It is important for the welfare and productivity of pigs that they have positive human contact. Positive handling experience makes pigs easier to move, so it is critical to ensure that barn staff in charge of handling the animals have a proper understanding of behavioural principles and that handling the animals creates the least possible amount of stress. Farm staff who are in contact with the animals should receive training on low-stress handling methods and approach handling with patience and a calm attitude.
Managing sows in groups requires different handling skills than when they are in stalls. In the case of free-access stalls, trough or floor feeding, interaction with the animals is limited because the herd can be supervised from the alley way at feeding time without necessarily entering the pens. When ESF systems are used, interaction is necessary for the system to function properly. The producer enters the group every day to monitor the herd and identify problem sows.
Managing sows in groups will involve changes in how work is scheduled. For competitive feeding systems, staff must be present during feeding in order to identify any sows that are not actively feeding and may be compromised due to lameness of bullying. However, most producers have observed that group management reduced the amount of time spent working with gestating sows each day, or at least made the work more pleasant.
The transition to group housing appears to reduce the amount of time spent on the part of the producer; there was a difference of about three fewer hours/sow/year when swine were in groups compared to stalls, given an equivalent-sized herd.
Installing step-through gates is an important innovation that helps greatly when entering sow pens. The step-through gate makes it easy for staff to enter the pen, instead of opening or climbing over gates. Sows cannot pass through, but staff can easily step from one pen to another, increasing safety as well as saving time.