Moving and handling pigs

Use this information to learn why pigs behave in certain ways, how they respond to humans and how to handle them effectively.
Back to Husbandry and welfare of pigs

Maintaining high standards of welfare when handling and moving livestock affects animal performance, carcase quality, profitability and reputation.

What are the benefits of good handling?

Maintaining high standards of welfare is linked to better health and performance of livestock. Proper handling will also improve carcase quality, reduce issues at processing and ensure good carcase yield.

High standards of handling also demonstrate our commitment to meeting consumer expectations at a time of ever-increasing scrutiny.

The standards of welfare in the UK are underpinned by the Five Freedoms, as defined by the Animal Welfare Committee (AWC) and defined in the Code of practice for the welfare of pigs.

The Five Freedoms

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour.
  2. Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
  3. Freedom from pain, injury or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
  4. Freedom to express normal behaviour by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animals’ own kind.
  5. Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and treatment to avoid mental suffering.

The Five Freedoms should be considered in conjunction with AWC’s Three Essentials of Stockmanship, which should be the basis of education, training and motivational programmes for stockpeople.

Three Essentials of Stockmanship

  1. Knowledge of animal husbandry – sound knowledge of the biology and husbandry of farm animals, including how their needs may be best provided for in all circumstances.
  2. Skills in animal husbandry – demonstrable skills in observation, handling, care and treatment of animals, and problem detection and resolution.
  3. Personal qualities – affinity and empathy with animals, dedication and patience.

What to consider when moving and handling pigs

Good pig handling and management is key to the health, welfare and productivity of your pigs. Being skilled in this area also increases job satisfaction and reduces the time taken to carry out routine tasks.

In addition to the information and resources found on this page, guidance on the appropriate handling of pigs at all stages of production can also be found in Defra’s Code of practice for the welfare of pigs. 

Loading and unloading can be the most stressful part of the journey for pigs. Handling and moving animals properly will make the process easier, minimise stress levels for pigs and stockpeople and reduce the risk of injury. 

When handlings pigs, there are three key areas to consider:

  • Pig behaviour
  • People
  • Facilities

Electric goads should not be used

To make moving pigs as smooth, efficient and stress-free as possible, you should use appropriate movement aids and well-planned walkways. Stockpeople should be calm and demonstrate correct moving and handling behaviour. Consider the following:

  • Preparation: before moving pigs, walk the route and clear any obstructions or potential barriers that could affect pig flow
  • Walkways: non-slip level flooring, solid sides, minimal distractions and corners, consistent lighting
  • Aids: rattle, sort board, flag, plastic paddle
  • Behaviour: work calmly, quietly and never hit, kick or push a pig
  • Move pigs in small groups and avoid mixing pigs from different groups
You can keep a record of your training on PigPro, a web-based CPD system Find out about our skills and training courses

Criteria for moving and handling pigs

Why can moving and handling pigs be difficult?

You may find yourself asking, why do pigs move and react the way they do?

Pig behaviour can be influenced by people. As a pig handler, you need to be self-aware about what you are doing and how the pig will respond.

The instinctive response of pigs to a potential threat, such as being moved/handled by humans, can be either fight, flight or freeze. It is important to try and avoid triggering one of these responses.

Pigs behave like prey animals – they will avoid any perceived threat and respond to sudden noises, jerky movements and aggression with behaviours that can make movement and handling difficult.

While pigs have good all-round sight, their forward vision lacks depth perception. This means any changes in surfaces and obstacles can result in pigs being reluctant to move forward and they will often stop and investigate new items, surfaces and obstructions before moving – this is normal behaviour and should be allowed.

If you don’t allow time for pigs to investigate their surroundings, and put pressure on them to keep moving, they will probably bunch together and become stressed. High-pitched squeals and heavy breathing, accompanied by the tight grouping of animals, are signs that pigs are experiencing a stressful situation.

When signs of stress are observed it is essential to:

  • Take a step back and provide additional space
  • Pause, allow the excitement and stress levels to decrease
  • Identify what has caused pigs to stop moving – can it be moved/avoided, is there a simple solution?
  • Give pigs time to assess threats and move forwards freely
  • Assess your own stress levels – if you are stressed, pause, breathe slowly and allow yourself to calm before moving forwards
  • Reassess the moving and handing process for the next move

It is essential that pigs do not become afraid when you are trying to move them

  • Fear and anger only make problems worse. Pigs respond to fear by grouping together, this limits movement and makes the task of moving your pigs difficult
  • Pigs will have remembered responses to actions, places and people, making future moves more complicated and likely to fail
  • Pig and pork quality is significantly reduced when animals are stressed and in fear i.e. poor quality handling reduces overall profitability
  • Good handling is a key factor affecting the reputation of the pig industry 

Moving and handling facilities

If you get the following aspects right, it will be much easier to move your pigs.

Flooring

Pigs, like humans, have a natural fear of falling, so if the floor surface is slippery or uneven, they will probably slow down – remember to pause and allow pigs time to move. As well as making sure the floor is even, try to avoid making the pigs cross multiple surfaces, as this will also cause them to slow down or stop. 

Where changes in surfaces are unavoidable, use natural materials that pigs are familiar with, such as straw. When approaching a boundary between two different surfaces, give pigs time to stop, smell and observe the surface before moving forwards. 

Walls and barriers

Pigs have wide, panoramic vision and can see things happening to the side of them. Solid sides will reduce distraction and spooking and encourage them to move along at a consistent walking pace, rather than focusing on what’s happening around them.

Turns

Turns will slow pigs down. Try to make routes direct, with minimal turns and corners.

Light

Whenever there is a sharp contrast in light, pigs must readjust their sight. They will generally move more easily from dark to light, but the reverse can be difficult. The ideal day for moving pigs is a dull day, when there will be fewer sharp contrasts. If there are contrasts, give the pigs more time to move through these areas.

Obstructions

Shovels, brooms and anything else left in walkways can be perceived as a threat. Pigs will stop and examine items, which can disrupt flow. Before moving your pigs, walk the route and remove any obstacles or equipment that could stop the flow of pigs.

Plan ahead

As mentioned above, pigs will avoid risk or threat wherever possible. By planning the route and ensuring all access gates are open, obstructions are removed and gaps in walls are blocked, pigs have a limited, but clear, choice of movement.

No matter how often you move pigs, checking each of these areas will make the process less stressful for your animals and make the task easier for you and your team. 

Work instructions

Work instruction: restraining pigs Work instruction: loading and unloading pigs Work instruction: humanising pigs
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Smart pig handling video from Manitoba Pork

Podcast: Why is good handling so important for everyone in the chain?

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