Meet the members of the band - the band of little red piglets, that is, siblings of a litter of heritage Red Wattle x Berkshire hogs. Since they are red (obviously) and this is the Year of the Chili Pepper, they have been named Hatch, Aleppo, Cayenne, and Dundicut. The feisty little pigs are as lively as their namesakes and off to a good start.
As most of you know, our sow Pistachio had a false pregnancy, which meant no piglets from our farm to raise up. And our customers were already placing orders and putting down deposits for their hogs this fall, so we found these piglets at a neighboring farm to satisfy that demand.
They were raised in a large lot, which concerned me a little. Would they adapt well to our pastured model here at the farm? Those concerns fell by the wayside pretty quickly. We sequester new piglets in a 9 ft x 35 ft stall for their first few days as they settle into new surroundings, get used to the hot wire we use here (a strand stretched across the stall gate trains them to it quickly), and are assessed for health issues. They are quite smart, and recover from the stress of weaning from their mom in short order. I threw in alfalfa hay, which was quickly consumed. I pulled up turnips that had overwintered in the pasture. The vegetables were quickly gobbled up. They were absolute naturals when I turned them out into the pasture the first evening, and within a couple of days, they were working the green oat grass and turnips in the paddock like old pros. Now they spend their nights cozy in a straw bed in the stalls and spend most of their day out on the pasture, except for naps. Naps are good.
They were a little scruffy and a little too ravenous when we got them, so they were given a dose of wormer, and they have been growing and getting sleeker ever since. They will get one more dose and then get rotated to the next pasture area. The rotations allow each pasture enough time before it is revisited so that it helps break the parasite cycle. We do this as a matter of course when we get animals from off site because there is no guarantee that they carry a low load of internal and external parasites. We want to feed pigs, not worms.
Little Aleppo is digging into some turnips and oats sown last fall (they overwintered nicely). These pigs lost no time exploring the area, munching down on tender greens, and running up and down the length of the pasture just for fun. They have been rooting as well, which I do not discourage. At night, they are safely snugged up in their stall and bury themselves under a stack of loose straw, and it is fun to watch them erupt from their nest in the morning, covered with straw and ready to meet a new day. I enjoy sitting and watching them when I get some time; it is a great way to learn their personalities. Wee Hatch, the smallest of the pigs, is persistent in pushing forward into a choice bit of pasture or into the feeder, and it is paying off. He is beginning to catch up in size with the others. He is also the only pig that won't let me scratch him at this point. He'll get there eventually, but it is ok to have one pig that is a bit wary.
Cayenne is my easiest one to handle, and fast becoming a favorite. She's affectionate, eagerly seeks out a good scratching and rub behind the ears. It is always beneficial to have one animal that is easy to coax and easy to move. Once I get one pig to do what I want, the rest follow in a monkey-see, monkey-do fashion, Sometimes an animal who performs this role is referred to as a "Judas"; I refer to her as "lucky". First to get tender morsels. First to get fresh, cool water. First to get muddy in a wallow. First to get scratched and petted. And sometimes, her temperament is the deciding factor in whether or not she stays on the farm.
Our English Shepherd pup, Gilly, is being investigated by Cayenne and a sister. Gilly is learning how to help do chores and manage the pigs. She does great with the big sows, but these smaller pigs make her somewhat nervous, especially when they circle around and eye her like a potential breakfast item. They are mutually interested in each other and will form a bond over time. Cayenne has grown quite a bit since I took this picture - they have been growing and thriving here, just as they ought to.
Nothing too profound in this week's post, just a typical meet and greet. The little red peppers are kind of the hot stuff around here these days, and they will be getting some visitors over Spring Break. Maybe they will put on a concert or serve chips and salsa. Me? I'm out to sow some seeds ahead of two days of rain so the sows and the piglets will have good things to eat in their next rotation. Thank for coming along today.
It's been a couple of harsh weeks here on the farm. A reminder that, no matter how much you plan, things can take a course of their own. And a time to reconfigure how we do some things, let go of some dreams, pursue others. I am opening up the darker heart of being a farmer, just as I have shared the joy of it, and together we will get to the other side and move forward.
The picture above is of Pistachio one week before she was scheduled to give birth. It was our first indication that something wasn't right, because a sow usually fills up her udders with rich milk by then. Pistachio had gotten larger, had started nesting, in short, had given every indication that she was pregnant. But she wasn't. She had a false pregnancy, and the anticipated litter of piglets due on Valentine's Day didn't happen. This meant that we had no piglets to raise for our customers who were already putting down deposits and ordering their hog for the Fall; it meant we have no extra weanlings to sell as feeders. No income, no inventory,
Why did a false pregnancy happen? There are lots of reasons - they came from another farm, so maybe they haven't gotten used to the bugs on our place yet. Stress can do it, and there has been lots of struggle between Pistachio and Petunia over food, pecking order, and other things. We'll never know for sure. The good news is, she is back to her svelte self and in good health.
Petunia has been showing a bad attitude for a while, becoming increasingly more aggressive towards me and towards the other two sows. The day before she is in standing heat, she acts like a boar, and apparently sees me as competition. She has gotten very pushy, has even trapped me out in a pasture before, but recently, she trapped me in the corner by the gate and attacked me. I was able to grab the water container and fend her off, but she was trying to push it away, bite it, even reared up and pawed it to get at me. I was able to get out, but it was pretty scary. And she has been very rough with the other two hogs she shares space with, and not just when she is hormonal. It causes a lot of agitation and stress, and, as discussed above, that can influence the pregnancy of another sow. We sat and sorted through everything and made the painful decision to cull Petunia. I wish we could keep her - she's a fine looking sow and a really good mother. And she's also dangerous. Temperament is heritable, and aggression is one trait we do not wish to select for.
