This Little Piggy Went to MarketSam Comstock
One of our sows farrowed a couple of nights ago. It was a small litter, with only 5 pigs, and to make matters worse, she sat on one. My wife had been giving me daily updates and predictions on when the farrowing would occur, and she had pinned the date and time down quite well. Unfortunately, the sow started farrowing during suppertime, unattended, and it was one of those first pigs that got flattened. Then, once she had an attentive audience, the remaining deliveries were spread out over hours.
Our kids always like to go out and watch the deliveries, whether it is pigs, lambs, goats, or calves, and it makes for what we Extension folks call great "teachable moments". This sow, for example, provided another lesson on the fragility of life. She also helped with anatomy, since two of the pigs had to be pulled by hand. Our kids, like nearly all farm kids, have no doubt about where babies come from. Sometimes we get on shaky ground, having to explain biology to the kids visiting friends. One, for example, could not imagine what was happening to a cow when it was calving - it turned out she had never wondered or been told where babies came from, and suddenly we found ourselves supplying the answer.
It gets a bit sticky on the other end of reproduction, too, when the kids try to explain their heat-checking chores. We've never had a bull or boar on the farm, which means they've also seen a fair bit of heat detection and artificial insemination (AI), but I think the ram and goat buck managed to titillate them the most.
Many people don't realize that pigs are relatively easy to breed artificially. Just like with cattle, there are catalogs of semen available for perusing by the woodstove in the evening. Like cattle, there are genetic predictions available (similar to dairy cattle PTAs and beef cattle EPDs). Unlike cattle, the semen arrives fresh and should be used within five days. This requires a bit more attention to heat detection. A sow may show sign of an oncoming heat in time for you to order the semen (available by overnight delivery), but not all sows are so cooperative.
In addition to problems with heat detection, it is expensive to breed a single sow with AI because there is a $60 delivery fee. If you have multiple sows, you can often manage them in ways to synchronize their heats, splitting the shipping costs between the sows. For example, sows usually come into heat within four days of when their previous litter is weaned. Rebreeding on this heat is routine, and the weaning is easily synchronized. We also coordinate with neighbors when ordering boar semen, although that is a bit more difficult.
Pigs are an easy animal to raise on the small farm, particularly if you are just raising one or two for meat. Some of our May-born pigs were slaughtered in September, while others from the same litters, raised on different farms, were slaughtered in early November. Pigs grow fast, especially if offered free access to a balanced grain ration. But they will also eat a variety of other foods, including spoiled garden vegetables and weeds, Halloween pumpkins, pasture, and other offerings. They will happily eat meat, too, but this brings up a point of caution.
Pigs are biologically similar to humans, and diseases can easily be transmitted from pigs to humans, but also from humans to pigs. Table scraps can potentially carry diseases from humans to pigs - you should avoid feeding you own plate-scrapings to your pigs for this reason. Table scraps from other sources are strictly regulated - in order to feed them, the scraps have to be cooked in a particular way (this isn't an insurmountable obstacle, but is generally not worth the effort for a backyard farm). Meat, too, is a great concern, because it is an easy way to spread disease to pigs. All meat should also be cooked before feeding to pigs. The Foot and Mouth Disease in Great Britain was caused by feeding imported, infected meat scraps to hogs without properly cooking it first.
Perhaps the best thing about raising pigs over the summer is that you don't need to keep them through the winter, fighting frozen water and keeping them clean and dry. A spring-born feeder pig offers an easy-in, easy-out option for producing some home raised meat. Of course the easy-out brings us back to the kids and one of the unavoidable lessons of raising animals for meat. There comes a time when the pig's time has come, and it is a hard lesson. The great personalities and intelligence of pigs doesn't make it any easier. But rather than distancing ourselves from our food to avoid this relationship, small-scale farmers and their families perhaps have a much greater respect and appreciation for our relationship with animals and the food they provide.
Last modified May 05 2011 09:35 AM