Posts Labeled 'piglets'

March 2, 2014

Take the Polar Vortex; Fill it Up with Lambs

It was with nothing so much as mute horror that I observed a ewe going into labor on January 17th.  I had been watching the ewes blow up like blimps, or flying saucers, or basketball smugglers, for a couple weeks, and had thought to myself that it was insane that they already looked so large, when spring was still so far off. You see, I was under the impression – gleaned from my readings of several New Zealand-based sheep forums, of which I could admittedly only understand 70% of what was said due to a surprisingly vast language gulf – that lambs were born in the spring, on lush grass, under warm sun, with songbirds and flowers scattered about to complete the picture of gentle verdency.... This assumption despite the fact that, had I been paying appropriate attention to the fourth dimension last spring when we bought the sheep herd in March, I would have noticed that by then more than half the lambs had already been born.

So, there was a tiny wet lamb, defying my assumptions, bleating and miserable on the floor of the greenhouse, on January 17th, when it was 5 degrees. She was followed by twins who had the ill luck to be born on the 21st, when the overnight low was in the negative teens, and then followed again over the next few weeks by 16 other snowy-white, spindly-legged, almond-eyed beings.

My horror was quite understandable. Our sheep herd is outside, with only a greenhouse to break some of the wind and keep the snow off them. Lambs are born nothing more than skin and bones, plopped wet onto the ground, their survival left to the wiles of the mother sheep – the sheep being an animal not much known for keen smarts. I had visions of needing to bring them all inside next to the wood stove, setting up lamb play pens, being up at all hours nursing them each with a bottle.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried at all. What sheep may lack in problem solving skills and critical thinking, they make up for in spades with instinct. As soon as a lamb is born, its mother goes to work licking it clean, pawing at it gently if it isn’t getting up, nickering quietly and smelling the lamb from nose to tail. Within five minutes the lamb is teetering about on its long legs, trying to nurse all over the underbelly of the ewe (the front armpits are a spot they especially gravitate to at first), who gently nudges it back toward her udder. Within an hour or so, the ewe and lamb have learned each others smell and baa – so that they can call to each other individually, and smell out who belongs to them (it is endlessly amazing for me to hear one ewe among the forty “baaa” and have only one lamb – hers – answer the “baa” from across the yard, bound over to her and start nursing). All I had to do when I did chores was stick my finger into the mouths of the napping lambs – if their noses were warm and they sucked my finger, I knew they were doing ok.

We’re in a lamb-lull now; most of the very due ewes have gone, and a good number of the yearlings, and the lambs are off to a strong and vigorous start. Only one needed pulled by me – my first assisted lamb birth! – and that was a breeze. I had been studying pictures of malpresented lambs online, and had been rather skeptical of the drawings, which seemed to imply that the lamb was in a roomy bubble just inches inside the ewe, with plenty of room to maneuver legs about…but in fact that is just what it was like. The little guy was coming out nose first, with its front legs back, so I needed to push it back into the uterus and get its legs forward, which was easily done (once I got the ewe to hold still), then two gentle pulls and he was out – a huge twin, and still quite alive despite being stuck with his nose out for who knows how long before I found him during evening chores. Pulling lambs is happily quite a different experience than helping piglets; where you have tricky angles, narrow passages between hipbones, and two separate five foot long uterine horns to contend with.

Seeing as it is now March, a month when high temperatures should be in the low 40s, with lows in the high 20s, we should be out of the woods with birthing – both for lambs and piglets, the first batch of which arrived like clockwork on March 1st. However, this winter is apparently not yet ready to abandon its hold on the Clawhammer hill and vale. Tomorrow is set to be -20 overnight…we are not out of the woods yet, much as we long to be.

October 31, 2013

Hamspot's Piglets and Poorly-metered Haiku

One pig piles the hay

breathes deeply

new mouths search for food

I’ve talked a bit before about the upcoming onslaught of piglets, brought on by a blip in our summer breeding schedule, which has mashed five months of piglet births into 1.5 months of piglet insanity.

As of October 18th, that time is upon us.

There are two types of Very Pregnant Sows. Those who look only moderately pregnant, until suddenly they fill up like a dairy cow, their belly drops to their knees, and they begin maniacally piling whatever they can get their mouth on into a nest.

