Recognising and dealing with habituation

Habituation, which I described last time, denotes ‘progressive familiarity’ by stockspeople getting used to unpleasant and usually damaging events over time, which affects their health and the performance of their pigs.

Common habituates include:

SMELL: The leading habituation problem. Every stockperson gets used to ammonia and hydrogen sulphide, methane less so; while carbons dioxide and monoxide are undetectable, with monoxide particularly dangerous. We now have inexpensive detector phials, fitted into a puffer bulb, yet I find only one in 20 bigger farms have them, or use them as they should do once every few weeks.

Detectors must be used at pig level, not at the level of the human nose. Carbon monoxide is heavier than air and any slurry under the slats higher than 70-100mm below the floor of the pen, risks the sleeping pig lying close to the slats inhaling the gas during the night – something that can affect performance.

Learn to recognise the smell of mould in grain, feed and bedding. Habituation to smell over time destroys the stockperson’s ability to detect the often delicate smell of moulds.

TASTE: Working for a feed company years ago, in order to check on food palatability, I used to sample pig foods on the tip of my tongue. Very dangerous. Silly of me for several reasons. Don’t do it.

SIGHT: Good lighting is essential. Needed to pick up slight differences that may be advance warning of trouble to come. Sores, lumps and bumps, pale skin, raised hairs, discharges, faeces quality and colour. Urine colour, especially in sows; pale lemon is normal and a move towards orange/vin santo colour hints at nephritis/cystitis – or maybe lack of water.

Many piggeries are still badly lit, a throwback to the days of expensive electricity bills, but with recent improvement to lighting technology there’s no excuse for inadequate lighting on cost grounds.

PIG HABITS: In growers, wrong-mucking is almost always corrected by looking at where and when the problem occurs. In relation to overcrowding first, and then check air placement and adequacy.

Why aren’t the pigs voiding where they should? I published a 14-point checklist of reasons in my book Pig Production Problems (1993), and things haven’t changed much since then.

Then panting, especially in sows; such a response shows that the sow is approaching or has entered the Evaporative Critical Temperature (ECT) zone and needs immediate cooling – water and airflow – otherwise her metabolism is prejudiced and longer-term damage is done.

TOUCH: Is useful in two main ways. Feeling for the sow’s aitch-bone appearing down through lactation gives at least five days warning of a possible nosedive in body condition – before just looking for it and any ultrasound instrument that I’ve ever used.

Palpating the sow’s udder is a useful skill I was taught years ago by an experienced farrowing section head. It detects discomfort developing from mastitis or MMA, to restlessness just before farrowing due to a turgid cistern needing gentle relief. The first step is to locate a healthy udder in a sow, which helps identify an abnormal one.

SOUND: Pigs talk to you all the time in several ways, not all of them vocally. For example, breathing restlessness last thing at night alerts you to a coming respiratory problem. So last thing at night, don’t switch on the light but open the door a fraction and listen for placid, quiet respiration. Then open the door, stir them up and listen for coughing.

Learn to distinguish the hunger squeal (urgent) from the thirst squeal (grizzling/prolonged). Quite different. The fright/defence (higher to lower register) and aggression sounds (sharp and barking) are different again. But in youngsters and some gilts, what I call woofing allied to quick movement signifies high spirits/devilment.

Part of the joy in keeping pigs is learning to recognise these sounds, but habituation to noise blunts your appreciation of them.

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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)