Animal handling is the leading cause of worker injuries on pig farms. This includes moving pigs from gestation to farrowing, moving sows to breeding at weaning, loading and unloading trailers, and treating and vaccinating pigs in open pens.
“Learning how pigs perceive and react to their environment in these situations can help producers become more effective handlers,” said the Pork Checkoff’s Karen Hoare. “The goal is to create a safer environment for both pigs and people.”
She added, “Every time workers interact with pigs, the pigs are forming a history of positive and negative experiences. Pigs that have consistent positive human interactions will be easier and safer to handle.”
Pork Checkoff research has helped identify the safest ways to handle pigs. Following are tips for a safe environment.
Understand pigs’ behavior – When a handler enters a pen, pigs will evaluate the situation and decide whether the worker poses a threat. Know their flight zone, which will vary from pig to pig and may change depending on the surroundings or the situation.
Apply appropriate pressure – Pigs are pressured by any action that increases the level of attention they need to give handlers. Approaching and entering a pig’s flight zone is pressure, as is the use of noise, visual stimuli or light physical touch. Once you initiate movement, release pressure. Smooth herd movement in a desired direction results in herd flow.
Position your body – Once a pig begins to move, gauge how to position yourself to apply or release pressure effectively. With every pig, imagine a point-of-balance reference point at the pig’s shoulder.
Use appropriate equipment – Use animal handling tools thoughtfully and minimally, and keep in mind that tools are not substitutes for smart positioning. Know the designed purpose of the tool in your hand and never use barn equipment as a substitute for the appropriate tool.
Set up a route – When moving pigs, preparation is key. Pig instincts make them curious and wary. Allow pigs time to investigate obstacles to make moving less stressful. Anticipate distractions and remove obstacles before moving pigs.
“Excessive pressure or physical force never replaces proper preparation and patience,” Hoare said.
Be alert and read pigs – Be aware to the behavior of pigs and be conscientious about the body language messages you are sending. Take steps to reduce stress, frustration, and the chance of injury to both pigs and people.
To see how your farm compares with others, visit pork.org to participate in the Safety Benchmarking tool.