A swine technical consultant outlines measures to improve the pig handling and loading process.

It takes proper care during shipment, biosecurity to reduce disease spread and top-notch worker safety for the U.S. pork industry to realize a successful market hog transportation program.

Matt Ritter, a swine technical consultant with Elanco Animal Health, says the data shows much work remains to achieve those goals:

  • The national recorded incidence for dead on arrival (DOA) pigs last year was 0.21%.

  • Based on 22 commercial field trials, the rate of non-ambulatory pigs (classified as fatigued or injured) prior to reaching the weigh scale at the packing plant was about 0.37%. No national figures exist for non-ambulatory pigs.

“Adding those two figures together, we get an estimated total of about 0.6% for transport losses. To put that in practical terms, that would be the loss of about one pig per semi-trailer load of pigs,” Ritter notes in an address at the Transportation Biosecurity Summit in Kansas City, MO.

Economically, with an annual slaughter of 104 million hogs, those losses equate to about $53 million annually, he says.

It will take a concerted effort by growers, loading crews, truck drivers and handlers at the packing plant to reverse those losses, Ritter asserts.

Specific actions he recommends:

Do a better job of preparing pigs for transport. Many pigs are raised in 200- to 400-ft.-long, wean-to-finish barns from 21 days of age until they reach market weight 5½ months later. Their only exercise is walking to the feeder and the water source. Ritter recommends that you walk pens daily to acclimate pigs to exercise and reduce excitement during loading.

Routinely move pigs prior to loading. In an Elanco study last summer in North Carolina, pigs on one side of the barn aisle were moved to an outside loading area and then returned to their pens. Pigs on the other side of the aisle were not moved. The next day all pigs were loaded out. Those pigs moved previously took less time to load, showed less signs of stress during loading and had fewer transport losses at the packing plant. “The moral of the story is, if we move pigs one time prior to loading, we can reduce stress,” Ritter says.

Presort pigs prior to loading. “A lot of our larger production systems are starting to move to larger pens where those pigs are being presorted,” he notes. In a recent collaborative study with Anna Johnson at Iowa State University, Ritter compared pens of 192 finishing hogs that were presorted before loading vs. pens of 32 head sorted during loading. Both groups of pigs were in the same barn, sorted by the same crew and placed on the same trailer. “What we found was utilizing large pens and presorting reduced transport losses by 66%,” he says.

Remove feed prior to loading. In an Elanco trial last summer, feed was withdrawn 16 hours before hogs were loaded. This served to reduce transport losses. But remember, Ritter emphasizes, that only applies to the pigs being marketed.

Minimize Stress Conditions

Minimizing stress throughout the marketing period can have an impact on hog marketability, Ritter says. His graduate studies at the University of Illinois clearly showed that pre-slaughter stressors have additive effects on body temperature and metabolic acid values.

In this trial, moving pigs singly out of the barn using a slow and calm pace, transporting them at an optimal floor space of 5.25 sq. ft./290-lb. market hog, and using a paddle to walk them a short distance of 75 ft. to mimic unloading at the packing plant resulted in pigs experiencing minimal stress, he explains.

Stress reduction can be accomplished by preparation and communication, according to Ritter.

Prepare the facilities for load out by ensuring there is adequate lighting, replacing any broken cleats on loading chutes and spreading absorbent materials (wood shavings, rice hulls, etc.) on the floor to prevent hogs from slipping and injuring themselves.

Turn fans down to minimal ventilation in tunnel-ventilated barns prior to loading to prevent pigs from getting blasted with air at the doorway to the loading chute.

Communications are essential between the driver and the loading crew to safeguard the clean-dirty line for biosecurity, he notes. Discuss loading strategy.

“Our goal is to minimize the distance pigs are moved during loading,” Ritter observes. If this is not possible, consider these two simple strategies:

  1. Take pigs from the front of the barn and put them on the top deck of the trailer.

  2. Take pigs from the back of the barn and put them on the bottom deck of the trailer.

These actions are designed to reduce stress at the farm during the loading process, he says.

Tools to Move Pigs

Moving pigs with paddles and sort boards is always preferable to using electric prods, Ritter states. His research studies indicate that stress is minimized when pigs are moved with two or less shocks from an electric prod from barn pen to trailer.

Use electric prods only as a last resort to move pigs. Before using an electric prod, try the alternative handling methods. First, tap the pig with the wand of the prod without pushing the power button. Next, shock the gate or ceiling. “Sometimes that noise is enough to stimulate those pigs to move,” he suggests. If that doesn't work, try gently tapping the pigs with your hand or calmly pushing pigs.

Follow these guidelines when using an electric prod:

  • Never use the prod in the pens during loading;

  • Never shock a pig in a sensitive area. This is a willful act of abuse and may result in automatic termination of an employee;

  • Place the electric prod on the back behind the shoulders, which research has shown to be the most effective place to shock a pig in order to get it to move forward; and

  • Never shock a pig longer than one second, and don't repeat a shock for at least five seconds.

If it appears that more than two electric shocks are needed to move pigs from the barn pen to the trailer, Ritter suggests reevaluating your facility design and handling procedures.

During the loading process, if pigs express any signs of stress, open-mouthed breathing or blotchy skin, they should be sorted off to the resting pen rather than loaded. Any pigs having difficulty walking should also be sorted off.

“The goal is to identify and sort those pigs off before they become non-ambulatory,” he explains. If they cannot walk, use a sled to move them to a recovery pen. If the pig hasn't recovered in 2-3 hours, chances are it is not going to recover and should be euthanized.

Trailer Environment

To optimize environmental conditions, hogs should be showered in summer prior to transport and provided adequate bedding in winter. Boarding up the trailer can help protect pigs from frostbite in winter. Refer to the National Pork Board's Transport Quality Assurance program recommendations for more details (www.pork.org).

Finally, once trailers are loaded, it is imperative that trucks leave immediately and avoid undue stops to prevent rising temperatures inside the trailer, Ritter says.