It turns out one bad human can spoil the bunch — at least when it comes to pigs.
Speaking to producers and pork industry representatives at the annual swine seminar in Winnipeg earlier this month, Grahame Coleman told those gathered that pigs can’t always distinguish between people, particularly if they are dressed in similar garb like barn coveralls.
“Pigs can distinguish between people… only if they are dressed differently and there is a consistent difference in the way they behave,” said the Australian animal welfare researcher. “They tend to generalize.”
That means that if even one stockperson on any given farm is short tempered or gruff, pigs tend to see all livestock workers as short tempered and gruff.
“So if their experience has been negative from some people on the farm, they tend to avoid them regardless and you see that reflected in those farm figures where the entire farm shows a higher fear level,” he said, adding that higher fear levels translate directly into lower productivity.
Fearful pigs are also more difficult to handle and can result in a greater number of injuries among both animals and workers, Coleman added.
But new research indicates that people don’t have to do anything extreme to be perceived as aggressive by pigs, even the occasional slap, push or loud talking can negatively influence pig-human interactions, lowering herd productivity.
“The stockperson handling we’re talking about is not particularly adverse behaviours, they’re not instances of bad mishandling or malicious intent or cruelty, or anything like that… this is not what we are talking about in this situation. What we’re talking about is the way in which animals are routinely handled and it turns out that some of the things that were routine practice on farms, were having this deleterious effect on the fear levels of the animals,” Coleman explained.
Expanding on that idea, Coleman said further studies have revealed livestock workers who feel positively about giving a pig an occasional pat and speak to animals in an even or upbeat tone have not only the least fearful and most easily handled animals, but also the most productive ones — even if animal-human interactions last no more than two minutes per day.
“It’s generally accepted that stockpeople have a significant role in managing their animals, and no one is going to question that, but what we wanted to do is expand that notion to specific aspects of what stockpeople do in addition to the normal husbandry and management procedures,” he said. “What we found is that there is a significant role that stockpeople can play, both in determining the productivity on farm as well as meat quality at slaughter.”
Employee satisfaction also plays a role in animal productivity he added, noting employees who enjoy their work and feel secure in their job tend to have more positive interactions with pigs. The result is lowered levels of fear in the herd.
Coleman said proper training is key to getting livestock workers to adopt fear-reducing practices, but emphasized that all livestock workers must participate for a farm to see a significant improvement in herd fear levels.
“Training procedures which target the attitude and behaviour of stockpeople currently offer considerable opportunity to improve both pig productivity and welfare,” he said.