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Handle with Care: Farm to Fork

A vertically integrated pork system and the nation's second-largest hog producer vows to integrate animal welfare throughout production. When it comes to animal welfare, not much at Premium Standard Farms (PSF) is standard anymore. The pork giant is busy unveiling a new animal welfare philosophy this month. The new philosophy is being put into practice on the farm with production changes. Welfare

A vertically integrated pork system and the nation's second-largest hog producer vows to integrate animal welfare throughout production.

When it comes to animal welfare, not much at Premium Standard Farms (PSF) is standard anymore.

The pork giant is busy unveiling a new animal welfare philosophy this month. The new philosophy is being put into practice on the farm with production changes.

Welfare Focus Sharpens

For years, PSF, like most production systems, practiced good animal welfare.

However, since Jeff Hill came on board 16 months ago in the newly created position of director of animal welfare and system design, animal care has new focus at the Princeton, MO, production headquarters.

“Animal welfare is actually more than a philosophy at PSF. It guides our future decisions as we move forward in the company,” says Hill, who has degrees in swine production, animal behavior/animal welfare and is completing a doctorate degree from Michigan State in system design.

His mission: develop a customized animal welfare program that exceeds the industry standards of the National Pork Board's Swine Welfare Assurance Program (SWAP) and heightens personal accountability and consumer awareness.

An all-inclusive animal welfare program requires fundamental changes in mindset. As a leader in the swine industry, PSF officials recognize the ethical obligations and moral responsibilities to the animals under their care.

Hill likens the change to the major overhaul of biosecurity protocols in the industry in recent years. At PSF, Hill's major challenge is to ingrain animal welfare philosophy into company culture.

Potential new employees go through an orientation session that focuses on animal welfare, including reviewing and discussing animal abuses that have occurred within the swine industry. “These incidents should shock and abhor our employees. If they don't, these people are not a good fit for PSF,” notes Hill.

The animal welfare program provides a hotline number to anonymously report animal welfare or abuse concerns at PSF. “It is our employees' responsibility to act on such concerns,” he adds. “For it is the actions of our employees that determine the success of PSF.”

PSF reinforces its animal welfare philosophy to its hundreds of workers in production and administration through employee education, standard operating procedures, production guidelines and continual performance assessments. “It is the responsibility of employees to ask, ‘how will this impact the welfare of this animal?’ for every decision you make and action you take,” Hill says.

Character Building

Character training is being instituted to develop key traits that will strengthen PSF's commitment to animal welfare.

If employees jeopardize the welfare of an animal, they can receive a warning, disciplinary action or termination, depending on the infraction. If they abuse an animal, they will be terminated, and if warranted, reported to officials for full prosecution.

A new company Intranet Web site provides operating procedures and guidelines to help avoid any chance of abuse.

Transportation Advances

One of the initial areas of emphasis for the new in-depth animal welfare program at PSF was transportation and market hog handling, says Hill. The National Pork Board coordinated development of the Trucker Quality Assurance (TQA) program to address those issues.

Hill comments: “We spend all the money and resources in the pork industry to breed a sow, farrow a piglet, raise the piglet through the nursery and finishing, only to lose him on the truck.”

A dead hog is worthless, costs more money to unload, and in the process interrupts plant flow, he notes.

Dead on arrival (DOAs) and dead in plants (DIPs) represent an estimated annual loss to the pork industry of $255 million, or $2.44/head. DOAs alone account for a loss of $31 million, or 0.23% of the market hogs shipped, says Hill. Those figures are extrapolated from data collected from packing plants, industry sources and the National Pork Board. The data excludes hogs stressed or fatigued during transportation.

Losses at PSF's Missouri operation, based on a five-year average, exceeded $1 million annually at slaughter due to direct losses from DOAs and DIPs and in indirect trim and pork quality losses related to handling.

In 2003, PSF experienced a significant increase in DOAs and DIPs over the previous year, and the ominous trend was continuing into 2004, Hill recounts.

Three-Pronged Program

That situation triggered Hill to conduct a systematic analysis of losses and develop a three-pronged approach for improvement. A targeted DOA/DIP program emphasized animal handling strategies, transportation systems and facility and equipment design.

“One big key has been training and education for load-out personnel to help them better understand the behavior and physiology of pigs so they can better problem-solve in the field,” says Hill. In this process, loaders learn about subtle issues that impact loading market hogs, such as the importance of lighting and shadows.

“We are holding employees completely accountable,” says Hill. PSF is tracking losses by production site, load crew and driver. Incentive programs reward good handlers, while overly aggressive or poor handlers end up being reassigned.

One important measure of proper handling is load-out times from the finisher facilities. Hill says it takes 60 minutes to load out the first and second “pulls” and 45 minutes for closeouts. “If any of our crews exceed those targets by under or over 10 minutes, they better be able to explain why,” he notes.

