Anyone who reads this blog knows that I am mighty fond of all of my pigs, but Big Lil is just extra special. She's sweet tempered, a great mother, tame as a pup and just a general, all-around love bug. So I was pretty worried yesterday afternoon when I called her for her dinner and she staggered up out of the field, then collapsed when her legs went out from under her. I didn't think this fat old farmer could run that fast, but I got to her licketty split. Felt her ears - ice cold. Felt her body and belly. Ice cold. A cold but healthy hog will feel chilly on the skin, but you can feel the warmth of the flesh beneath. I didn't feel that latent warmth on Lil, and I knew we were in trouble.
I had brought her up a hot mash (feed with a broth of warm water), which I routinely feed when it is really cold out. She gobbled it. I ran down to the farm house, grabbing blankets and a jug of warm water with molasses, brown sugar, olive oil, an electrolyte packet, and a dash of cayenne in it, and called out to Katrina that I needed help. She went off to finish the other chores and then went to town to see if she could find a space blanket for Lil.
Lil sucked down the gallon of water, ate more feed. I figured that she had a shot if she still had enough oomph to care about food and water. She got covered with two blankets and my Carharrt work coat. Eventually, she made the effort, got up, started to stagger off to the Sow Palace. It took her 3 tries, but she got there.
I hauled in another bale of straw and laid down next to her. Her belly was icy, but she still rolled over so I could scratch her. Katrina brought a couple of space blankets, a big bottle of Dr. Pepper, and a couple of hot bricks up shortly after. We put the space blanket over her, then piled straw on top of that, with warm bricks tucked under her belly. She guzzled down the soda (truly a quick pick-me-up), snuggled up over the bricks, and actually emitted a piggy purr.
I stayed with her as she started to warm up, her great, deep shivers slowing down as the warm bricks did their work. Katrina brought up warm cornbread, which we fed to her. She didn't miss a crumb. More piggy purring. We left her, then came back up with warm bricks twice more. As the deep chill left her body the bricks stayed warmer longer. When we went up this morning, her bricks were still slightly warm. All the bundling and heating had worked!
Once we got Lil stable and warmed up enough and I could thaw out a bit myself, I asked myself why she had gone into hypothermia. Her sow palace was stuffed with straw, warm, dry, out of the wind. She hadn't had any trouble weathering a couple of days of single digit temperatures, and had actually been active that morning. When I found her, it was 35 degrees out. It was a puzzle. Then I got to thinking about her habits, about how she loves to lay in the sun and take a snooze. And I think she went out in this relatively warm day, took a snooze in the sun - on hard, frozen ground, in a stiff wind - and woke up chilled to the core. If I had gone up to do chores earlier or later than I did, I don't think this story would have had a happy ending.
This morning, she was alert and got up to greet me. She ate and drank, then followed me, slowly but surely, to the water tank by the gate, where she drank some more. By the evening feeding, she came trotting out of her Sow Palace, emitting her sweet little squeals of joy, once again back to her old self. I'll have a better idea in a few weeks if the experience impacted her expected litter of pigs. And I stand, as I often do, amazed at the precarious nature of life on a farm, where timing can work for you or against you, and where observation and action balance life and death. And I am so, so grateful the balance tipped in Lil's favor.
Merry Schepers lives on a farm with her heritage pigs in Nixa, MO.