Missy stalks back and forth

building a nest outside

farmers panic

Little Missy, the matriarch of the Harbinger Spots, was one such. She was not looking close, until I almost drove off the road staring at her nesting in the pasture one day. We moved her inside, and bam. Piglets by morning.

Hamspot was of the other variety – those that linger, riding full and low and grouchy, for weeks. I had her on Watch for almost two weeks before I noticed her piling hay taller than usual. Four hours later she had seven piglets on the ground and was still going strong.

There was, of course, a rumple, as there sometimes is in this sort of process. When I first peeked in I noticed with annoyance that she had positioned her hindparts right against a wall. It’s hard enough for those tinies who have never used, nor really thought of, legs, to walk at first; it’s harder still if they are born pushed between a giant and a wall.

I climbed in and tried to assess how jammed against the wall she was. As I was poking and prodding, trying to get her to move, she shifted a little and I could see that she was swollen – very, very swollen – in a place where one would likely prefer not like to be swollen when in the middle of delivering piglets.

New life comes out of darkness

hits a wall

can't I go back in?

This made me nervous, as she was clearly still in the middle of delivery, and I wasn’t sure if the swelling would make it hard for piglets to get out. Some cautious feeling about did in fact reveal a piglet stuck just inside. I pulled it and got it settled away from the wall near her teats, where the other seven were already feeding.

With that blockage gone, she was able to move the rest along, and ended up delivering THIRTEEN piglets, a huge huge number for a first time sow. She did end up losing one (not coincidentally, the one I had to pull) in the first days, but her remaining twelve are thriving and now over a week old. First time sows have a hard time producing enough milk for many more than eight piglets, but, so far, Hamspot is a real milk champion. She gets to eat as much grain as she wants for the duration, and we’re on the lookout for signs that the littles aren’t getting enough food.

That’s twenty piglets in the duplex section of the barn. Now we are waiting on Delilah, and Spotbelly, and Chillybear; the next in line.

September 18, 2013

Where are the Piglets?


Unlike the appearing fall lambs, which must drop with fleece-dampened thuds from some celestial apple tree, or else sprout from the soil overnight like gauzy chantrelles (I have not caught a ewe giving birth yet, so the origins of lambs are still mysterious to me), we have been having some problems with our late summer pigletting.

I had devised a schedule that grouped the breeding females into teams of three or four. Ideally, each group would have sows and gilts (a female pig who has never given birth) of varying ages. Younger and older pigs do not produce as much milk as those in their prime birthing years, so it is nice to have strong producers lactating at the same time as those who might need some help if they manage to birth a large litter.

Little Red, for example, is one of our best sows. She has consistently high numbers of piglets born (9, 14, 14, 13, 12). However, she has a hard time producing enough milk for all of them. If we can manage to time her farrowing with a middle-age sow, then they can share nursing duties: her piglets have a better chance of survival, and she stays in better condition. This last farrowing, she had 12 piglets and was really struggling with them (her hair was starting to fall out in clumps and she looked so torn up about it), until Striper's litter was old enough to share moms and we put them in together. Within days Red and her hungry piglets looked much healthier. Her hair grew back in beautifully.

So, I had it all planned out. Varying ages, spaced equally throughout the year for a year-round supply of slaughter-weight pigs. Such a good, good plan.

I began to notice it going awry in mid-July, when only one of the pigs (of four) that I had scheduled to birth in early August looked pregnant. The other three were still sveltely oblivious to their scheduled duty.

Patches was the only pregnant one. And her litter was lost entirely in a very sad and messy late term miscarriage on August 7th (11 piglets -- ! .... the last few needing to be manually pieces. It ruined morale for a few days). We almost lost Patches to the infection, too...antibiotics are a complete miracle when used appropriately. So: no August piglets. By then I was just happy that Patches survived.

No piglets in August isn't really the end of the world. We were on top of the schedule, so we knew what we should be getting, and we bought in 15 piglets from another small farmer to make up for it. We do it fairly consistently (because, as you may have noticed if you read the blog regularly, things rarely, if actually ever, proceed according to plan).