Animal density was a big issue in market hog shipments. The Milan, MO, plant receives 7,400 head of slaughter hogs in an eight-hour day. PSF's Lundy plant in North Carolina averages 10,000 hogs/day.

Loads used to consist of 176 head of 250- to 270-lb. hogs in standard 53-ft.-long trailers.

To determine proper shipment size, Hill developed an intricate stocking density formula taking into account market weights, hauling distance and environmental conditions. He measured trailers for usable pig space instead of total space, subtracting out the space taken up by exterior walls, doors, gates and panels.

In doing so, he removed eight market hogs from each load to give 4.67 sq. ft. of usable space for a standard 250-lb. hog.

“I was not the most popular person in the world for a while,” he says matter-of-factly. It took time for others to embrace his quest to establish sound animal welfare principles based on science and ethics. The new stocking density provides some flexibility in loading and more even distribution of hogs by compartment. In comparison, the TQA program calls for 4.45 sq. ft. of space for a 250-lb. market hog.

The transportation matrix also requires a load reduction in daytime shipments from June 1 to Sept. 1 to minimize the impact of high temperatures. This timeframe accounts for more than 94% of the days that hit 90 F in Missouri over a five-year average.

“We lose transportation efficiency because some loads that are reduced probably don't need to be, because it turned out to be a cool day. But it is hard to plan for that,” Hill laments.

Market hog trailer floors also feature wood shavings in Missouri and rice hulls in North Carolina to improve hauling conditions.

Water misters help reduce stress and cool market hogs during loading. PSF is evaluating in-transit mister systems.

Each PSF packing plant also has its own weather station that records all pertinent data every 15 minutes to help analyze the impact of load-out and transportation conditions.

The Missouri operations were already working with new and improved trailer designs. Standard are 9-ft.-wide side-unload doors on top and bottom decks for simultaneous unloading. At the plants, docks extend out to the trailer, and the pigs walk off a completely flat surface into the processing plant.

Transportation changes have had a dramatic impact on losses, Hill emphasizes. DOAs and DIPs dropped by 48% by mid-2004 and continue to be at the lowest levels in five years, significantly lower than the industry average.

Other Welfare Rules at PSF

Transportation and animal handling and finishing areas of PSF's customized SWAP are completed, says Hill.

Stocking density in finishing is a hot topic. The industry stocks hogs at an average rate of about 7.2-8.0 sq. ft./hog. PSF is assessing stocking density based on the pounds of pig in the pen, not just simply number of head.

PSF provides designated hospital pens in finishing barns before buildings are stocked, and analyzes if sick hogs are truly managed correctly and if euthanasia is applied properly.

Shipping cull sows is a challenge at many farms, says Hill. To solve the transit issue, PSF has recently instituted five parameters to determine if cull sows can be shipped. If sows meet any of the five criteria (sidebar) or have a condition score of 1 or 0 (Table 1), they should be euthanized on the farm.

“A lot of people at PSF don't like the cull sow protocol because death loss on the farm has gone up as we've euthanized more animals. But truly it hasn't gone up because these animals were dying during transport or at the cull market. We are just doing it in a much more humane manner,” observes Hill.

Captive bolt euthanasia is used for cull sows, late-term nursery and finishing. The key is to do it correctly so that the animal can be verified as insensible. PSF also uses a five-minute, no-reflex policy to ensure that the pig is indeed dead.

PSF instituted carbon dioxide euthanasia for piglets; however, the process is currently under investigation to ensure worker safety, as well as gas flow rate and gas levels to ensure an immediate and humane death.

Hill concludes his work on animal welfare at PSF is a work in progress. But he feels confident in the company's commitment to animal welfare and in meeting customers' expectations.

Cull Sow Criteria

Animals meeting these criteria should be humanely euthanized on the farm, according to PSF's standard operating procedures.

Do not market any sow with a 1 or less sow condition score or any animal that:

  1. Refuses to get up without undue coercion;
  2. Appears unable to walk and load unassisted, or refuses to bear full weight on two or more of its legs;
  3. Shows clinical signs of significant injury (open wounds, broken bones, etc.);
  4. Shows clinical indications of illness; or
  5. Demonstrates signs of stress or fatigue (heavy open-mouth breathing, vocalization, blotchy skin, stiffness, muscle tremors).
Table 1. Sow Condition Scoring Guide
Score Appearance Pinbones & Tail Setting Loin Muscle Backbone Ribs
0 Emaciated Pinbones (hipbones) very prominent. Deep cavity around tail setting. Very narrow. Sharp edges on transverse spinal process (lateral process of a vertebrae). Flank very hollow. Vertebrae prominent and sharp throughout length of backbone. Individual ribs very prominent.
1 Poor Pin bones obvious but some slight cover. Cover around tail setting. Loin narrow. Only slight cover to edge of transverse spinal process. Flank rather hollow. Vertebrae prominent. Rib cage is apparent but less prominent than above.