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.
Merry Schepers lives on a farm with her heritage pigs in Nixa, MO.