Big Lil was scheduled to go into heat, so we ordered her mail order beau, only to discover that her cycle had shifted, probably to synchronize with the others, and that we missed our window of opportunity. No piglets and unused boar stuff.
A common theme of all of this is reproduction. Besides the admonition of 'don't count your piglets till they are a week old,' what else have we learned? One - vaccinate the breeding stock instead of letting them potentially lose a litter because of the 'bugs' on this farm. It works well to insure the reproductive health of the herd, and we will be vaccinating Big Lil and Pistachio before they get pregnant. Two - if we aren't keeping a boar (and there are sound safety and economic reasons for not doing so), I need to be extra vigilant about the cycles on our sows so that we can catch the window of opportunity and not waste money or time. Three - too much stress in the herd isn't a good thing, not for the animals, and not for me.
So what does the future hold? I don't know for sure, but with any luck and some good management practices, it should mean piglets born in the summer. Not an ideal time, but manageable. In the short term, I have customers wanting healthy, pasture raised hogs from our farm, so I went and bought some Red Wattle x Berkshire piglets from a farmer nearby, and they are settling in quite nicely. They promise to be excellent foragers who will make the most of what we grow in our pastures, and the flavor and quality of meat from both breeds is outstanding. It has healed my disappointment to have the little red pigs running about and exploring their new world; they are a delicate promise that the wheel always turns, and that we turn with it, that for every dream that dies, another is born. And that is where we will pick up in the next blog post. Cuteness alert: see photo below to meet the new members of our farm.
My favorite picture of the hogs from last year is this one - I think it sums up our farm ethic in a glance. Heritage hogs - English Large Blacks - out grazing in a diversified pasture that is up past their bellies, and they are covered in mud. Those are some contented, healthy pigs!
The land and what we grow on it is the foundation of our whole program here at Farm 2 Fork Pork. And I'll be making a presentation on our use of diversified pasture, fermented feed, and the use of herbs in raising pork this May at the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, AR. Being chosen to make this presentation is exciting, and it most certainly is an honor. But why, might you ask, is a pig farmer presenting at an herbal conference?
The easy answer is, a lot of people in this area eat pork. If they are what they eat, so is a pig what it eats. Given an opportunity, the pastured pig will choose different things to eat depending on the age of the animal, the stage of maturity of the plant, what the pig needs, and what tastes good. We give them some fermented feed daily, because this populates their cecum with intestinal flora that aid in the digestion of vegetative matter, as well as providing probiotics for improved health. We give them herbs that enhance their overall well being, that add minerals that are deficient in their diet, such as magnesium and calcium, and that assist the breeding females with their reproductive cycles. Some of these herbs are organic, dried herbs, some are grown in their pastures.
In our pastures, we have gone from a patchy, monocropped (fescue), hard patch of field to a diverse biome that includes various forage plants and native plants, including herbs. The pigs eradicate weed plants, such as Johnson grass and thistle, contribute manure, and do a thorough job of tilling and loosening the soil. In addition to clover, turnips, alfalfa, radishes, cowpeas, buckwheat, and rapeseed, they also eat the seed heads of plantain, the tender new leaves of chicory, and roots of dandelion, as well as many others. In the picture above, the hog is deep in one of our improved pasture lots, and at the top of the picture, you can see the fescue only lot that was replaced by it.
More plainly, our pasture plots went from looking like this...
You can bet that I will be learning a lot at the herbal conference that I can bring home and use in the fields as we update and continue to improve our grazing program, as well as the health and flavor of our hogs.
If you are interested in the herbal conference, please check it out. Their herbal conferences and workshops are truly quality events. http://www.ozarkfolkcenter.com/calendar-of-events/details.aspx?id=130267
One of the other sows figured out that Pistachio was getting more food and started pushing her around, so we separated the mama off a week early to the paddock and corral adjacent to the barn. I am still working on the finishing touches on her large farrowing pen, but she is able to come in for shelter, and she is wasting no time in preparing her nest. Everything in the barn was pawed and nosed to test its suitability as nesting material. She even tore off a little of the insulation on the wall.
We put wood shavings and some straw in for her, and as you can see, she is already arranging the furniture, so to speak. This activity will continue up to the time the piglets arrive. I spent an hour in the barn today, watching in fascination.
Pistachio is pawing and raking the straw into heaps, breaking the fluffy straw down into smaller bits. She gathers it up in her mouth to chew the straw down to a size she likes, or to place a clump of it just so. She will move it from one place to another, and she will make a nest-like hollow in the middle of it. She sleeps there for now, but it is all part of her deep instinct to make a safe, warm spot for her pigs.
As you can see, she is moving the straw around pretty rapidly. She was engaged in a flurry of activity, and she was vocalizing throughout, a sound between a grunt and a purr. Occasionally she would stop for a drink and maybe a scratching, then went right back to work. It is fascinating to see how agile her trotters were in forming the pile and raking the straw back and forth, instinctively preparing for her litter.
She is looking healthy and robust, enjoying the extra food as her babies grow larger inside of her day to day. Her body will change rapidly over the next ten days leading up to the farrowing of this, her second litter of pigs. We will post again as we get closer to her due date of February 13th.
Merry Schepers lives on a farm with her heritage pigs in Nixa, MO.