The real issue is the upcoming Giant Piglet Clump 2013. All the sows who were supposed to give birth in August are now looking pregnant. So are the sows that I had scheduled for October. And then there's an extra batch that I snuck in for an early December piglet to try to expand our herd size.

The short of it is that we have been set up to have every one of our breeders -- 15 -- give birth in the next three months. That means, potentially, that we will have 150 piglets running around! We are set up to handle, at max and with some crowding, 6 litters and 60 piglets at a time.

But -- too many is better than too few, and it is nice to see that the new boar, Harvey, has finally figured it out (I walked in on him when we first put him with the breeders trying to mount a sow backwards, which explains why it took him a few months to get some of the less communicative ladies pregnant). Life will find a way, as they say, and we'll be able to find enough nooks and crannies to stash some mamas in the barn....we'll just have a much busier fall birthing season than we had planned!

July 10, 2013

Life of Pig

I thought it might be interesting for y'all to see how we make pigs, from Day One.

Well, to be extremely specific while not trying to be political at all, the beginning of a pork on the table is Day Negative One Hundred and Twelve, the day of breeding.

The breeding herd, made up of 16 females and 1 extremely lucky male specimen named Harvey, has it good. We always make sure they have access to lush pastures, shade, and water, the latter in both drinking and wallowing form. We don't rotate them aggressively, instead letting them roam two acres until it looks like they are bored, and then opening up another two acres of fresh browse. We seed their pastures with extra goodies: peas, oats, and brassica mixes.

In return, they make piglets. Lots and lots of piglets, if the farmer is doing it right.

This spring, through a series of unrelated catastrophes all stemming from the chronic farmer evil of Not Enough Time, we did not do it right. Our spring breeding resulted in a whopping SEVEN piglets from three sows. We had to buy some in to maintain the herd. It was depressing.

I am pleased to report that as of this summer, we are, in fact, doing it right. We currently have forty-one piglets nested in the barn with their mamas.

Here is how we manage the piglets, ideally: When a lady looks close to giving birth (there are many signs for this; mostly we monitor their teats for milk inflow), we move her from the breeder pasture into a private 8x10 stall in the barn. The stall is filled with fresh hay, and outfitted with a "creep" in one corner: a little section where the sow can't lay, with a heat lamp overhead. The heat and light attract the piglets and keep them from being crushed by their mom, who is basically two hundred times their size. It doesn't save every piglet -- particularly those who are slow on the uptake of being in the world -- but it does do a lot, combined with breeding for good mothering, to keep mishaps at a minimum.

The sow, newly ensconced in her private chambers, is monitored for imminent signs. Once she chews up the hay, piles it into a giant pile in one corner, and fullfils other necessary physical signs involving female anatomy, we turn on the heat lamp and begin the wait.

Oftentimes, pigs give birth in the the early morning hours -- say 2 AM. But other pigs schedule themselves at more convenient times, and then it is easier to monitor them. Most of our pigs don't need assistance, but every once in awhile a farmer needs to be around. A lot of universities have done studies that say that the presence of a farmer results in one more surviving piglet per litter. It is one of the few university studies that I actually believe applies to us. But still, sometimes it is an uphill battle; pigs have large litters because they expect some (or many) to die. We do our best, and our best is always getting better. We pay attention, have meds on hand, and try to be ready for anything that nature throws our way.

After the first three days, a piglet is pretty likely to survive. They sleep, nurse, and start to play with each other. They go to the bathroom in the bathroom corner, snooze under the heat lamp, nose about in the hay. They generally grow increasingly curious about their surroundings. At nine to fourteen days, we combine whatever groups of new piglets and mamas we have in a bigger area (otherwise the sows get depressed or angry), castrate the males and give the family a general once over. At six to eight weeks, depending on how the piglets are thriving, we wean them. The mamas get vaccinations if they need it, isolated if they need to gain some weight (nursing ten+ piglets can really slim a lady down), and then put back into the breeding herd.

The piglets get a round of vaccinations (the pig equivalent of the MMR shots) and moved down into the pasture in a hard fenced pen with an electric wire running around the inside: that's how we train them to electric fencing. They are near enough to the rest of the grower herd to smell them and grunt to them, so when we combine them after a week it isn't a completely blind date. Then they run free in the swamp/forest/pasture, eating all they can stomach of grass, roots, grubs, and feed, fighting and wallowing and snuggling and sunning, until they are seven or eight months old.

