On Monday morning, having just returned from a mini break with my boyfriend down in West Sussex, I entered the pig pen as usual, only to hear a faint squawking from the pig arc. The bird like noise led me to believe that a magpie had become trapped and possibly injured inside the building so I trekked over in the snow, to discover that this unfortunately was not the case. Five little faces stared back at me and ran away from me to hide at the back of the pig house.
“Oh crumbs no,”
*these are not the exact words I muttered*
I was now the one squealing.
Panic set in and I ran back to the barn to get some pig food to distract the other pigs from returning to their house, while I desperately tried to pluck some ideas out of the air. I don’t know why, but my first action was to run back home and grab my Haynes Pig Manual from the house and look up ‘what the heck do you do with newborn piglets?‘
I had never planned to breed from my pigs, my plan was always to buy in weaners and fatten them up to pork or bacon weight. Never, ever, had I planned to have piglets on my farm and therefore I had zero knowledge about them. Zero. All my experience with pigs was from age 10 weeks onwards and as a result I made the first fundamental error. And that was to leave them in the arc, even for a second.
When I returned from my house with my manual under my arm, even though I had only been gone for ten minutes, I heard a deathly squeal from the arc. Sadly, when I looked inside, one piglet was under the trotter of the mum and he didn’t last long after that impact. Motherly instinct kicked in and I swiped up all of their little bodies into my feed bucket and stormed off into the barn, angry at the sow for her reckless actions.
“That’s it, I am going to bottle feed them all, she doesn’t deserve babies if that’s what she does to them,” I placed them on a bed of straw in the barn and flicked through my book and phone searching for some answers of how to become a pig mum.
Firstly, I realised it is extremely common for mummy pigs to squash their youngsters, which honestly seems to be a fault in nature. Why make adult pigs so large but then get them to pop out such tiny little things that want to be close to their mums and therefore get flattened in the process? Secondly, I realised that there was no way the piglets could return to the pen with the other pigs. And lastly, reality hit and I realised I should not tear piglets away from a mum who has the milk and skills to care for her babies just because she made a mistake. We were both to blame, I had not even noticed she was pregnant! So I went and grabbed Mum (easier said than done) and brought her in to the barn to give her a good amount of feed while I assembled a pen around her and her babies. From my last minute internet studies, I discovered that it was vital that I created a section where the piglets could escape mum and keep warm. Remember, I’m a sheep farmer, I do not have farrowing pens or any pig equipment needed before weaning! So I quickly gathered my sheep hurdles, a bale of straw, baling twine (praise the lord for this stuff) and my cade lamb heat lamp. In twenty minutes I had thrown together a farrowing pen of sorts.
I should probably throw in, that I am now about an hour late for work and stress levels are high. A phone call from the boyfriend saved me from curling in a ball and rocking back and forth until someone saved me. After I had sent him a barrage of increasingly stressed texts, mostly incoherent panic, he called to reassure me that what I was doing was the best I could at the time and he agreed that pig mums are pretty sh*tty.
So reassured I reassessed the situation – the Mum was finally inside, the four surviving piglets were under the heat lamp in a section that only they could access and they seemed to be moving around and making noises, which in the animal world is normally an indicator that they’re doing ok. I took a step back and realised that I had done all I could, I know that now it was Mum’s turn to feed and raise them.
So ‘how did this happen’, I hear you ask?
Inexperience, crap timing and fencing issues basically.
Firstly, as explained in my First Year of Farming Review, I took on too much. I had 9 pigs at the end of the Summer in three separate pens. There were my bosses two pet Kune Kunes at one end, two five month old Tamworth boars in the middle pen and two 6 month old Berkshire girls and two 9 month old GOS girls in the last pen. The Kune Kune’s pen was not owned by me and it was in a state of disrepair. The Kune Kunes broke out daily. In the end I chucked them in with the Tamworth boars because I was fed up of the constant calls about loose pigs, despite them not being mine. This then caused upset because the pen wasn’t large enough for everyone and the boars were frisky (the Kune Kunes were castrated but my boars were not).
Really the boys should have been going to the abbatoir that month but I had just gone through a massive personal change in my life and I just didn’t have the time or energy to get it organised.
Shortly after the Tamworths and Kune Kunes became housemates, I became aware of the amazing jumping capabilities of my new pigs. My Tamworth boars would clear a 4 foot stock fence with ease, despite everyone telling me this was an impossibility. Obviously, on one, or more than one, occasion they had made it to the female paradise where this young lady got in pig. Lucky her.
She had always been a big pig so when she was putting on weight quicker than my other remaining sow I did not think anything of it. Looking back now I realise that the tell tale signs like the udder ‘bagging up’ had happened but because I had not realised that she had been in with the boars, it did not even cross my mind that this was a possibility. Remember I have never seen a pregnant pig up to this point and as far as I was aware, she was as pure as pure can be.
So here I am, Katie, the accidental pig breeder.
Just a few weeks ago, I was telling you all about 2018 being my year of developing the easy smallholding, however clearly someone wants me to learn the hard way. My original plan was to send my two remaining sows off to the abbatoir this month. They are both coming up to 9 months, perfect bacon weight, and I needed to rest their paddock for when the new weaners come in late April. This plan has however now changed and I will only be able to send the one off, so I am pretty sure all the plans I made in my previous blog post about pre-ordering pork and planning ahead have well and truly been ‘mucked up’.
Who can resist their little faces though?