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Walk the Pens Advance Pig Handling, Welfare

Article-Walk the Pens Advance Pig Handling, Welfare

Preparing market hogs for shipment starts at an early age, according to Bill Hollis, DVM, Carthage (IL) Veterinary Service (CVS), Ltd. Using an educational CD called Walking the Pens, developed by Pfizer Animal Health and CVS Multimedia Department experts Sarah Probst Miller, DVM, and Ken Haas, can help define the steps necessary to successfully load rooms, manage pig growth and deliver more high-value

Preparing market hogs for shipment starts at an early age, according to Bill Hollis, DVM, Carthage (IL) Veterinary Service (CVS), Ltd.

Using an educational CD called Walking the Pens, developed by Pfizer Animal Health and CVS Multimedia Department experts Sarah Probst Miller, DVM, and Ken Haas, can help define the steps necessary to successfully load rooms, manage pig growth and deliver more high-value hogs to slaughter.

Hollis summarized several key points of that educational process at the Swine Handling & Transport Forum in Des Moines, IA, in early June, which was co-sponsored by Pfizer Animal Health, Pork Checkoff, National Pork Producers Council, Farm Credit Services of America, NutriDense, Newsham Choice Genetics and National Hog Farmer.

“Pigs move better when they are familiar with the caretaker, particularly with wean-to-finish barns where we don't have to move pigs multiple times. Those pigs are going to work with you a lot better, move with you much more successfully and understand who you are and why you are in the pen,” if walking the pens becomes a routine procedure, he points out.

“We are encouraging barn staffs to use this program because producers are in the barns anyway, so make the time in the barns count,” Hollis encourages.

Loading for Success

Success actually starts when the barn is set up to provide a safe and properly managed environment for the pigs' arrival.

“The number one thing that I am going to ask my production team: Is the barn ready, cleaned and prepared, and all organic matter removed out of the barn?” Hollis remarks.

Cleaning and disinfecting is often done properly, but the key item most often forgotten is ensuring the barn is dry. “Drying barns is one of the most powerful killers of bacteria and viruses. Make sure that includes the feeders, too,” he emphasizes.

Don't allow disinfectants to pool, as they can cause harm to pigs. Hollis cites Tek-Trol (Agri Laboratories) as an example, as it contains 5% ethylene glycol, a main ingredient in antifreeze, which can cause kidney damage if consumed.

Technicians should always wear protective clothing, boots and eyewear when cleaning and disinfecting a barn.

Getting a correct inventory to drive your group closeouts is another key factor. “Try running larger groups into a few pens and then counting pigs into individual pens as you move pigs through the barn,” Hollis suggests. Handle these pigs with care — they are the pigs that you will be managing for the next six months to market.

“Placing them evenly throughout the pens is important. Euthanize the no-value or reject pigs,” he says. The no-value pigs are not counted as inventory, and they are to be reported back to the sow farm and noted as part of preweaning mortality for the sow farm.

Hollis points out that there has been a movement away from trying to equalize the size of the pigs in the pens. Focus instead on identifying the disadvantaged pigs, making sure they eat some feed and placing them in the sick pen. Leave enough empty pens in your finishing barn to accommodate these disadvantaged pigs.

“We have producers who anticipate health problems and leave several pens empty to serve as hospital pens,” he says.

With newly weaned pigs weighing an average of 12-lb., standard deviation on a bell-shaped curve suggests that 2.5% of the pigs in a 1,000-head barn are going to be really small (25 head) and definitely candidates for a reject pen, Hollis estimates.

Water First

In the process of sorting the pigs and setting up the nutritional program, the first thing to check is water. “They are going to drink more than they eat, especially when they arrive,” Hollis states. Water pressure, flow rate and water quality should all be checked out before wean-to-finish pigs are sorted and penned. An easy flow rate indicator is whether you can fill a 20-oz. plastic bottle in 30 seconds. That should equal 15-20 psi, he explains. Set water nipples at shoulder height.

Feed Mats

Feed mats are an integral part of starting pigs; they encourage feed intake and provide a place where there is no updraft from the pit. Mats with edges reduce feed wastage. Locate mats close to the feeder under a heat source to help ease transition to the feeder.

Feeding on mats should last 1-2 weeks in the nursery and 2-3 weeks in wean-to-finish barns. Remove mats when pigs start dunging on them, he adds.

“The problem with mats is sometimes we leave them in too long and there is manure buildup on the mats,” he adds. Leave some space between the feed mat and gating to allow dunging patterns to develop and to prevent manure buildup.

