Thursday, May 11, 2006

To Believe In This Living Is Just a Hard Way To Go

After surviving the 80's when farmers were forced off the land in droves, my parents decided that they needed to diversify their risks and get into the livestock business. Hog prices at the time were getting higher everyday as "The Other White Meat" advertising campaign was taking off and thus it was decided that raising hogs was the solution. That spring in 1989, my father, brother and I walked up to the end of the lane next to the gravel road and began putting flags into the dirt to layout where the buildings would be. A few months later the dirt work was done and a year after that, we began construction.

The hog operation was to contain 120 sows, a handful of boars and a farrowing/nursery building that could farrow 20 sows a month at two-week intervals. Not huge but not small either. We converted an old hay barn behind the shop into a gestation building where the sows could hang out when not giving birth and generally live it up with the boars. Call it a flophouse if you will.

As a teenage, my modified chore assignment now included the flophouse that I was to clean on a daily basis and make sure all the 'girls' and the handful of 'boys' had adequate food and water. This was largely manual labor scraping out the pens and then carrying and slinging 120 lbs worth of feed in four 'five-gallon' buckets. With my younger brother helping, it took us about an hour every morning. My father helped out occasionally but mostly worked on getting the rest of the day organized and my mother was in charge of the farrowing house and nursery. Most days I didn't go up there unless there was other 'pig work' to do.

The easiest of the pig work was monitoring the sows actively in labor. The gestational cycle for a sow is three months, three weeks and three days on the money so it was pretty easy to calculate. To increase the odds, we gave them a shot of oxytocin on the day before they were due to induce the labor and make it easier to time the births so the next group could be moved in on time. As a sow was giving birth, there was little to do except check in every so often to see how she was doing. If she was a first time mother, you had to check in more often as they tend to get more agitated and were forever jumping up and down. A more experienced sow simply lay down and shot the piglets out. Occasionally there would be quite a space of time between piglets and so I would put on my long rubber gloves and do a check. More often than not, there was a piglet that was caught up in the birth canal and would need to be pulled. Other times the sow was just to tired to do much pushing and so we would assist in the rest of her delivery and/or give her another shot of oxytocin to give her some more energy.

Once the farrowing was over with, there was little to be done for a few days except watch over the newborns. At about two days of age, we would clip their eyeteeth so that they wouldn't chew up their mother or their sibling's tails. Somewhere around three weeks old, they would get their tails docked, their ears notched and if they were male, their "family jewels" removed. The tails were removed to prevent others from chewing on them as they got older. The ears were notched to identify them in the future. For the most part, we only did this to the female piglets that had good genetics (i.e. good nipples and lots of them) that we were going to keep for breeding purposes. The castration was done to ensure the male pigs weren't breeding when they shouldn't be and it is sometimes thought to give better characteristics to the meat after slaughter. (Terminology Note: Female pigs that have yet to get pregnant for the first time are called guilts and male pigs that have been castrated are called barrows.)

To castrate the boars and turn them into eunuchs (barrows), a device was attached to the side of the farrowing crate that would hold the pig into place by clamping around the rear legs. It is very much like a vertical version of the human birthing beds these days and could lock the legs in the spread out position. You would pinch the "jewels" between your fingers to plump them up and with two small incisions with a sharp scalpel, pop the "jewels" out before cutting them loose. All of the various wounds would then be sprayed with iodine to prevent infection and they were turned loose in their pen until about aged three weeks.

At age three weeks, they were weaned from their mothers and put into a nursery where they were put on special feed to help in the transitioning process. They would stay in the nursery for a month (until the next group of weaned piglets was getting ready to be moved in) and then sold as feeder pigs that weighted around thirty to forty pounds. Later, we would build a finishing building where feeder pigs are put and raised until they reach around 230 to 250 pounds and were then sold for slaughter.

My parents raised hogs for about ten years before selling the buildings to a local company to use for raising weaned pigs to finish weight. The farrowing building was converted into just a nursery along with another nursery building built and the flophouse was turned into storage for some of my father's equipment. When the nursery buildings and the finishing house finish the end of their useful lives, they will be emptied, pushed in, burned and buried. The era of my parent's livestock adventure will thus come to an end.

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