Every Sunday, us farmers drive the truck and the tractor down into the pasture. We plan it so that they run out of food on Saturday, so the whole herd is lazing about by the feeders, waiting for us. We scope out the largest two or three pigs, and sort them into a little crate that we can attach to the fenced area.

Then we put the crate in the pickup and drive them up the hill and into the barn. They hate that part, so they get extra feed, hay, and water overnight. The next morning they are pretty blissed out and comfortable, and I drive them to the USDA slaughterhouse 1 hour and 15 minutes away. I unload them into the hay-filled pens there, chat with Kathlynn, buy a giant bone for Dart the dog, who accompanies me, square up the bill, and drive away.

To be honest, I don't really like leaving them at the slaughterhouse. After being so in control of their lives until now, it seems strange and somehow cowardly to back out at the end. But, it is a necessary thing, for both legal and time management reasons, and I do trust the family who runs our slaughterhouse to do the job well, with respect, and with due consideration of the comfort of our animals. But I do always feel a bit grouchy for a few hours after dropping them off, even though they seem pleased to investigate the new barn and potential new neighbors.

Tim, our farmer partner at Autumn's Harvest, picks up our animals from the slaugtherhouse, along with his, and takes them back to his shop. There, Smitty the butcher cuts them up to our specifications and loads them into our refrigerated truck. Farmer Nick picks up the truck, brings it back to the farm, we pack the CSA bags,  and Farmer Nick himself leaves for the city on Wednesday afternoon, ready to start deliveries at first light on Thursday while I hold down the fort upstate. He spends eight hours unloading meat, varying from neat little CSA bags to storefronts, to entire half pigs and 200 pound beef primals to restaurants.

And that's the womb to table of Clawhammer pork. If it seems like a long process, that's because it is, made ever more complicated by laws, and the accidental pig getting out, and power failures, and tractor maintenance, and sore shoulders, and floods, and boots that leak, and designing new feeders, and disagreements, and so on. It would seem endless, but for the pork that keeps populating our delivery truck. Because of that, we know that it's both very finite -- lives beginning and ending, and very infinite -- the cycle of lives beginning and ending. Stuck in the thick of it, as we are, it seems at the same time to be an unusual and grand thing to be doing, and to be the most basic and simple of human endeavors. We do ponder on that, when we are not busy blissfully relishing in our busy day, sore muscles, a setting summer sun, and the tantalizing smell and crackle of pork on the grill.

May 30, 2013

A Hands Off Birth, and a Hands On Birth

Or rather, I suppose I should refer to the second as a "hands in" birth...

But first, the first: The sheep are a relatively new addition to the farm, so we're still learning our way around them. This results in a lot of surprises, from how to catch them when they are roaming 30 acres (apparently, you need a dog), to how they view Beulah the milk-cow-in-training (as a threat if you are a nursing ewe, as a playmate if you are an older lamb), to how to hold them when you trim their toes (stand them on their rump and cradle them and they calm right down).


I found two very cute surprises of a different sort last Thursday.

As I was working on morning chores in the barn, I heard a sheep making a low grumbly baaa...not the normal, conversational baaa, and not the insistant, I-want-grain baaa. I had heard it before. A mama was introducing herself.


Pregnant sheep are very obvious...they look like they have basketballs glued to each side. But we don't yet know the "lambs within 12 hours!!!" signs, the way we do with pigs (in order of operations: "bagging up," nest building, giving milk when you squeeze a teat, swollen nether regions, loss of apetite, laying on their side and breathing deeply, discharge).

So, I had, in fact, noted in our sheep spreadsheet five days prior to surprises: "Q looking extremely pregnant." But it still took my breath away to find Ms. Q cleaning off two very spindly, shocked, pink nosed fluffs in the chill, rainy morning. I sat for a good long while and watched them to make sure everything was proceeding well. My reading indicates that the ewe-lamb bonding process is important; they have to learn each other scents and noises so they can keep track of each other. I didn't want to get in the way, so I just watched, mystified, as Quagmire cleaned them off and guided them toward her udder. They were nursing feverishly by the time I went back to the barn.

