Every animal has unique management requirements. Volumes have been written concerning diet and shelter, but much less has been penned regarding the actual logistics of moving livestock around. Perhaps that’s because too often, even at the backyard scale, farmers don’t move their animals much. Moving animals is critical for hygiene and ecological function. Loading animals for movement is critical for harvest. New critter sitters frequently overlook the nuances of animal psychology, and then have horrible experiences trying to load their animals.
While one of these columns could no doubt be written for every species of domestic livestock, I’ll devote this one to moving pigs because pigs involve the biggest handling nightmares. Anyone who has ever raised them has a pig-loading story. I certainly do, dating way back to our first pigs and our profound ignorance.
When I was about 15 years old and my older brother was 18, my dad had an appointment at the local locker plant (“abattoir”) to process our two hogs. We’d raised them on excess milk from our two Guernsey cows, whey left over from cottage cheese production, weeds from the garden, and some grain.
Two friendlier pigs could not exist. They were in a typical, torn-up, muddy pig yard near the barn. The oversized lot, surrounded by an electric fence, offered plenty of exercise space. A large wooden box (the shipping container for our 1952 Ford) served as a makeshift shelter. The pigs were as close to pets as farm animals can get — they enjoyed belly rubs, lots of attention, and plenty of treats. Every time they saw us, they would come running, expecting some tasty morsel or manifestation of affection.
The appointed morning of their departure, however, was a different story. We had a low trailer backed up to the electric fence. We got the pigs confined within four gates that were a bit larger than pallets. With my dad, my brother, and me manhandling the four gates, we expected to ease the pigs toward, and then into, the trailer. We made a berm so they wouldn’t need to step up at all. We figured it would be a piece of cake to scoot the portable corral over and into the trailer. After all, these pigs were friends!
Yeah, right. Surrounding them with the four-gate square was easy after we tempted them with some fresh Guernsey milk. But as soon as they felt confined, the war commenced (as my grandmother would say). Squealing and pushing, the pigs made the three of us humans feel like we were on a circus ride. Standing on the gates, jostling from side to side, we managed to scoot the pigs about 2 feet in 15 minutes. My brother and I were supposed to catch the school bus. Dad had to get to his town job.
As time ebbed, our frustration mounted and certainly transferred to the pigs. Frustration turned to desperation. The pigs, each weighing nearly 300 pounds, literally wore us out. Sweat soaked our skin; the pigs squealed and lifted the gates with their snouts. The three of us jumped from one gate to the other to counteract each of our porcine beauties’ attacks. When we thwarted the pigs’ efforts on one gate, they would wheel and attack the opposite gate. We, of course, had to catapult over the contraption to the other side to beat them to the new point of attack.
Before half an hour was up, we could hold on no longer. The pigs lifted up one side before we could get there, and with the agility of hummingbirds and the strength of elephants, they escaped to the far side of their paddock and stood there, heads lowered, glowering at us. I could almost hear them saying, “You fools. Who do you think you are, trying to outsmart us pigs?”
We called it quits, canceled the abattoir appointment, hit the showers, and went on with our day, nursing sores and bruises and fighting fatigue. After consulting some old-timers in the area, we conceived a new plan for pig transport. We tucked the electric fence underneath the trailer, made a ramp, and began feeding the pigs in the trailer. It took them half a day to venture up the ramp to their meal. Food is a powerful incentive to a hog, and they couldn’t resist. We fed them morning and evening in the trailer for a week.
Dad made a new appointment at the abattoir for the following week. By that time, when the pigs saw us coming with a bucket, they would run up into the trailer and wait for their goodies. The morning of the departure, Dad simply swung the door closed after they ran in and then took the pigs to their abattoir appointment.
So here’s the secret to pig handling and moving pigs: Movement is much easier if the pigs want to go where you want them to go. Such a statement sounds ridiculously simple, but farmers often try to make pigs go where humans want them to go without thinking about how to make such a journey enticing to the pig.
The easiest and quickest way to incentivize a pig is with food. And nothing propels a pig forward to a treat faster than hunger. If you have a move planned, let the pigs run out of feed, or if you feed them daily, skip a day. A 24-hour fast won’t hurt the pig any more than it would hurt you or me. But it works wonders on the trajectory of the pig. A little planning for a fast can go a long way toward making a move efficient.
The next thing to remember about a pig is the extreme lowness of its center of gravity and its sight line. When I illustrate this point in my public presentations, I usually get down on the floor and crawl around the room, describing what I see. If I encounter someone standing, I describe their legs and how easily I think I could go through them, kind of like a series of traffic cones.
A 300-pound pig can thus upend a 200-pound human before you can say Mother Earth News. I’ve been made a fool by a pig more times than I care to admit. You can’t imagine the leverage and power — and agility — of a pig in a confined situation when it wants to get through you.
To mitigate this physical — and physics — difference, we use swine sort boards. You can make them out of plywood or buy them from farm suppliers. I assure you, they’re worth their weight in gold. These boards are roughly 30 inches high and come in various lengths — 36, 48, and 60 inches — with two handles on top. They allow a human to create an opaque portable fence. They turn the pig’s low sight line into a liability by making the pig think it has come up against an immovable wall.
That the wall moves doesn’t register with the pig. All the pig knows is that it can’t see beyond that wall. We don’t do anything with pigs unless we have several sort boards on hand.
The third thing to remember is that pigs love to hug the ground. They don’t like to walk up chutes or feel a space between them and the ground. Lowboy trailers are now so common that most farms don’t use elevated chutes to load onto trucks. If you do use an elevated chute, make sure it’s sturdy and has a solid floor. The most functional option is a chute with a dirt floor so the pigs never feel elevated. When getting pigs to jump up into a trailer, a bale of hay or straw to shut off the light between the floor and the ground can help encourage the pigs to climb in. A little feed or some treats sprinkled in the trailer will also be helpful. Sprinkling some feed leading up to the trailer will give continuity to the enticement.
Finally, pigs are smart. Building trust with them is harder than with any other animal. They size up your intentions and generally don’t assume that you have their best interests at heart. Whereas a cow learns quickly to come to an open electric fence gate, a pig does not.
Therefore, we always put a physical gate in the electric fence. That way, when we want to transport the pigs to another paddock, they don’t have to trust us to remove the electric fence. They’re used to scratching and rubbing on the physical gate (we prefer wood, because it insulates and therefore can’t short out as easily if something goes haywire), so when we open it, they have no reluctance to go through. After the pigs are 200 pounds or so, they’ll begin to trust and will go through electric fence gates. They’ll never go through as easily as cows, but you can dispense with the physical gate after you’ve been together for several months.
With these pig-moving basics in mind, you can reduce your nightmares and increase your fond memories. In this case, an unexciting experience is a good thing.