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The Effect of Stockpeople on Pigs

24 July 2014

Michigan Pork Quarterly

Tips on finding and retaining staff for the farm by Madonna Gemus-Benjamin, extension swine veterinarian with Michigan State University in 'MSU Pork Quarterly'.

The art of stockmanship enables some people to achieve a response from animals that cannot be achieved by others using the same responses and experience. Finding stockpeople with the appropriate character for the job is important to the productivity and welfare of pigs.

Consider the example of a family farm that expanded its herd from 200 to 700 farrowing to weaning sows and thus required additional labour. The farm owners hired Rose, a neighbour, to work in the farrowing barns. She is confident, hardworking and methodical in her daily routines. Despite an initial lack of experience working with pigs, by eight months at her new position, Rose had reduced pre-weaning mortality from 12.4 per cent to 9.2 per cent.

Although anecdotal, this scenario is familiar to producers and veterinarians who recognize the traits of successful stockpeople.

Data concerning the human factors that influence the relationship between people and animals has shown a considerable impact on the welfare and productivity of farm animals.

Interaction Between Humans and Pigs

Research indicates that the productivity of pigs is related to their interactions with stockpersons and that specific human characteristics (e.g. attitude and personality) are common in good stockpeople (2-8).

In a study using productivity records on 12 single-operator sow farms, Hemsworth and coworkers (1994), measured the behavioural response of pregnant sows to human handlers and compared these measures with the productivity performance of the sows (3). Sow behaviour was measured by individual response to the hand of an approaching experimenter and the time taken to approach the experimenter. Productivity was determined by the number of piglets born alive per sow.

On farms where the average number of total piglets born alive per sow was lowest, researchers observed a significantly greater withdrawal response to the experimenter’s hand and slower approach behaviour.

Positive and Negative Handling

Several studies have investigated the effects of positive and negative handling on behavioural and physiological responses in livestock (4-8). A study that measured behaviour and growth performance in growing pigs demonstrated that a handling regimen of regular aversive treatments, resulted in increase avoidance of the handler by pigs and reduced growth rate in juvenile pigs. These effects are probably related to a chronic stress response. Stress hormones, such as cortisol, hinder growth and reproductive performance by disrupting metabolism and key reproductive endocrine events.

A study of male and female pigs indicated that the effect of aversive handling, minimal handling and positive handling, altered the behavioural, physiological and reproductive response of pigs (4). From 11 to 22 weeks of age, gilts and boars were handled three times per week in each of the three handling treatment groups (averse, minimal, positive).

When followed to maturity, the boars in the positive group, were able to breed sooner than those boars in the averse group. The gilts in the positive group maintained 87.5 per cent pregnancy rate; in the averse group, the rate was 33.3 per cent.

Human Characteristics

High quality stockpeople in swine production raise the standard of animal performance and make the business more successful. An evaluation of 12 experienced stockpeople confirmed characteristics such as conscientious, caring, eager to learn, humble and careful observers, were associated with the development of a good relationship between the stockperson and pigs (9).

Attracting and Training

Although many businesses advocate the use of advertisements, a recent summary of employee compensation in pork production sponsored by the National Pork Board (1) indicated that most employees find employment in pig operations by word of mouth or by referral. This system works well, because current employees know what qualities are needed to be successful and are wary of recommending anyone that would reflect poorly on their own character.

One Michigan farm that comes to mind can boast three per cent per year employee turnover with 100 per cent of derived from their locale.

Improved attitudes toward pigs correlates to both improved productivity and animal welfare. The aforementioned farm as part of their operating procedures, trains employees quarterly on proper handling and transport techniques of swine, demonstrating a commitment to care and vigilance of animal welfare. Because of this commitment, they invited further training and MSU extension was given the opportunity to present training in low stress handling (LSH).

This farm reported that they still “learned something more” after the training and in a follow up survey to the training, 92.9 per cent of respondents indicated that the LSH training increased their knowledge of handling pigs.


According to an old story, a farmer in need of a farmhand posted a notice in the village. Three promising youths responded, and the farmer met with each in turn. After asking the first youth about his background, the farmer asked a peculiar question. “Tell me, how long can you work with a stone in your shoe?” “Half a day,” answered the youth. The farmer thanked him and sent him on his way.

