Kansas State University researchers are planning a road trip later this year – actually about 40 of them – to learn more about what effect that transporting pigs has on muscle fatigue in those animals.
They plan to follow trucks around the Midwest – specifically Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma – to measure the vibration in the trailers and the resulting stress that it may cause the animals.
“Our concern is welfare of the animals, but you also have the concern about the loss to the industry,” said John Gonzalez, an associate professor of animal science. “You’re trying to help both sides; the animal number one, and the industry number two.”
An estimated 120 million pigs are transported in the United States each year, or about 750,000 loads of pigs moving along roads and highways. Previous research has identified fatigue – thought to be caused by the constant shaking that the animals endure during transportation – as the cause of an estimated loss of .3 percent, or 360,000 pigs per year, according to Gonzalez.
That’s equivalent to about 109 million pork meals lost per year, and just over $17 lost, per pig, by farmers – a total of $61 million lost by the pork industry.
So Gonzalez and a team of K-State specialists aim to do something about it. They have received $125,000 from the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, to gather data on how to make pigs more comfortable during transportation.
The project was awarded as part of AFRI’s interest in animal health and well-being.
“We are looking at different locations within the truck,” Gonzalez said. “Let’s say that we find out that the bottom level of the nose near the axle of the truck vibrates a lot more than the other compartments. So you can actually tell producers, ‘OK, these pigs that are at the far end of the hog house and will have to walk a long way and be more fatigued than the guys that are close to the door, maybe you don’t put them in the nose of the trailer.’”
The intent is to develop strategies for loading the pigs so those that might be more fatigued are not put where the vibration is strongest.
“An analogy I usually give to people is that the effects of transporting pigs is much like when a homeowner uses a weed eater or a chainsaw or whatever you use that vibrates heavily, and then at the end, you have no strength in your hands,” Gonzalez said.
Sarah Schuetze, who is pursuing the doctoral degree in animal science, will collect data on 40 loads of pigs that will be transported between now and the end of the year. Schuetze, who has already earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in biological and agricultural engineering, has designed a system that utilizes accelerometers that will be placed in the trucks to measure movement from side-to-side, forward-to-backward, and up-and-down.
The measurements will help researchers understand differences, such as a bumpy ride along a county road compared to a ride along an interstate highway.
“This is so we can take those variables and see how it’s affecting our pigs,” Schuetze said. “Once we determine our vibration profile, we can use that information to address other transportation factors and create a better trip overall for the pigs.”
Schuetze said the amount of data she will collect is vast: “We are taking 100 data points a second, over anywhere from a 3- to 4-hour load.”
Once all of that information is gathered, Schuetze will then design and build a live simulator that researchers can use to test the effects of transportation and vibration in a controlled university setting. Eventually, the work can also include other animal species.
In addition to Gonzalez and Schuetze, the project includes Kansas State University animal scientists Tim Rozell and Jason Woodworth; biological and agricultural engineers Dan Flippo and Ed Brokesh; and kinesiology professor Tom Barstow.
Gonzalez said the group is still looking for trailer manufacturers or other cooperators willing to let the university test their trucks during this study. Those interested may contact Gonzalez at 785-532-3448, or [email protected].