I noticed something else that morning. Myrtle, an accidentally pregnant gilt, was not hungry. 


On friday morning, I went down early to check the lambs (seeing them laying in a white heap from a few yards away I steeled myself to find dead lambs, but as I approaced they both arched their necks up and looked at me, unconcerned)  and Myrtle. I found her with one fresh stillborn piglet. The umbilical cord was still inside Myrtle, which was odd: usually (93% of the time, the internets informed me later) stillborns are stillborn because they have detached from the placenta. I noted the time and determined that if another piglet weren't out in 45 minutes, I would investigate.

It was also a very bad sign. If the first piglet is stillborn, it likely took awhile to birth (live piglets help somehow in the delivery; most of the time we've had to help out, it's been with a stillborn). If it took awhile to birth, all the presumed piglets behind it, lined up in the birth canal and detaching from the life-giving placenta would be suffocating. I decided to only give her 15 minutes before investigating.

15 minutes, it turns out, passes almost instantly. Long enough only to brew coffee and drink one sip.

When I checked on Myrtle, my coffee evilly cooling on the table back at the house, she had passed a placenta. That was very odd.

Pigs have more than one placenta; in our experience, they usually pass two, one for each of the two "horns" of their uterus. The fact that she had passed one meant that it was likely that a horn was already empty.

I gave her another 15 minutes of pushing before I donned the shoulder-high gloves, liberally doused all things pig and human in baby oil, and did some investigating. Usually, just the presence of a hand where a hand should not be strengthens the contractions; only about 40% of the time that manual intervention has been initiated have we had to pull the piglet.


This piglet though...was STUCK. I found it wedged right behind her pelvis, and I could not get it over and through.

The worst part about the ordeal, as I was feeling around, twisting and pulling, was the growing certainty that this piglet was also already dead. Just as it is easier for the sow to birth a live piglet, it is easier for us to manually extract a live piglet. This piglet's unwillingness to move or rotate combined with the first being a stillborn made it likely that it was a stillborn as well.

I called in Big Man to help out. He spent a very draining hour and a half wrestling with Myrtle and the piglet, which was indeed most certainly very dead. What can be such an awe-inspiring ordeal -- there is no piglet, then her tail flicks and there is suddenly something gooey behind the sow, and then the gooey starts to move and kick and squeak and it is suddenly a piglet nursing -- was just two cold, slimy bodies, with two cold, slimy farmers morosely staring at them.


There is not much more emotionally draining or depressing than a rough delivery of stillborn animals. But then, there is not much more uplifting than an animal that has a hands off delivery of super healthy lambs that thrive despite the grumpy weather -- despite the fact that the day they were born consisted almost entirely of rain, and despite the fact that overnight it dropped to 35 degrees and it sleeted throughout the morning, despite the fact that every time I stepped outside to let the dog in and felt the chill air I was positive that anything as fragile-looking as a lamb must certainly be dead, both of them have been thriving. Quaggy has been a perfectly attentive mother, staying near but somewhat separate from the wandering herd, and both lambs do a good job of sticking close to her. I check on them every day to make sure they are doing well, and they always reward me with their waggling tails as they nurse -- probably the cutest thing ever in the entire world.


As we say so often here: life goes on, but sometimes, it doesn't. As farmers we have to do the best we can to tip the scales in life's direction, but we also have to be accepting that death always follows on life's heels -- sometimes, quicker than we would prefer.

January 17, 2013

The Ballad of Lil' Bub

Time for a nice farmy story (piglet rescue!) with severely political overtones (antibiotic use in farm animals!). Ah, how often farming and heated political opinion converge....
Lil' Bub was one of the twins that we got out of Victoria on her last farrowing. She actually had 8 piglets -- but a full SIX of them were stillborn (this is an interesting issue in itself, and will get its own post someday. Suffice it to say, for now, that it happens sometimes, there are a lot of possible reasons for it, and we are planning on giving Victoria another chance). After the twins had been with Victoria for three weeks to get colostrum and a good footing on life, we moved them next door with Stripe, who had had piglets of her own two weeks prior to Vic. She could easily handle the additional mouths, and Vic would be able to move back with the breeding herd sooner. No sense in keeping a lady out of rotation for twins.
The twins got on very well with the new group and seemed to delight in having more playmates and more warm bodies around on cold winter nights. Striper didn't even notice that she had an additional two bummers arguing over her teats. All was going well.

