URBANA, Ill. -- Losses of pigs in transport to market can be cut by half in some cases, according to ongoing research at the University of Illinois.



"The average rate of loss of pigs during the trip to market averages about 1 percent," said Mike Ellis, an associate professor in the department of animal sciences. "In some of our research studies, we have observed losses as low as 0.3 percent."



Three years ago, Ellis and his graduate students started looking at the problem of transport losses. Some pigs die during the trip from the farm to the packing plant; others are severely stressed.



"We're looking at a variety of factors from animal handling and management on the farm to the transportation process," said Ellis. "More and more, though, we find our work focusing on the transportation phase."



A major challenge of that area is finding out exactly what is happening to the pigs during the trip. To get that view, researchers installed video cameras in trucks to tape the journeys.



The tapes have revealed the importance the number of pigs on a particular truckload plays in losses.



"The more pigs you put on the truck and the less space they have, the chances for losses increases, particularly in warm weather," said Ellis. "It is a little different in cold weather, because when the animals are closer together, they suffer less stress from the cold."



That led the researchers to explore the question of optimal floor space per pig.



"When pigs have a lot of space, they can get thrown around by the stops and turns and that can result in injuries," said Ellis. "Too little space, though, can increase transport losses."



Ellis and his team are still in the process of determining the optimal space, fine-tuning the calculations for seasonal differences.



The tapes also revealed that, contrary to the prevalent thought, almost all the pigs remained standing during the journey from the farm to the packing plant -- sometimes for as long as three hours.



"If you think about it, a person traveling on the back of a truck without any seats would also stand for all of the journey to brace themselves against the truck movements just trying to keep their balance," said Ellis.



Additional research focuses on gaining a clearer understanding of all factors during transport.



"We're putting sensors into commercial swine transport trailers to look at the temperature, humidity, air movement and other environmental factors during the trip," said Ellis. "We'll also look at the conditions of the journey -- the speed, the stops and so forth. We hope to build up a picture of the transportation environment.



"This should help in the design of an optimal transport trailer that would maintain the optimal environment under all conditions."



And they haven't stopped looking at on-farm techniques.



"We've found that if the pigs are fed too close to the time of transport, you increase the chance for losses," said Ellis. "If you keep the pigs off feed for 12 hours prior to transport, you tend to have fewer losses. At this point, we're not sure why.



"We hope to begin producing management recommendations for producers to follow before putting the pigs on the truck."



Funding for the research is provided by the National Pork Board, Elanco Animal Health, and Maschoff Inc., a family-owned production system in southern Illinois.



SOURCE: University of Illinois news release.