.
The greater distance that you have to move pigs during loading, the greater stress they will experience. Many modern finishing facilities are more than 100 yards long, moving pigs from one end to a loading ramp at the other end increases the incidence of fatigued pigs. Locating loading ramps at both ends or in the middle of the building would reduce this problem. If this is not feasible, and pigs have to move long distances, let them rest in a holding pen before loading. Create a holding pen by emptying pens nearest to the loading ramp.
Minimize the number of stressors: Fatigued pigs can be caused by one extreme stressor, such as bad handling or they can result from several less severe stressors. Pigs are exposed to many potential stressors during transportation, such as extreme temperatures, mixing groups and road or driving conditions. Minimizing the number, intensity and duration of stressors will reduce the incidence of fatigued animals.
Prepare the pig for transport: This includes familiarizing the animal with some of the events. For example, walk the pens and let pigs move out of the pen into the aisle. Those practices that can help reduce the animals’ stress responses. Pigs have good memories, so a bad previous experience, such as aggressive handling using electric prods, can increase its stress response to subsequent handling, such as during loading.
Fasting pigs for 24 hours prior to transport has been shown to reduce transport losses. Consider this approach if your facilities and management practices allow it.
Transport conditions: We have limited knowledge of the conditions that the pig experiences during transport. But crowding pigs on the trailer can substantially increase losses. Our research suggests that floor space around 1.75 square feet per 100 pounds live weight minimizes transport loss. That’s about 4.73 square feet per pig averaging 270 pounds. Take special care during extreme weather conditions (more than 70° F or less than 32° F) to avoid major temperature stress on the animals while on the trailer.