By Paul Ayers
Handling and movement of pigs is arguably one of the most common and important daily responsibilities that pork producers have. Improper animal handling can result in decreased animal well-being, reduced production performance, increased human safety risks and the potential loss of customer and consumer trust.
To ensure pigs are handled properly each day, it is critical for producers to have effective training programs. Here are a few things to think when implementing a program within your operation.
Who’s your handler?
The pork industry has changed dramatically over the last 50 years, and with it there have been several changes that impact how we train handlers today. The days of hiring employees that have prior swine production experience or livestock experience in general are long gone. Many new hires today have little to no experience with moving animals, resulting in a steep learning curve when it comes to moving their first sow or load of market hogs.
For those with limited experience, handling a sow for the first time can be an intimidating task and it is important they are provided with quality training and coaching to build their confidence. Understanding the learning style of a new hire can ensure the training methods used match their preferred learning habits. While reading a printed Standard Operating Procedure may work well for some, others may learn best by online learning modules or hands-on instruction.
Create a culture of safe animal handling
Animal handling training should be fully integrated with new-hire onboarding programs. Set clear expectations for animal handling from day one and before the new-hire encounters animals. We utilize a combination of internally developed training resources and resources available from the National Pork Board such as the “Safe Pig Handling” learning modules, Pork Quality Assurance and Transport Quality Assurance. These trainings provide a solid framework of the “science” of animal handling before handlers begin hands-on training.
To truly create a culture of safe animal handling, there must be a commitment from all employees and a culture where everyone is comfortable calling each other out for animal handling issues or opportunities. This can be done by creating a “nameless and rank-less” environment where all employees understand their responsibility to ensure safe animal handling.
Inspect what you expect
To verify the outcomes of training programs, we utilize a variety of assessment and audit mechanisms such as in-person observations, quizzes or tests to validate handler competency, and remote video auditing (RVA). These audit tools serve as mechanisms for coaching and continuous improvement.
As the old adage goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” and this is definitely the case when it comes to investing in animal handling training. Any investment in animal handling training will yield benefits beyond just improved animal well-being. Our farms that consistently execute animal handling standards also rank among the highest in production measures such as pigs per sow per year and transport loss, as well as human safety metrics.
Paul Ayers is the animal care coordinator for The Maschhoffs. He is responsible for coordinating and administering all activities central the implementation of The Maschhoffs Animal Care Initiative. He received his bachelor’s degree in animal science from Michigan State University. He is active on the Illinois Pork Producers Association board of directors and the National Pork Board’s animal welfare committee among others.
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