Unfortunately for the twins, someone in Striper's litter was a tail biter. We get these, probably in 10% of litters, and probably 30% of the piglets in those litters will lose their tail to the biter. We'd never seen any negative effects of a biter (Stripe herself is actually tail-less, and none the worse for it), and I didn't think much of it when both twins lost their tails to the midnight nibbles of a neurotic piglet.

Lil' Bub
However. About a week later, in mid-December, I noticed during feeding that there was a black piglet in Stripe's pen who couldn't walk about, and was quite upset about it. A back leg seemed out of commission. This happens occasionally -- usually the mom stomped on it and it just smarts for a bit; the piglet is usually walking normally by the next day. Sometimes we'll yank the piglet out and stick them in a safe pen with no crushingly large mama until they are more mobile.
Lil' Bub's leg, though, was different. It didn't look like a bruise or even a dislocation. Her ham area was giant and hard as a rock. I did some research, and thanks to the online Merck Veterinary Manual, with which I am completely enamored, I diagnosed "infectious poly-arthritis," which basically means that a little bugger got in somehow (I am guessing through the tail wound left by the tail-chomper) and settled in the hip joint and the knee joint, populating the area with other buggers, pus, and finally, hardening it into a big knot. She was completely lame -- unable to move to nurse, unable to move to get out of the way if mama is laying down. Lame piglet is dead piglet pretty quickly if there is no intervention.
Bub shortly after she was brought inside. Very lethargic.
So she was snatched out of the farrowing pen and brought to the farmhouse, where she was immediately given a dose of general antibiotics. We followed up with a second dose a week later when the infection still wasn't cleared up entirely (but was looking better).

Yes. Antibiotics. A no-no word to some people in the local/sustainable/hormone- and antibiotic-free crowd (of which we at Clawhammer are enthusiastic members).

Lil's Bub two weeks into her farmhouse vacation. Much perkier.
However. As with most things, it's more complicated than No Antibiotics Ever/Antibiotics Every Day and Antibiotics Mixed in with Feed. If we want to call our meat "ethically-raised," which we do (not for the marketing, but because passionate devotion to the ethical treatment of farm animals is one of the reason we are doing this), then we have to do the ethical, compassionate thing for Lil' Bub and give her the dose of antibiotics that will save her life. It's an easy decision, really, when faced with a tiny little piglet, in pain and immobile, but otherwise healthy and strong, as a farmer armed with syringes, vials and the knowledge that a quick injection or two will provide the animal with as full a life as any Clawhammer pig could hope for. For us, it is not worth compromising that life and that ethical choice just to get a higher marketing dollar.

The withdrawal for that antibiotic is 9 days, which means they will be looooooong gone from her system by the time she is slaughter-weight in seven or eight months. Her ear will be notched, though, and she can't and won't be sold as "antibiotic-free."

Bub spent three weeks in the farmhouse, recovering from the infection for two, and learning to walk and getting some strength back for one. She lived in an cardboard box full of wood chips and drank calf milk replacer (which worked so well that she got nicely roly poly) next to the wood stove. When she started to become incredibly annoying -- able to climb out of the box and scamper around the house -- we figured it was time to reintroduce her to pig life.

Lil' Bub, skeptical of new friends.
We moved her in with a group of weaners -- slightly bigger pigs, but not big enough to pose a danger to someone still getting her legs completely under her. She seems to like the company, but she is definitely a little bit grumpy that she has to share anything with anyone else (especially 8 other piglets bigger than she is). But within ten minutes the older pigs were showing her how to eat and LOVELOVELOVE their bit of corn and oats and their stack of hay, and she was quickly happy to be snuffling in that.

Really, she's not out of the woods yet. She's the smallest pig on the farm, which is always a bit of a fraught position, but we are planning on half-opening a door to one of the stalls off the main barn, so only little pigs can get in it to sleep. That way she won't have to fight for bedding territory with 200 pound + animals. But she does have a fighting chance of surviving, now, thanks to farmers who had enough time and few enough animals to notice her plight, and thanks to the miracle of antibiotics.
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