Guide to Safely Handling Pigs

Pigs are intelligent animals that can be handled easily when proper training and techniques are put to use.

boar

Generally, pigs only move forward if they are comfortable doing so – gentle perseverance is the key.

Image credit: © Mike Corrigan, Octopus Publishing

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Handling

Incorrect handling and a loud voice can cause pigs stress, so they should always be handled in a calm, quiet manner. Handling pigs is the not the easiest thing to do, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

Getting to know your pigs

It helps if your pigs know and trust you, and are used to you touching and moving among them. Get into a routine of spending time with your pigs, rubbing them frequently all over their bodies (especially their ears, which they love to have rubbed) and talking to them. Pigs are intelligent and will often come running when they hear your voice, so by talking to them and using their names (if they have them), you are helping to build up a relationship with them that goes a long way towards stress-free handling.

Spend a few minutes each day moving them around in the pen, so that they learn what is required of them and you are safe in the knowledge that they cannot escape. Whenever you do have to move them from familiar situations, do so quietly and try not to make any sudden movements. Pigs that are kept quiet and stress-free will be far easier to move than worried or frightened pigs. When stressed, pigs become excitable, so never lose your temper if they won’t go in the direction you want. If you are having real problems, go and get help, or put them back and try again later when you have all calmed down. Bear in mind that pigs with lop ears tend to be quieter but more stubborn to handle than pigs with prick ears such as the Tamworth.

Pigs love a good scratch and often go all submissive if you touch the right spot. If they are breeding pigs, get them used to having their stomachs scratched – more often than not, they will roll over and lie down, which helps if you need to encourage the piglets onto the sow.

Moving pigs is much easier if you can teach them to follow a feed bucket, so if it is worth waiting until they are hungry if you need to move them. Pigs will follow buckets of food anywhere, but tread carefully when moving them in this way, as they could move that little bit faster than you and knock you over.

If your pigs are in an enclosure with an electric fence across the gateway, they will probably refuse to come out through the gate – even if you take the electric fence away – so always put a pile of straw across the gateway, as this seems to give them reassurance that they won’t get a shock.

Moving piglets

Moving very young piglets is usually not a problem. They will squeal, but they’re much more manageable than older piglets and less likely to wriggle. If you do need to move young piglets, carry out the procedure as quickly and quietly as possible, to keep the sow from becoming agitated.

Once piglets are a few weeks old and have started exploring outside their house, moving them can be even more difficult than moving adult pigs. Although they are smaller, so can be picked up and carried, catching them is an art in itself. They are nippier and more slippery than adult pigs, so do not try to catch them in the open – it just won’t happen.

If the piglets are in an ark or barn, corner one with a slapboard if necessary, grab it with both hands, placing your hands on either side of its body, and then lift it. If you’re not confident about catching piglets, put some food down and wait until their heads are in the trough before attempting to lift them. However, this only works for the first two or three piglets, after which they will be on their guard and will eat with one eye on you.

Try not to be put off by piglets’ squealing, which can be quite shocking when heard for the first time. And don’t pick them up by grabbing one leg – this risks straining the hocks or pulling joints out of place. Depending on the size of the piglets, some people put them in a large bucket or basket to carry them. This usually has the desired effect of stopping the squealing, but be careful they don’t jump out.

Moving adult pigs

The secret of moving pigs successfully lies in the preparation. Just because your pig is a quiet, well-behaved sow, that doesn’t mean you can just go into the pen, get her out and expect her to walk across two open fields without any problems. Always expect the unexpected, no matter how experienced you are or how many times you have moved pigs before.

If you are moving your pig from one enclosure to another near by, you need to have at the very least a slapboard, a stick and, for emergencies, that bucket of food. Ideally a temporary fenced walkway using portable gates should be constructed for a trouble-free walk between pens, but make sure it cannot be pushed down by a pig intent on escaping. Check that any gates leading to a road are firmly shut, so that if a pig does escape, it is contained within your property. It is possible to move a few pigs a fair way without using a trailer, but it is certainly not a one-person job. If you are walking them, get enough help to minimize potential problems – far better to have too much help than too little. And don’t hurry the pigs along. In summer try to move pigs early in the morning or in the evening when it is cooler.

It is worth training a pig from an early age to move away from a slapboard. Many show pigs seem to move forward and in the required direction without any help from the handler, because they have been taught at a young age what to do when they see the slapboard at the side of their head, and a glancing tap from the stick is often all that is needed to move them forward. The stick should never be used with force, merely as a gentle aid to forward movement. It is worth finding an expert to show you how to use the slapboard and stick correctly.

