22 March 2012

Sense and psychology - tools to improve stockmanship

Think like a pig and learn what makes it tick then moving and handling difficulties could be come a thing of the past. A bold statement, but this was the advice of livestock behaviour specialist Miriam Parker MBE at a recent training workshop at Rattlerow Farms. Miriam was invited to run the handling pigs training session during March. The one-day course is part of Rattlerow Farms training programme, which runs throughout the year and is open to all farm staff. Topics cover all aspects of pig production and unit management.

The aim of this session was to help farm staff understand pig psyche and so improve their handling and husbandry skills. Miriam, who runs consultancy Livestock Wise, led a very thought provoking and interactive day that offered a real insight into porcine behaviour. Everyone who attended, including very experienced employees, said it had given them a better understanding of what pigs have to cope with in modern commercial production.

Barley Brigg
A very poor view. Candidates get a clear insight into how pigs see the world. Their visual capability is very limited, other senses are more important.

Many factors influence the way a pig reacts and responds to human interaction. Miriam explained how understanding why they behave as they do in certain situations does help stockmen improve their handling skills. It can reduce stress on the animals and also themselves. She said a key advantage is to appreciate how pigs’ senses work, as their sensory perception is enormously different to a human. People tend to rely on sight, whereas a pig’s primary senses are smell and hearing.

A different sensory perspective
A pig’s sight is extremely poor and their facial structure further impedes visual capability.
“When you look at pigs head on, they always seem to look up at you with a sideways glance, head on one side. That’s because they cannot get a full view any other way as their snout gets in the way,” explains Ian Gillies, Rattlerow Training Manager. To get a clear perspective Miriam brought a pair of ‘pig sight’ spectacles that enables stockmen understand just how limiting the pigs’ sight is. “We could hardly see what was in front of our noses and it helped us to understand just how much more important other senses are to the pig,” added Ian.

Pigs also have intricate smell/sound communication. Pheromones, for example can provide dialogue from pig to pig - within their own herd/ group and also to unfamiliar animals. Most stockmen appreciate the enormous role that pheromones play in reproductive management - a service house would not function efficiently under an atmosphere devoid of these invisible sexual stimulants. But these scents are also vital in everyday porcine life as pigs use them to communicate stress, fear and contentment.

Miriam Parker of Livestock Wise talks pig psyche. Understanding pig behaviour and how and why they react to situations can help stockmen improve their handling and husbandry skills.

Behaviour in context
Miriam Parker also discussed the many behavioural issues associated with porcine psychology. Everyone at the workshop agreed that when it was put into the context of their daily working routines, it was easier to understand why some problems occurred more frequently than others.
Tasks such as being moved out of a pen, into a dim lit race, and or herded towards a ramp to be loaded uphill onto a lorry, were daunting for pigs. What humans deem as a simple obstacle can be stressful for the pigs and provokes confusion. Investigations have shown that if pigs are moving in single file, say down a race, then generally only 120 animals will pass a given point in an hour. So, if you want to increase throughput - say in an abattoir situation or loading bay - then designers must look at layout options in relation to and pig flow. If 240 pigs must pass through in an hour, then have two races. It may be a little more expensive to construct, but consider the time saved in terms of labour and stress.
The same applies to unit design. Holding pens, weighing areas and passages between pens should be designed with pig psyche in mind, rather than for human ease and stockmen capabilities. Get it right, and everyone is happy - pigs and people alike.


Unit layout and design and how they impact on pig reactions and behaviour. It discussed what pigs do and don’t like and how improvements could reduce stress and optimise ‘pig flow’ when moving animals.

Routine behaviour - pigs are creatures of habit. Once they learn the system or daily routine they become confident and less stressed. Stockmen should evaluate change - is it necessary?

Interpretation body language and behaviour - Pigs are usually inquisitive, affable animals; aggression and stubbornness were often the result of stress or fear. Stockmen must learn to identify and be aware of what provokes these reactions from pigs and minimise (and where possible eradicate) the triggers.

Human behaviour - Pigs are perceptive and will react swiftly to stockmen responses, maintaining a calm, caring and steady approach when handling and moving pigs is the best means of achieving a positive outcome.



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