Low Stress Livestock Handling Better for Animals and People

Low Stress Livestock Handling Better for Animals and People

Farmscape Article 2475  May 5, 2007


“The main thing that we're looking at is animal welfare,” states Nancy Lidster, a White Fox, Saskatchewan area livestock handling instructor. “And that's both the welfare of the pigs that we're moving and the welfare of the people that are handling them.”


Lidster, a partner with DNL Farms, presented a Low Stress Pig Handling workshop last week in Saskatoon as part of the fourth annual Western Canadian Livestock Expo.

She says, “What we're doing is targeting the animals’ natural behavior.  If we understand how that works, how they respond to us, then we can ask them to go where we want them far more easily. They'll go more willingly, take less time, get less excited and the people can get a lot more done with the same amount time and energy.”


Animal Behavior Based on Survival Instinct

Lidster explains, the pig's behavior is based on its natural instinct to survive.

“Their responses to us are survival responses. Humans instinctively have a lot of predatory behavior which is very threatening to pigs. If we understand that conflict then we can change what we're doing so they feel comfortable responding to us.”


“We do a lot of things that are threatening to them,” she says. “Humans instinctively want to get behind animals and make them move away. Animals instinctively want to have us to the side where they can see us while they're moving away and if we understand what they need we can give them that and they'll give us what we want from them in return.”


Science Agrees

“Animals feel fear,” states Colorado State University animal science professor Dr. Temple Grandin.

The internationally renowned animal welfare specialist and livestock facilities designer was on hand in Winnipeg last month to address a fundraiser for the Manitoba Farm Animal Council and the National Centre for Livestock and the Environment.

“If animals fear people they're going to be less productive animals,” says Dr. Grandin.

“Animals that are scared and excited are going to be harder to handle. You're going to be more likely to get bruised meat. And they're also more dangerous to handle. The whole trick is to keep the animal calm.”


Stress Negatively Impacts Meat Chemistry

Lidster adds, “We quite often have thought about meat quality in terms of things like fractures or bruises or trim losses but there's actually a lot of damage is done at the meat chemistry level. The mental state of the animal, whether it's excited, whether it's scared at time of slaughter has a big impact on the meat chemistry and how valuable that product is going to be. Handling right from the farm, through transport through the packing plant all influence that.”

She notes, “While the most important part is the way the animals are handled at the plant, the way that we train them on the farm and during transport, how we teach them to respond to humans, whether they stay calm, whether we make them very fearful, all has an impact on how easy it is for them to be moved at the packing plant. Their mental state as they're being handled there, in turn, has an impact on the meat quality.”


Dr. Grandin estimates, “The last five minutes in the stunning chute is very critical. You can get pale soft meat if the pigs get excited at that time. It's also very important for producers to get animals used to being handled by people so that, when they get to the plant, they will drive rather than just piling up and squealing. Good handling of hogs is vital to having good quality meat.”


Methods Almost Too Effective to be Believed

“Some of this stuff just seems so basic and simple that it's hard to believe it actually works,” Lidster suggests. “In a lot of cases  we go in there expecting to have to do a whole lot of stuff. In a lot of cases all you need to do is wiggle a finger or, in a lot of cases, all you need to do is stand in the right position or walk into the pen and just stand still. Let the pig see you, let them see the gate and just leave them alone.”


“Another way we can look at it is,” she suggests, “If there is a bunch of us sitting in a room and somebody turns a skunk loose in that room, the skunk doesn't have to chase us out of there. We will be quite happy to find an exit.  Quite often when we walk into a pen of pigs we're sort of that skunk and we don't need to chase them out. We need to just give them a space, let them see where the gate is and let them get past us and out of there.”


Lidster says one producer who adopted the low stress methods told her, “Where it used to take three of them, over the course of two or three days, to move 400 pigs from one section of the barn to the another, one person was going in there and doing it in a couple of hours. They were just amazed at how little effort it took. By understanding how the pigs work and how to give them what they need they were able totally simplify this job.”


She observes, “In a lot of cases what we're doing is going in there and yelling and hollering when all we have to do is whisper or just show up. It's the extra stuff we're doing that gets them scared, that gets them fighting us and doing a whole lot of things that we don't want them to do.”


Force Worsens Situations

“It's when we start to try to force reactions or force outcomes that we start creating all the problems. Virtually anytime somebody picks up an electric prod and uses it to move pigs it's because they have done something that has stopped movement in the first place. Many of the problems that we have when we're moving stock is purely a matter of the pigs being scared and us trying to use additional fear to make them move.”


Dr. Grandin echoes the advice.

“The whole trick is to keep the animal calm. Stop yelling and screaming.”


Successful Handlers Using Low Stress Methods

Lidster points out, “We've got excellent handlers that can move pigs very simply, very easily, very calmly and all of them are working with very similar principles and keeping the pigs quiet and calm and working where the pigs can see them.”

“Other people might be getting a response but they're doing a lot of damage in the process and not only damage to the pigs but damage to their self esteem, damage to the amount of time it takes, damage to the quality of the product they put out. Keeping them calm and quiet is just so vitally important for everybody's welfare and well being.”

She observes, “In all cases where people are getting good movement they are doing it quietly.”


Staff Farmscape.Ca