Pigs were primarily domesticated from two wild stocks—the European wild boar and the East Indian pig. The Chinese domesticated the pig as early as 4900 BC, and today more than 400 million pigs are reared in China out of 840 million worldwide (Caras 1996).
Pigs are reared primarily for food and have many distinguishing attributes. They grow fast and large, and the sows have large litters and short gestation periods of about 100 to 110 days. Pigs are omnivores and eat berries, carrion, insects and garbage, as well as the corn, silage and pasture of high-production enterprises. They convert 35% of their feed into meat and lard, which is more efficient than ruminant species such as cattle (Gillespie 1997).
Some pig holdings are small—for example, one or two animals, which can represent much of a family’s wealth (Scherf 1995). Large pig operations include two major processes (Gillespie 1997).
One process is pure-bred production, in which pig breeding stock are improved. Within the pure-bred operation, artificial insemination is prevalent. Pure-bred boars are typically used to breed sows in the other major process, commercial production. The commercial production process rears pigs for the slaughter market and typically follows one of two different types of operations. One operation is a two-stage system. The first stage is feeder pig production, which uses a herd of sows to farrow litters of 14 to 16 piglets per sow. The pigs are weaned, then sold to the next stage of the system, the buying and finishing enterprise, which feeds them for the slaughter market. The most common feeds are corn and soybean oil meal. The feed grains are typically ground.
The other and most common operation is the complete sow and litter system. This production operation rears a herd of breeding sows and farrowing pigs, caring for and feeding the farrowed pigs for the slaughter market.
Some sows give birth to a litter that may outnumber her teats. To feed the excess piglets, a practice is to spread piglets from large litters into other sows’ smaller litters. Pigs are born with needle teeth, which are typically clipped at the gum-line before the pig is two days old. Ears are notched for identification. Tail docking occurs when the pig is about 3 days old. Male pigs raised for the slaughter market are castrated before they are 3 weeks old.
Maintaining a healthy herd is the single most important management practice in pig production. Sanitation and the selection of healthy breeding stock are important. Vaccination, sulpha drugs and antibiotics are used to prevent many infectious diseases. Insecticides are used to control lice and mites. The large roundworm and other parasites of pigs are controlled through sanitation and drugs.
Facilities used for pig production include pasture systems, a combination of pasture and low-investment housing and high-investment total-confinement systems. The trend is toward more confinement housing because it produces faster growth than does pasture rearing. However, pasture is valuable in feeding the pig-breeding herd to prevent fattening the breeding herd; it may be used for all or part of the production operation with the use of portable housing and equipment.
Confinement buildings require ventilation to control temperature and moisture. Heat may be added in farrowing houses. Slotted floors are used in confinement houses as a labour-saving approach for handling manure. Fencing and handling feeding and watering equipment are needed for the pig production enterprise. Facilities are cleaned by power washing and disinfecting after all bedding, manure and feed are removed (Gillespie 1997).
Injuries from pigs usually occur within or close to farm buildings. Dangerous environments include slippery floors, manure pits, automatic feeding equipment and confinement buildings. Confinement buildings have a manure storage pit that emits gases that, if not ventilated, can kill not only pigs, but workers as well.
Pig behaviour can pose hazards to workers. A sow will attack if her piglets are threatened. Pigs can bite, step on or knock people down. They tend to stay in or return to familiar areas. A pig will try to return to the herd when attempts are made to separate it. Pigs are likely to balk when moved from a dark area into a light area, such as out of a pig house into the daylight. At night, they will resist moving into dark areas (Gillespie 1997).
In a Canadian study of pig farmers, 71% reported chronic back problems. Risk factors include intervertebral disc loading associated with driving and sitting for long periods while operating heavy equipment. This study also identified lifting, bending, twisting, pushing and pulling as risk factors. In addition, more than 35% of these farmers reported chronic knee problems (Holness and Nethercott 1994).
Three types of air exposures pose hazards on pig farms:
- dust from feed, animal hair and faecal matter
- pesticides used on pigs and other chemicals, such as disinfectants
- ammonia, hydrogen sulphide, methane and carbon monoxide from manure storage pits.
Fires in buildings are another potential hazard, as is electricity.
Some zoonotic infections and parasites can be transmitted from the pig to the worker. Common zoonoses associated with pigs include brucellosis and leptospirosis (swineherd’s disease).
Several safety recommendations have evolved for the safe handling of pigs (Gillespie 1997):
- Working with small pigs in the same pen as the sow should be avoided.
- A hurdle or solid panel should be used when handling pigs to avoid bites and being knocked over.
- A pig can be moved backwards by placing a basket over its head.
- Children should be kept out of pig pens and not allowed to reach through fences to pet pigs.
- Because of their herding instincts, it is easier to separate a group of pigs from a herd than a single animal.
- Pigs can be moved from dark to light areas with the use of artificial light. When pigs are moved at night, such as through chutes or alleys, a light should be placed at the destination.
- Loading chutes should be level or at not more than a 25-degree angle.
Musculoskeletal injury risk can be decreased by reducing exposure to repetitive trauma (by taking frequent breaks or by varying the kinds of tasks), improving posture, reducing the weight lifted (use co-worker or mechanical assistance) and avoiding rapid, jerking movements.
Dust control techniques include lowering stock density to reduce dust concentration. In addition, automatic feed delivery systems should be enclosed to contain dust. Water misting can be used, but it is ineffective in freezing weather and can contribute to the survival of bioaerosols and increase endotoxin levels. Filters and scrubbers in the air handling system show promise in cleaning dust particles from recirculated air. Respirators are another way to control dust exposures (Feddes and Barber 1994).
Vent pipes should be installed in manure pits to prevent dangerous gases from recirculating into the farm buildings. Electrical power should be maintained to vent fans at the pits. Workers should be trained in the safe use of pesticides and other chemicals, such as disinfectants, used in pig production.
Cleanliness, vaccination, quarantine of sick animals and avoiding exposures are ways to control zoonoses. When treating sick pigs, wear rubber gloves. A person who becomes sick after working with sick pigs should contact a physician (Gillespie 1997).