Pigs respond better in the barn if they get to know their handlers

How well do your pigs know your barn workers?

“Pigs see a head,” noted British swine veterinary specialist John Carr at the Manitoba Swine Seminar, summing up most of the animals’ interaction with humans working in the barn.

That’s a problem, Carr argued, because if workers never get into the pens, they never become true animal handlers.

“If you actually get in with the pigs, what it does is actually make the pigs know who the hell you are. And I think it does teach stockmanship,” Carr said Feb. 8.

Workers who stick to passageways rather than getting in among the pigs are one of many issues that Carr sees as plaguing most modern hog barn systems.

Many producers consider their systems to be high efficiency, but they really aren’t because their management tends to be piecemeal rather than output-based.

He said production records often show oddly unco-ordinated activities in the barns, such as substantially different breeding numbers from week to week. When differing numbers of sows are bred, the piglets being farrowed a few months later on, the number of weanlings moved into pens and the number of feeder pigs moved into feeding barns will also be disjointed and inefficient.

Some weeks there will be too many and some too few, which is a problem for a fixed physical structure than can’t expand and contract, and for which the farmer is making debt payments.

Carr said some problems come from the way barn workers and managers are paid, with incentives that push people to forget about the final result of trying to get the most pork possible to flow out of a barn.

If people are given bonuses for the amount of pig that leaves a barn, they can begin caring about the overall results of the barn, not just their own independent activities.

Carr thinks all aspects of hog barns could probably be improved. For example, much room in a barn, about 15 percent, is taken up by passageways. That’s a lot of space devoted to activity that does not produce pigs.

If passageways are minimized by creating bigger pens, that room can be better used.

That would require workers getting into pens more, but that’s not a bad thing.

“I employ stock people. Stock people need to be with stock. They’re not passageway people. Most of us employ passageway people.”

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