Diane DeWitte

October is a busy and favorite time of year for all of us in agriculture.  Harvest is happening and there’s a lot to be done in crisp fall weather.  Most farm families are working through repeated long days and short nights.

The Covid pandemic’s residual requirements and effects on farm family health have left us with additional thoughts about how to deal with emergencies and how to practice all levels of safety at work.  With that in mind, it’s a good time to review some of the most important safety issues facing swine producers.

The various stages of swine production produce different kinds of safety issues, including health challenges to both pig and caretaker. 

Zoonotic diseases

A zoonotic disease is one which can pass from animal to human or vice versa.  A common example in cattle and small ruminants is ringworm, the skin fungus which spreads easily.  While ringworm in pigs is possible, it’s not much of an issue.  More common is the chance of influenza spreading from caretakers to pigs or back. 

The influenza viruses found in swine can infect humans, although it isn’t a common risk.  However, human influenza viruses can infect pigs and can cause the outbreak of new viruses in the herd.  Swine health professionals today lament that in many large herds, influenza is present on a regular basis.  For this reason, producers vaccinate against swine influenza.  Human caretakers must also get a seasonal flu vaccination to reduce the chances of variant viruses forming and infecting the swine herd.  

Additional influenza information for swine producers can be found on the U.S. Center for Disease Control website at http://www.cdc.gov/flu/swineflu

Children on the farm

Children who have grown up on the farm often have supreme confidence in the barn and on the machinery.  While it is true that many farm youth learn responsibility at an early age, their ability may not be as well-developed as their confidence.  When the children are present, ensure they understand your farm rules — both when working with pigs and when moving around the machinery. 

Good safety habits should include stepping out of the way when the adults are moving pigs, unless the youth have been trained and assigned a role in the process. Know that mama pigs can get upset when their babies are handled or when they squeal. Stay away from the barn when the manure is being pumped. Stand a safe distance from the PTO shaft when it is running. It is also important to not run up to any farm equipment until it has come to a stop and is not running.

Adults must remember to remove the keys from machinery and trucks when exiting.  Keys hanging in a vehicle are a tremendous temptation to children. 

Working with animals

Handling piglets during post-farrowing health care can cause the sows to become agitated.  If the pigs begin to squirm and make noise, the sow will respond to protect her young.  Caretakers working with young pigs should keep a sorting panel close to block the sow from causing injury.

With the exception of young piglets and nursery pigs, most of the animals on the hog farm outweigh the caretaker.  Steel-toed footwear is a must.  In both Pork Quality Assurance Plus and Transport Quality Assurance certification education for producers, the most highly recommended animal-handling implement is a solid sorting panel.  The panel ensures the safety of both caretaker and pig. 

Although many swine operations today conduct reproduction through artificial insemination, most still have a few boars on the farm for heat detection.  A large sexually mature male animal on the farm should be moved and handled with caution and protection.  Again, the solid sorting panel is the tool of choice when moving boars. 


Farm safety statistics show that over 80 percent of farm workers and 73 percent of swine veterinarian have accidentally stuck themselves with a needle while giving injections to livestock.  Most accidental needlestick injuries are minor, but secondary results could be skin infections, allergic reactions, or a wound that might need surgery.  

Vaccines are the most common product that animal handlers inject into themselves.  In swine farrowing settings, hormone products used to induce labor in pigs carry a warning against exposure to or accidental injection by pregnant humans.  If possible, in the pig barn, pregnant employees should not handle hormones. 

In addition to medical issues caused by rushed or thoughtless needle handling, mechanical problems can occur.  Bent needles should never be straightened and used needles should be disposed of in proper sharps containers.  Appropriate low-cost sharps containers are empty plastic detergent or fabric softener bottles with the lid screwed on tightly.  Milk jugs are too flimsy for sharps containment and should not be used.  When the sharps container is full, it should be tightly capped, sealed with heavy tape, and labeled that it contains sharps.  Different counties have differing methods that they recommend for sharps disposal.  A call to the county environmental services department can provide information for producers’ sharps disposal. 

University of Minnesota’s collaboration with the Upper Midwest Ag Safety and Health Center (UMASH) has been at the forefront of the needlestick injury issue by providing bilingual fact sheets and producing videos to help farmers teach their animal caretakers.  Needlestick prevention posters and more are available to producers on the internet at umash.umn.edu/needlestick-prevention.

Manure handling safety

With crop harvest in full swing this October, we will soon see plenty of semi-truck manure tankers on the road-side and tractors moving through the fields across our counties.  As harvest progresses and the soil temperature decreases, pig farmers and commercial manure applicators will be working quickly to get hog manure applied and incorporated onto the fields’ crop residue. 

As drivers share the road with the large equipment needed to do this work, it’s important that attention is paid to what’s moving on the road and how fast.  For drivers in farm country, this is also a time to be patient. The operator has limited speed capabilities and may not even know that a driver is behind the equipment. 

Back in the barn, the manure handler has to be extra careful when pumping the pits.  Methane, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide is released as the stored manure is agitated and pumped.  They are naturally-occurring gases, but they pose serious safety risks and can quickly overcome a human or a pig. 

Producers should make sure hog buildings are fully ventilated when moving manure from the pits beneath. Use of the “Stop” tag on barn doors will alert everyone that manure is being pumped. These “Stop” tags can be obtained by contacting the Minnesota Pork Board at (800) 537-7576 or University of Minnesota Extension swine educators Diane DeWitte at stouf002@umn.edu or Sarah Schieck Boelke at schi0466@umn.edu

More information about safe manure handling can be found on the University of Minnesota Extension manure management website at www.extension.umn.edu/manure under the “safety” heading. 

October is the time when we see more farm machinery traffic on the road and in the field, but safety is on farmers’ minds year-round.  Knowing how to work safely with swine, machinery and other caretakers prevents loss or injury of humans and pigs!

Diane DeWitte in an Extension Swine Educator with University of Minnesota Extension based in Mankato, Minn.  She can be reached at stouf002@umn.edu   

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