Continue on Page 2: First Week is Critical

Feed pigs at least three times a day at placement. Identify all pigs not eating by 3-5 days post-placement. If necessary, pick up pigs and feel their stomachs to find out if they've eaten. Pigs not starting well should be moved to the fallout pen where they can be placed on gruel feed or be syringe-fed.

“Don't get fooled by the size of the pig. Sometimes the heavyweight pigs have problems, too. Those pigs have had the best milk supply and can be at greater risk of falling out if they don't start on feed,” Hollis warns.

First Week is Critical

Remember that 90% of the fallbacks occur in the first week of placement, so close observation at the start is very critical to early identification of problems.

“These pigs are starving, and we need to work very aggressively to provide additional nutrition and identify infections,” Hollis says. These fallback situations occur because the affected pig has not transitioned well from its mother's milk to the pelleted diet. Provide these pigs with extra nutrition in the form of gruel or gel. Examine fallouts for reasons that may warrant injectable therapy, including the following bacterial issues: Haemophilus parasuis, strep, and skin and joint infections.

Viral concerns may include porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, porcine circovirus and swine influenza virus.

“These are times to look harder for sick pigs during the first two weeks post-placement,” Hollis urges. “Movement is stressful for pigs, and stress in turn compromises the immune system, making pigs more susceptible to disease or injury during this time period.”

Walk-Through Routine

Those concerns heighten the need to identify walk-through routines. Hollis cites producer Brian King at Carlyle Farms, Carlyle, IL, as a good example of someone who is really good at walking through the pens.

“When the pigs are just weaned and he steps into the pens, the pigs will run in every direction. But when they are 50 lb., they practically run to him because he is in the pen every day. When he is in the pen, the pigs are walking normally, so it is obvious to Brian that the more time he spends walking the pens, the more comfortable the pigs are with him.”

Follow a routine. Enter the barn slowly so as not to disturb the pigs. Start the observation outside of the pen watching how pigs treat each other, looking for signs of blood, scars, navel sucking, flank biting or tail biting. Watch for loose stools.

Once inside the pen, watch how pigs interact; look for rough haircoat, and ear and eye problems. Pale, yellow skin color may be a sign of gastric ulcers or ileitis.

Stir pigs up and watch them move. Sick pigs will get pushed to the side and may stand stiffly in the corner. Swollen joints can be the first sign of infection.

For younger pigs, the best angle of observation is in the baseball catcher's position, Hollis says.

Technicians who walk and treat pigs aggressively early on:

  • Reduce the amount of treatments they need to give later on;

  • Reduce the amount of culls, deads and lights at slaughter, and

  • Reduce the number of non-value pigs that never make it to slaughter.

Your goal should be to catch and treat sick pigs early, thus preventing them from becoming lightweights or candidates for culling that have a direct impact on the bottom line.

“Reduce the number of potential culls and lights by getting treatments done early, taking care of fallouts, practicing timely euthanasia and following good walk-throughs that drive good decisions,” he comments.

Hollis adds: “Our common challenge in the hog industry is that we walk through the pens pretty well at the beginning, and then our observation skills start to slide off. Even when pigs reach 150 lb., they still need to be observed on a daily basis, as we begin to learn how to respect that pig's flight zone.” Approach the pig from the side, never from behind.

At loading time, avoid approaching the pig from behind and crowding him through the alleyway. That's when stress and injury occur. Again, respect the pig's flight zone.

“How we approach that pig the first six months will have a critical impact on how that pig approaches that alleyway and the loading chute when we are assessing the impact of loading loss,” Hollis explains.

Continue on Page 3: Maintain Equipment

Maintain Equipment

Monitor water consumption, making sure waterers don't leak and heights of waterers are adjusted as pigs grow; nipples should be at shoulder height for proper consumption.

Keep the feeder adjusted. Good feeder management allows feed consumption to be maintained while wastage is reduced. A good rule of thumb: you should always be able to see 50% of the trough if the feeder is adjusted properly.

Make sure fans, louvers, ducts and heaters are cleaned and working properly. Be conscious of air quality in different areas of the pen. Locate fallout pens away from drafts. Proper air temperature and quality should be achieved prior to pigs arriving, Hollis says.

Also, assess the facility from the outside to ensure all fans and curtains are operating correctly, the perimeter is mowed and rodent boxes are in place and filled with bait. Observe all biosecurity protocols.


Walking the pens daily develops trust, identifies problems early and helps organize weight groups for marketing.

This interaction results in reduced animal and human injuries and lowers corresponding transport losses, according to Hollis.