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Good Pig Handling Starts With Understanding Behaviour

Bernie Peet is president of Pork Chain Consulting Ltd. of Lacombe, Alberta, and editor of Western Hog Journal. His columns will run every second week in the Manitoba Co-operator.

Effective pig handling for transport starts with understanding the pig’s herd responses and movement patterns, according to Nancy Lidster, an animal-handling specialist based in White Fox, Sask.

This requires drivers recognize and respond appropriately to pigs’ physical cues, especially signs of changing fear or defensiveness, she told delegates at the Banff Pork Seminar, held January 18-21. In addition, she says, drivers must also respond to what pigs are paying attention to and where that is drawing them.

Lidster has used video to capture and analyze pig handlers of all skill levels working with pigs in a variety of situations, and uses the videos in her pig-handling training programs. In 2007, she travelled with transport drivers and mounted video cameras in their trailers while they picked up and delivered both feeder pigs and market hogs, accumulating 60 hours of video.

“By watching handlers of all skill levels working with pigs in a variety of situations, we find recurring patterns in the interactions between pigs and handlers,” Lidster says. “The truly amazing handlers show us what is possible, and demonstrate skills that can help all handlers move pigs more effectively. Handlers who struggle help us understand the causes of pig-handling problems, and how we can avoid them.”

Video allows the capture, comparison, and sharing of these pig-handling models so handlers can gain from the knowledge and experience of other handlers, Lidster notes.

The video collected provided the basis for a pig-handling course for truckers, which is available via classroom delivery or online. The course is broken down into sections covering basic pig-handling concepts, as well as loading and unloading of each compartment of a pot trailer.

“The relatively small, crowded spaces of transport trailers, and the restricted openings to some trailer compartments, limit pigs’ ability to move and respond freely to drivers and other pigs,” Lidster notes. “These conditions invite a shift in pig responses that can be problematic, especially for drivers who don’t understand them and try to use a chase approach to force pig movement.”

PIGS’ INSTINCTS

“Any time we start moving pigs, their behaviour tends to become defensive or safety oriented and they try to respond to us in ways that let them get release from our pressure, keep us out of their flight zones, keep track of us, and stay with the herd,” Lidster continues.

“Pigs’ efforts to meet all these safety needs produce predictable response patterns. If we understand those patterns and the conditions that trigger them, we can anticipate and manipulate pigs’ responses to our advantage.

“When we allow pigs to meet their safety needs, they stay calm and relatively easy to control. However, when pigs are not allowed to meet these needs, we see a number of changes as they become more scared or more defensive.”

For example, Lidster says, they are more likely to circle back or bunch together and less likely to “flow.”

Pig-moving problems usually occur because the handler failed to recognize and respond appropriately to pigs’ natural movement patterns and to pigs’ defensive or fear-driven changes in behaviour, she says.

HUMAN INSTINCTS

We are often unaware of our own instincts when moving pigs, Lidster suggests.

“Unmonitored and unchecked, our instincts are to chase animals to make them move,” she says. “We tend to work too much behind pigs, use too much pressure, and not give release. Emotions such as feeling rushed, anxious, or frustrated tend to intensify our instinctive responses and make matters worse.”

When handlers use fear to chase pigs they often shove into pigs’ flight zones and show no regard for the pigs’ other “safety” needs. When pigs can’t get away from a handler who is chasing them, they switch tactics, such as circling back or to stop moving.

“Handlers who move pigs effectively tend to be more aware and responsive to their pigs’ behaviour, and less driven by their own instincts,” Lidster notes.

“They read and respond to the pigs’ body language cues and adjust their own behaviour to make it safer and easier for pigs to go where they want them to go.”

THE LINK BETWEEN FEAR AND HERD BEHAVIOUR

Pigs are usually moved in groups and display some form of herd behaviour, Lidster explains. Their herd behaviour takes three distinct forms:

Flowing – the herd is moving. Pigs move to stay with the herd.

Bunching – the herd is stopped. Pigs stop moving and bunch together to stay with the herd.

Circling – pigs circle to avoid a handler’s pressure.

“The different forms of herd behaviour are not inherently good or bad; their usefulness depends on what we are trying to accomplish,” she says. “Flowing herd behaviour produces the movement we typically want and is most likely to occur when pigs are calm and have ample space to move around.”

Ease of pig movement is largely determined by how well we manage pigs’ herd behaviour, Lidster concludes.

“The close confines of a trailer naturally shift pigs’ herd responses in the direction of bunching or circling,” she says. “Thus it is important to keep pigs calm, use our position effectively, and manage pigs’ herd behaviour.”

The online pig-handling course can be found at www.dnlfarm straining.com.

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BERNIE PEET

Peet on Pigs

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