The farmer then spoke with the second young man and again concluded with the question, “How long can you work with a stone in your shoe?” “All day long!” boasted the young man. The farmer sent him on his way. When the farmer asked the third youth the same question, he responded, “Not a minute! When I get a stone in my shoe, I take it out right away.” The youth was hired on the spot.

A good stockperson appreciates priorities and is willing to be side-tracked from routine duties to attend to animals in need, (9) which is not always evident in a traditional interview. In the earlier described 12 single-operator sow study, the scores given of stockpeople by managers and consultants relating to the technical skill, knowledge, work attitude and effort were not closely related to the fear response of sows to stockpeople (3).

One way to hire employees who are problem solvers (the ability to take information and sort through it and recognize what’s working [10]), enjoy human-pig interaction and are motivated to learn is through a “hands on” interview. The applicant works in various stations of the operation while the interviewer observes the applicant’s ability to handle themselves and care for the pigs. The applicant is asked to move pigs down an aisle, place piglets into a cart at weaning, or clean out from behind sows. Even under supervision, the unpredictably of livestock will demonstrate the applicant’s problem-solving ability. An inexperienced applicant who readily perceives that one tactic is not working and changes to another can develop into a stockperson capable of recognising a pig’s response, assimilating this new information.


Traditionally, the producer (farmer, owner, manager) of the swine unit was the stockperson and pig handling skills were passed down from the previous generation. The farm structure was such that family members worked together, and rarely dismissed another because of inappropriate handling of livestock.

As producers hire and train employees as stockpeople, many of whom are new to the industry, their attitude and ability can be shaped through constant information and on-farm training of best-management practices for animal handling and movement, animal health diagnosis and treatment, and other topics related to animal care.

Although the author does not expect every person to consider stockmanship as a vocation, she is optimistic about the ability of the swine industry to provide rewarding careers to more people like Rose.


1. The Compensation and HR Practices Survey for the Swine Industry. Conducted for the National Pork Board by AgCareers. com, 2012.

2. Pearce, G.P., A.M. Paterson and A.N. Pearce. 1989. The influence of pleasant and unpleasant handling and the provision of toys on the growth and behaviour of male pigs. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 23:27-37.

3. Hemsworth P.H., Barnett J.L. and Hansen C. 1986. The influence of handling by humans on the behaviour, reproduction, and corticosteroids of male and female pigs. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 15:303-314.

4. Hemsworth P.H., G.J. Coleman and J.L. Barnett. 1994. Improving the attitudes and behaviour of stockpeople towards pigs and the consequences and the behaviour and reproductive performance of commercial pigs. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 40:129-142.

5. Hemsworth P.H. 2003. Human animal interactions in livestock productions. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 81:85-98.

6. Marchant, J.N., M.T. Mendl, A.R. Rudd and D.M. Broom. 1995. The effect of agonistic interactions on heart rate of grouphoused sows. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 46:49-56.

7. Anderson, D.B.., D.J. Ivers, M.E. Benjamin, H.W. Gonyou, D.J. Jones, K.D. Miller, R.K. McGuffey, T.A. Armstrong, D.H. Mowray, L.F. Richardson, R. Seneriz, J.R. Wagner, L.E. Watkins and A.G. Zimmerman. 2002. Physiological responses of market hogs to different handling practices. Presented at: American Association of Swine Veterinarians. Kansas City, Mo.

8. Gemus-Benjamin, M.E., P. Bartlet, R. Nachreiner and A.J. Zanella. 1998. Human characteristics and handling strategies:effect on the physiological and behavioural responses of juvenile pigs. In: Proc International Pig Veterinary Society, Birmingham UK.

9. Ravel A., D’Allaire S., Bigras Poulin M. and Ward R. 1996. Influence of the management, housing and personality for the stockperson on pre-weaning performance on independent and integrated swine farms in Quebec. Can J Vet Res.

10. Aronoff J. and Wilson J.P. 1985. Information processing, in Personality in the Social Process. Hillsdale, NJ. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1985, p150-177.

July 2014

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