Simple Changes Can Reduce Hog Transport Losses

Bernie Peet Peet on Pigs

Losses of pigs between the farm and the point of slaughter can be reduced significantly by relatively simple changes to facilities and handling, according to two speakers at the recent Red Deer Swine Technology Workshop.

Dr. Jennifer Brown from the Prairie Swine Centre described an observational study of 10 commercial farms where loading facilities and handling practices were compared with best practice. American hog transport specialist, Dr. Matt Ritter, with Elanco Animal Health, discussed ways in which losses on the truck and at the plant can be reduced.

Stress at loading not only has an economic impact but also has welfare implications, says Dr. Brown. Stress results in longer loading times, increased death losses, more fatigued pigs, bruising and meat quality issues, she points out. Also welfare concerns impact consumer confidence in the industry.

The 10 farms she studied were recommended by truckers and producers as having good loading facilities and each farm was surveyed with regard to management practices, in addition to observing loading and measuring the barn and loadout facilities.

What we observed was that group size at loading varied from three to 20 pigs, whereas smaller groups of five to eight pigs are recommended, Dr. Brown explains. We also noted that there were distractions which caused pigs to balk. These were usually caused by handlers or truckers getting ahead of the pigs, slowing down their movement.

Improving handling practices boils down to three key areas: tools, technique and attitude, she believes. Minimal use of electric prods is essential to low-stress loading, she says. Good loading technique requires an understanding of the pig s flight zone and herd behaviour. Pigs must also have a point of release from the handler otherwise they will either stop moving or turn around and move in the wrong direction.

Lighting important

All the farms observed had ramp angles of zero to 11 degrees, less than the recommended maximum of 20 degrees. However, lighting levels were variable and this impacted the ease of movement. Good lighting is essential for loadout facilities, stresses Dr. Brown. Ideally pigs should move from a darker area, such as the pen, to a much lighter area such as daylight at the loadout.

While good loadout design, especially alleys, pre-loading pens and ramps, plays a key part in ensuring stress-free movement and loading, changes to facilities take time and cost money. However, simple changes can be very effective, Dr Brown notes. Provision of better lighting, the removal of distractions and improving the handler s attitude and skills will have a big impact, she says.

Substantial losses

Improving the well-being of pigs during transport and reducing the incidence of dead and non-ambulatory pigs are animal-welfare priorities, believes Dr. Matt Ritter. He notes that the annual cost of transport losses to the U.S. pork industry is $46 million. Dr. Ritter defines two types of non-ambulatory pigs; those that are fatigued and those that are injured.

Fatigued pigs are pigs without obvious injury, trauma, or disease that refuse to walk at any stage of the marketing process from loading at the farm to stunning at the plant, he explains. Injured pigs have a compromised ability to move due to structural unsoundness or due to an injury sustained during the marketing process.

During the 1990s, losses between the farm and the point of slaughter increased more than threefold, from about 0.07 per cent to 0.3 per cent (Figure 1). It is unclear why this happened, but some potential explanations include changes in genetics, increased live weights, and increased size of production operations, says Dr. Ritter.

Losses averaged 0.17 per cent in 2010 following a gradual reduction over a number of years.

This improvement may be attributed to pork producers and packers working together to implement proactive management strategies to minimize transport losses, he suggests. For example, on-farm and in-plant training programs, standard operating procedures for pig handling and transportation, loading assessments, handling audits and databases for transport losses have evolved

Aggressive handling counterproductive

It is well established that transport losses are increased by aggressive handling with electric prods, crowding pigs during transport and extremes of weather conditions, Dr. Ritter notes. Keep in mind that pre-slaughter stressors have additive effects on stress responses such as body temperature, blood lactate, and blood pH values, of market-weight pigs. Therefore, removing just one stressor during the marketing process can improve the pig s well-being and can potentially reduce transport losses at the plant.

One management strategy to reduce transport losses under commercial conditions is to better prepare pigs for transport, says Dr. Ritter. Walking through pens daily, routinely handling or moving pigs, presorting pigs prior to loading, and withdrawing feed prior to loading are all effective in this respect, he explains. Also, reducing stress throughout the marketing process especially minimizing electric prod use, moving pigs in groups of four to six, minimizing distance moved from pen to truck, and utilizing transport floor spaces of at least 0.46 m2/pig, will reduce losses.

While there is definitely room to improve the level of losses, we should put things into perspective, stresses Dr. Ritter. Well over 99 per cent of the market hogs transported in the U.S. walk off the trailer, walk through the plant, and are processed without delay, he notes.

Bernie Peet is president of Pork Chain Consulting of Lacombe, Alberta, and editor of Western Hog Journal.


Figure 1: Percentage of dead pigs at USDA-inspected plants by year from 1991 to 2010

significantly over the past four years.

Transport losses are influenced by a very wide range of factors relating to the pigs themselves, many aspects of facility design, transportation, facilities at the packing plant, environmental factors and handling technique.



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