“Are you really seeing what you’re looking at?”

The quote in the heading of this article, by Dr Peter English, is a perfect way to open a piece about good observation, which is, of course, a vital skill for anyone looking after pigs, writes John Gadd.

But there’s one factor that clouds the issue, and that’s habituation. This is the technical term used to describe progressive familiarity. Being so used to an unpleasant or annoying circumstance that over time it isn’t noticed.

Over time, people working with pigs get used to smell, to noise, to dust, to interruptions to their routine, to fumes, and not noticing that pigs are thirsty – all of which become less or not apparent. Most of these habituates can slow the stockperson’s efficiency and damage their health – and all of them affect the performance of their pigs.

I know this only too well. After my days as a stockman, I’ve been left with grade 3 Farmer’s Lung due to dust and moulds. My left ear packed it in long before it should have done due to feeding more than 1,000 fattening pigs twice a day in one enclosed space. And I was off work with a lumbar/sacral strain for four months due to carrying those impossibly heavy jute grain sacks.

All my own fault, of course, for not considering a face mask, ear muffs and being too ready to help with the loading, but this is how things were when you were young and keen. Health and Safety wasn’t even a gleam in a bureaucrat’s eye in those days, and habituation wasn’t even in the Oxford dictionary.

What about the pigs?
The effect of a stuffy atmosphere on growth and on lung health has been well documented. So too have dust particles on health; tiny fragments of dust in the air (just look at a sunbeam) are convenient “taxis” for the spread of disease. The effects of moulds on the pig’s wellbeing, that is mycotoxins, are well recognised, and lately their effect on the immune status of pigs has come to the fore.

Excessive noise raises the stress level, which is thought to adversely affect beneficial hormones. One area of noise associated with restlessness is immediately after breeding and on into implantation, when in my experience keeping the sows quiet and contented pays off handsomely in fewer returns and bigger, more-even litters.

One of the commonest habituates for the stockperson is ammonia (NH3). This reduces performance of the growing pig; and again figures are available on this too. I’ve had a section head say to me: “Thank goodness the smell doesn`t bother me much now”, but at the NH3 level I could smell (and then measured) in the barn, it could well have been doing him damage over time – as well as raising the food conversion of his growers by two whole points.

Habituation is a serious subject for us pig people.

Next time, I will describe how to use the five senses to the full when working with pigs, and so help counteract habituation

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About The Author

John Gadd, who has spent 60 years' involvement in pig production, has had more than 2,800 articles about pigs published and has written three best-selling pig textbooks. With hands-on experience that includes managing a grow-out herd at 1,800ft in Banffshire, Scotland, and 20 years in the allied industries with Boots' Farm Department, RHM Agriculture and Taymix, he set up his own international pig management consultancy in the mid 1980s and has now visited more than 3,000 pig units in 33 countries as a pig management adviser. (Photo courtesy Bournemouth Daily Echo)