Jason McAlister, animal welfare manager for Triumph Foods, took a four-hour ride in the back of a trailer loaded with pigs.
Jason McAlister, animal welfare manager for Triumph Foods, took a ride with pigs.

One of the themes of this year’s Animal Care & Handling Conference, hosted each October by the North American Meat Institute in Kansas City, Mo., was the issue of transportation of livestock. On the second day of the conference, attendees got a pig’s-eye perspective of live-hog hauling from Jason McAlister, who took an unprecedented approach to learning more about the issue. McAlister, the animal welfare manager with St. Joseph, Mo.-based Triumph Foods, shared data and observations he collected while riding in a pot-belly trailer full of live hogs being transported at highway speeds en route to Triumph’s slaughter plant, traveling for over four hours.

McAlister’s brave venture in the back of a trailer wasn’t in the name of thrill seeking. Transportation issues related to shipment of livestock result in bottom-line losses in the form of DOAs (dead on arrivals) and weak pigs. The repercussions can result in slower unloading times, injured animals, longer wait times at the plants and stressed-out animals. The responsibility for who contributes to the cause for the transportation segment of the food supply chain is a challenging one. 

Jason McAlister, animal welfare manager for Triumph Foods
Jason McAlister, animal welfare manager for Triumph Foods

“So who loses in this situation – we all do,” said McAlister, and all segments play a role in being accountable for the aspects of transport they control. Across all the segments, training is essential and auditing of the practices and tracking the problems to their source is helpful.

Part of the solution also includes maintaining and updating equipment and facilities, McAlister pointed out, adding, “you have to spend some money but you’ll get money in return” in the form of lower mortality rates and healthier hogs. One way of saving money is doing less, in terms of lowering the density of animals per shipment.

Short of climbing in the back of a trailer, McAlister said it is beneficial to ride along with the truck drivers in their cabs to learn some of the challenges they face when hauling live animals. During a three-hour trip, he said, “You’ll glean something out of that experience, and there will be a kernel in there and you’ll be able to learn something with each trip you take.”

Getting to know drivers is valuable and gaining their trust by communicating with them and riding along with them is a good way of earning that trust. He also encourages producers to observe the loading and unloading process (without compromising biosecurity policies) and schedule audits of unloading of animals. Communication is the key, he said.

Fear and loading

When it came to the idea of taking his role to the next level, McAlister said he first assumed a lot of what he read in audit reports and general observations was sufficient, until he began thinking more about the transportation process. Then when someone asked him what was going on in transport and animal welfare, he told himself: “I’m the animal welfare expert for my company, and I don’t know what that answer is. I don’t know what goes on in the back of that trailer...I just think I know.”

He figured there was only one way to find out. Once he got the long-awaited go ahead to do what was before thought to be unthinkable, McAlister went for his ride. It was 24 degrees that day, and first he went down the rode in an empty trailer at 70 mph, taking wind speed measurements in all parts of the trailer for 92 miles and made periodic stops to take temperature measurements.

Based on those measurements, panels and plugs were placed where it would provide the best protection for the animals the night before they were loaded and he would ride along with them. “Plug and placement were both critical,” he said, as was the evidence of condensation in the trailer once the loaded trailer stopped, which was only a matter of about seven minutes. This he said was mostly due to a lack of ventilation in those isolated areas.

During transport, McAlister took temperature readings in the trailer and despite rapidly rising temperatures ventilation kept temperatures comfortably between 50 degrees and 60 degrees. “In a properly prepared trailer there is nothing I find that is injuring pigs,” he said, barring any extended wait times or rollover accidents. He concluded then that injuries to animals are happening either during loading (load out) or unloading. “Running down the road, there’s nothing going on inside that trailer, short of an accident, that’s going to break an animal’s leg,” he said.

What did happen inside the trailer during what was a four-and-a-half-hour ride in the trailer was that less than half of the animals sat down during transport. After arriving at the plant is when they ultimately sat down and seemed to relax, McAlister added.

Another observation he made was that the noise in the trailer was “extremely loud” during transport and that any methods of reducing that noise without compromising ventilation would be beneficial. Also, McAlister said he never was uncomfortably cold during transport but did report that temperatures of the trailer floor varied widely between a bare floor, floor with bedding and floor with wet bedding.

He said that one of the most surprising findings was that many of the pigs seemed to have experienced motion sickness after about four hours of riding. “Animals were coming over to me and vomiting right at my feet and eventually right on me,” he said. Motion sickness is a factor that should be considered in the future, he concluded.

McAlister shared footage he took from inside the trailer and plans to post it online in the near future.

One of the many takeaways from his courageous ride was the vital role of allowing the right amount of fresh air in and hot air out of the trailer, which created an environment that allowed McAlister to write down his data and notes without needing to wear gloves, which he didn’t expect during the wintertime temperatures.

While his findings were valuable, McAlister said it is impossible to make universal recommendations on loading, using plugs and panels and venting of trailers because of the many factors involved with every shipment of animals. What he does advise is inspection of trailers before loading to identify any potential hazards. This requires education of everyone from the farmhand up through the CEO of the processing company.

“Everybody involved in the transportation and slaughter of animals needs to know and understand what it is to protect the animals,” he said, which is not a one-size-fits-all solution.