Trailer-training

All pigs should be trained to go into the trailer without fuss. Store pigs (pigs for fattening) in particular should be able to walk into a trailer quite happily and unafraid. Taking them to the abattoir is stressful enough for the owner, and trying to load an uncooperative pig or pigs on the morning not only adds to your own stress, but also doesn’t help the animals.

So, as soon as possible, start trailer-training your weaners. Place the trailer in the enclosure with the ramp down. Make sure the trailer will not tip once the pigs are inside, either by attaching it to a vehicle or by using an axle stand and jack to prevent it from tipping. Ideally, only the ramp should be inside the pen, with the fencing right up the trailer. Put a good amount of straw on the floor and a trough for their food at the back of the trailer.

Feed your pigs initially on the ground next to the trailer, then gradually move the food up the ramp until they will quite happily go in and eat calmly from the trough. After a while they may even prefer sleeping in the trailer to their ark. If they seem reluctant to go into the trailer, temporarily board up the ark or remove it so that they use the trailer.

If for some reason you don’t have a chance to train your pigs early on to go up the ramp for the abattoir, don’t panic – getting pigs used to walking up a trailer normally takes no longer than a week, and sometimes they are happy to walk in and out after only a couple of days. 

Troubleshooting

Problems in getting your pigs into the trailer can still arise and, if you are trying to load an adult pig that refuses to budge or keeps backing off, the situation can become quite fraught. If you do not have a walkway that can be closed off at one end, with the trailer backed into the other end, you need to look at other ways to minimize potential problems.

One method is to park the trailer as close to the pen as possible and up against something solid, such as a wall; this means that, once the ramp is down, you only need to worry about making one side and the back escape-proof. You will need portable gates to fashion a short walkway up to the trailer; if possible, these should have some sort of covering attached to them, such as plywood or cardboard sheets, to prevent the pigs from seeing through them. Secure the portable gates to the trailer side-gates with bailer twine. Find at least one other person to help with the loading and give him or her slapboards.

Pigs are very strong, so encouragement with food should be tried first. Encourage your recalcitrant pig into the walkway with a bucket of food and, once there, get your helpers to stand behind it with their slapboards to prevent it from turning or backing. Stand in front of it, encouraging it forward with your voice and with food, while the helpers at the back persuade the pig to move forward. Take your time, for you want to keep the pig as calm as possible. Not moving at all – although it is infuriating – is better than moving backwards at great speed.

Generally pigs only move forward if they are comfortable doing so. It is therefore imperative that the ramp is stable and won’t rock once the pig has stepped on it. If it moves, your pig will be startled and will back off the ramp, making it harder to reload. You may find that putting straw in the walkway and on the ramp helps to persuade the pig to move forward into the trailer, as does laying a trail down the ramp of food that it likes, such as carrots or apples. At all times encourage it with your voice and never get angry. Loading one pig (or even two) can often be harder than loading several. Store pigs tend to follow one another, once you have one going up the ramp.

Safety warning

Never position yourself in front of or at the side of a boar’s face. Boars have tusks and can cause considerable damage just by tossing their heads. If you have to stand close to a boar, make sure you are behind his shoulders.

Handling boars

By nature boars are more aggressive than females, so they should always be handled with respect and firmness, no matter how quiet they seem. Never trust a boar completely, no matter how well you know him. When you are moving him around, always keep one eye on what he is doing and where he is. Be aware that boars are a lot bigger and more substantial than sows, so one could hurt you even without meaning to by knocking you to the ground. If you have sows near by, especially if they are in season, a boar’s personality could change without warning, so it is always a good idea to have a slapboard with you or at least within easy reach.

Establish the ground rules early on concerning what is acceptable and what isn’t. It may seem like a bit of fun for a young pig to nibble your boots at a few months old, but what happens when he’s a fully grown boar and takes a bite instead of a nibble? Don’t allow a boar to barge into you, especially at feeding time. One day he could push you over, and you are then in a vulnerable position. However, don’t be frightened of your boar: give him the same amount of attention you give the other pigs, to build up a good relationship with him. Just like the others, he will enjoy being talked to and given a good scratch and a rub.

When moving your boar from pen to pen, it is worth always having someone to help you, especially if you need to take him past other pigs. Walking past other boars is to be avoided at all costs.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Choosing and Keeping Pigs

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Taken with permission from Choosing and Keeping Pigs by Linda McDonald-Brown, Firefly Books 2009