New Handling Strategies

Minimizing injury and death during transportation and at the packing plant is more important than ever.

By Nick Berry

Improved understanding

of the major management factors impacting finisher pig behavioral and physiological responses during handling and transportation has recently emerged as an area of concern in the swine industry. Understanding key factors influencing losses during this timeframe will enable targeted interventions to improve both welfare and profitability.

Traditional handling and loading systems have been either poorly planned or not planned in the design and construction of finishing facilities. Therefore, during handling and marketing opportunities the industry is forced to rely heavily on negative motivators or repulsive forces to move animals. Movement is stressful for any size or type of pig, and even under the best conditions can cause significant changes in the pigs’ physiology and behavior. Consequently, this can negatively impact pig performance and meat quality.

Last fall, Premium Standard Farms in Princeton, Mo., and Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa, completed a collaborative effort geared toward evaluating the impact of loading system design on the ease of loading pigs at the time of marketing.

To minimize loading and transportation stress, Alberta Agriculture and Food livestock welfare specialist Jeff Hill, teamed up with Quality Mechanical to develop a new and improved handling system. The goal was to develop a loading chute design to efficiently move each individual pig in a humane manner, while considering the needs of the caretakers working in the system.

New Handling Strategies

Planning the Project

To tackle the project, Iowa State University animal scientist Anna Johnson and graduate student Nick Berry teamed up to evaluate the usefulness of the new loading system. Johnson points out, “The U.S. swine industry is proactively addressing the complex phenomenon of the non-ambulatory and dead-on-arrival market weight pig. By dissecting the handling and transportation process, research has shown that loading and unloading the pig seems to be the most physiologically stressful part of the process. Therefore, by working on an innovative chute design we hope to reduce some of the identified stressors imposed on the individual animal.”

Innovative Design

The new chute design starts with a portable steel frame and an aluminum chute body, which provides a solid and stable loading platform. The entire unit is 30 feet long, including a pivoting level dock to provide the pig entry and exit from the unit. To aid loading crews in positioning the chute, engineers included an extending system to allow for proper positioning to both the barn and trailer. An electric jack screw-system was also incorporated to mechanically raise and lower the chute into proper position.

Another added feature developed by engineers is a unique dock-bumper system. This design incorporates a cover material that has capabilities of expanding up to 500% to create a bubble effect: It traps any air exhausted from the foam cushions as the back of the chute is compressed against the finisher doorway. This inclusion eliminates air and light gaps between the barn and chute that may disrupt pig movement.

The 26-foot, angled section of the chute provides a 6-degree loading angle to the bottom deck and a 17-degree angle to the top deck. The angled section of the chute’s alley uses an inverted stair-step design, with treads spaced 6.75 inches apart and a 2-inch total step height. The inverted stair step has an anti-slip tread edge. The front of the stair tread is angled slightly to allow for natural movement, and encourages pigs to move forward for easier loading onto the truck.

The inside of the chute was carefully designed to mimic the feel of the home pen environment of the pig. The floor surface is coated with Vanberg coating epoxy, with 50% G-diamond grit. The coating replicates concrete coloring and texture, and greatly improves the pigs’ footing. The wall coloring also mimics that of concrete and, in combination with industrial rope lighting, prevents shadowing and bright spots. Together, the two features provide a soft, continuous light source throughout the animal movement area.

Comprehensive Research

To measure the loading system’s effectiveness, Johnson and Berry conducted a research study that included comparative analysis of more than 600 loads of hogs. Together, the two researchers evaluated several parameters

to evaluate handling intensity, as well as losses incurred during transportation and at the packing plant. The comparison of the new loading system and the traditional system was made on the first pigs marketed from a finishing facility (first pull pigs) and last pigs marketed from a finishing facility (closeout pull pigs). Results indicate that pigs loaded on the new loading system during the first pull of marketing have fewer total deads and total losses (includes stressed and injured pigs). Additionally, pigs loaded on the new loading system experience fewer prods, slips, falls, vocalizations and pile ups regardless of pull at marketing.

Consistent with the researchers’ goal of improving the loading process, this investigation provides data to support possible changes in facility design that may ultimately lead to the improvement of performance at marketing. However, improving well-being at any stage of the marketing process is certainly advantageous to reducing the losses experienced during transportation and at the packing plant

“With the volatility in today’s marketplace, the innovation of new management tools is certainly welcomed with open arms,” says new Cargill Animal Nutrition employee Nick Berry. He feels that several components of the recently researched loading system could add value for hog producers.

"As an industry we need to be proactive in taking a ‘whole systems’ approach to solving problems, which may include components of facility design and management,” concludes Berry 

Editor’s Note: Nick Berry, PhD, currently works with the Pork Enterprise Group for Cargill Animal Nutrition. A recent graduate of Iowa State University, he now resides in Coralville, Iowa.