Cooper Farms began their hog business in 1994 and now moves 600,000 and 700,000 pigs a year from barns to trailers to packing plants. Like most hog operations, the pigs were loaded with chutes from the barn into the back of a trailer. That changed in 2009, however, due to an innovative idea of Alan Evers, a Hog Grow-Out Manager for Cooper Farms, encouraging company to research a way to improve this daunting process and reduce stress for the pigs and the people loading them.
The idea for the hog loader began from observing the loading process on a daily basis and brainstorming ways to improve, Evers said. Click here to see the loader in action.
“We were looking for better ways — mainly for our employees, because that’s a lot of physical work for those guys. Pushing 270- to 280-pound pigs, chasing them up the ramps to trailers — that’s a lot of physical work. The stress of the pigs walking up a ramp is just like you and I — it is a little harder to go uphill. The pigs don’t like to go, they’re in no hurry, they go their own pace, and can be quite contrary
sometimes. Traditional loading stresses out the pigs and the people. For the pig to walk to the barn and to the truck and be delivered to a packing plant is very similar to us running a marathon. The lactic acid in their muscles builds up. If you and I were to run a marathon we would be trained for it, but these pigs are not prepared for the loading process,” Evers said. “We noticed the main factor causing stress in these hogs is the different environment, not so much fear, but the fact they’re in a different environment not with their pen mates. The truck has vibrations, turns, and everything else. For the hogs, standing up in these trailers involves exerting some energy just to keep their position during the ride.”
Reducing stress on the pigs improves the end product.
“It prevents meat quality issues. If the hogs are stressed the meat quality certainly isn’t as good as a pig that’s well rested upon arrival at the packing plant,” Evers said. “We also wanted to go away from electric prods when loading. With these thoughts in mind, we began our research and started trying some different concepts to make these pigs move easier.”
The loader connects the barn and the side of the trailer. It eliminates any exposure to inclement weather and offers consistent controlled lighting. The loader features three compartments: a loading bay that allows pigs to be continually moved out of the barn, a resting bay that allows time for pigs to acclimate to their new surroundings and a hydraulic lift bay that allows pigs to be loaded on the top or bottom deck of the trailer.
“At first, we made some homemade designs to try it out, and came up with a loader that would allow us to reduce stress and get away from electric prods which was one of our goals. With this system the pigs move much easier than with a ramp and completely different than the chute,” Evers said. “This innovative hog loading system is on wheels so we can pull it down the road and hook it up to the back of a pick-up truck. It’s backed up to the door of the barn, and a hydraulic extension slides out of the back, like a slider on a camper. Once it’s extended it seals up to the barn, there is no escape of air and no light, and the loader essentially turns into a continuation of the barn. The front side is unhooked from the truck, then extends into the side of the semi trailer that is being loaded.”
With the loader connecting the barn and the trailer, a group of up to 15 pigs is moved into the back bay of the loader. Once the first group is in, the next resting area in the middle of the loader is opened and the pigs move forward. The front bay of the loader is hydraulic and once the group is secured there, the pigs will be loaded through the open side of the trailer. The bay is raised if they are going on the top deck.
“The loader is wide open, so we have to get them over a small threshold, but they can see the wide-open space in front of them which is why we like loading into the side of the trailer. This eliminates the ‘I’m going to be confined’ feeling pigs have. There are no stairs or ramps, saving the energy that it takes that pig to go up those steps,” Evers said. “The order of loading doesn’t make any difference, but typically we start at the bottom to avoid getting top heavy. The entire system is totally sealed. There are no safety issues with the lift and no employee pinch points.”
Through the process of designing the loader, Evers tried to put himself in the position of the animal while being loaded.
“When you walk into a narrow dark hallway you’re cautious, the pigs are too. While walking in a room, if it was a single small door with a hallway you would be a little bit more cautious, take your time and make sure it was safe, just like with pigs. Pigs are naturally curious so when we open it up more we can avoid that feeling of confinement and being trapped,” Evers said. “They are going to move through that door, and really have no fear. When they can visually see that and smell and hear and have an environment that they feel safe in, there’s less stopping, and less fighting. In addition, just like us, moving through wide open spaces by yourself in an unknown area will make you more cautious, but it will be less when in a group of 10 or 12, which is the group size of the hogs being loaded out. Through the different bays the pigs can see pigs. Because of that they know it’s safe and they’re more likely to move through those thresholds.”
Cooper Farms employees engineered and carried out the idea for this hog loader from start to finish.
“It took us about six to nine months to come up with the actual design and a few months to build. From the beginning it was about a year and a half to work through trial and error and build the loader,” Evers said. “Currently, we have four hog loaders and are working on the fifth one this year. We hope each version is a little bit improved. Our last two we had built were a little bit more professionally engineered. The fifth one we are currently building will have some more changes.”
The cost of constructing the first loader was approximately $100,000, but through the first five years of use transport death loss was reduced by 37%.
“The return on investment is about three years, but the reduction in DOAs and stress on the hogs makes it immediately worth it. We have had a number of companies come take a look at the concept,” Evers said. “This system is attractive to us because have our own loading crews. Our company is centrally located and not spread out very far, so running the hog-loader from site to site doesn’t add much cost to us. This system is a good fit for us, but certainly not a good fit for everybody. We built our sites to match our loaders. We had to do some minor retrofits on some older barns, but now we build to work for this system.”
The unique loader design fits in with the safety goals and broader philosophies at Cooper Farms.
“Animal care has always been a focus for us, it is very important for us to make sure these animals are handled and taken care of properly. It is goal one is to make sure we are taking care of these animals. Our livelihood depends on it and the same with our employees,” Evers said. “We are a family here so we want to take care of our employees here like families. If we can invest a little bit of money in our employees, it’s not a hard sell to take care of the animals and the people.”
The idea to change the hog loading process revolutionized the way Cooper Farms loads hogs, said Jenessa Huftel, the Safety Manager at the Fort Recovery site of Cooper Farms.
“A lot of our guys will have strains, sprains, knee injuries, or be sore at the end of the day. Using traditional methods to load hogs causes a lot of stress on the knees. With the hogs willingly walking forward, there is not as much stress on our employees like there was in the past,” she said. “From a trend standpoint this hog loader has definitely been a positive thing, the complaints and issues brought to us in the past have decreased a lot. We never had a lot of actual injuries, but many complaints, and there has definitely been an improvement since the new hog loader came into place. We assume we save ourselves about two injuries a year. When you look at how expensive an injury could be — you have your worker’s compensation, your team member, lost time, people to fill that time — all those extra costs can pile up really quickly. “
The hog loader system has earned attention and accolades, Huftel said. Cooper Farms sent a video of their hog loading system to Temple Grandin and received a letter back sharing how not only did she watch it, but she was also very impressed.
“In 2016 we took the loader to the Safety Innovation Contest put on by the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation and won first place throughout the state of Ohio. We also received the people’s choice award,” Huftel said. “When it comes to taking care of our team members, one of the most important things we stress to our guys is that safety comes first, and it is an open-door policy. We want them to be able to come in with any issues they might have. The whole time they were building the loader, all of their feedback and suggestions they brought straight to these crew guys because they were the ones loading every night. They each had a lot of input, which was really cool.”
This is the third story in a series of safety related articles in cooperation with the Ohio AgriBusiness Association and its members.